Francis Kéré

A Critical Regionalist

  • Interview By Taryn J. & Korantemaa Larbi

  • October 24, 2013
  • |Design 54

birds view2Francis Kéré is a visionary West African architect and teacher whose design work has helped to redefine what kind of architecture could be achieved within the continent. Kere always knew that he wanted build as young boy growing up in Burkina Faso. Spending his early childhood working alongside his uncle in extremely laborious renovation work sparked a lifelong interest in the field. That early experience led him to vow that one day he would find a better way to build in his home country. Shortly thereafter, he seized an opportunity to study carpentry through an apprenticeship in Germany. Kere would then continue on at the Berlin Institute of Technology to study architecture. Gathering his skills and experience he obtained abroad in Europe, Kere returned to his home country to found both his office Kere Architecture and a nonprofit association Schulbaustein fur Gando.Kere’s design work focuses on developing local means and methods of construction and building technology that could be easily implemented by the manpower of the local community. His foresight has led him to win several awards including the Global Award, BSI Swiss Architectural Award, the Marcus Prize, Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and the Global Holcim Award Gold 2012. Design233 had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Kere about his most recent work as well as his opinions on the role of architecture and design within the continent of Africa in the 21st century.

Design233: After being educated in Europe, you returned to Burkina Faso with the hope of advancing the way building is done in your home country. What were some obstacles and challenges that you faced when establishing your firm? How did you overcome them?

Diédébo Francis Kéré: Convincing the people in Burkina Faso to build with clay, the material of the poor, was a challenge in the beginning. I had to show them how to construct durable buildings with clay, which are beautiful and require little maintenance. I think that the pleasant climate of the interior space, and the fact that there is no need for air conditioning, were very convincing factors. And, of course, anyone who starts their own firm is faced with financial challenges. Working in the social sector always brings the problem of how to raise money for projects. The needy people are not able to pay.

D233: Your practice is currently based in Germany and your projects are for the most part in Burkina Faso and Northern Africa. Have you considered relocating your practice to your home country? Do you believe that such a move will change your practice in any way? Why or why not

DFK: My projects are mostly in Western Africa. We have an affiliate in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. I work there on the construction details that need to be clarified on site, together with my team of workers who I have trained in welding, masonry and other technical skills. The reason why my main office is in Berlin is simple. I have a large network of friends, business partners, colleagues and supporters here. And, you are much more visible in a country with access to information. It is just easier to raise money in Germany for the social building projects I am doing than in Burkina Faso.

D233: In your 2011 lecture at Design Indaba, you mentioned the rising foreign influence, especially from China, on building practices and materials used in new construction throughout Africa. Do you believe that there is a way for both traditional and new methods of construction to co-exist within Africa? Why or why not?

DFK: The Primary School project in Gando has laid the fundament of my work. I will never forget how the entire village, women, kids, old men, came together to build my very first project. It was a big social event which nobody wanted to miss. Night and day the villagers carried sand, gravel, stones and water tot he construction site. This building and the following projects in Gando are the driving force of my work.

The Secondary School in Gando, Burkina Faso provides further education to graduates continuing on from primary school. The school in many ways is modeled after the award-winning Gando Primary School, which was Mr. Kere’s first project that was built back in 2001. The Primary School was developed as a standard model for building affordable, sustainable, and community-driven architecture within Burkina Faso. Similarly, the secondary school is designed as a “low-tech” and “cost-effective” solution for an area with limited resources and extreme weather conditions. For instance, the town of Gando’s lack of electricity requires the school’s design to maximize natural ventilation. All interior spaces of the school are designed to be situated under a “shadow oasis” of trees. Secondly, the uses a passive geothermal cooling system to provide incoming air into the buildings. The following images further illustrate the design of this project.

Diédébo Francis Kéré (October, 2013)

D233: Your firm tends to do small-scale projects in rural areas of Burkina Faso. Have you pursued or are you interested in pursuing projects in larger African urban cities such as Lagos, Nigeria? Why or why not?

DFK: Yes, I do believe so. It is also what I am trying to do. It is part of development to allow new technologies to come in. Of course we cannot close our eyes to the new eastern influences. Africa is a fast growing continent, but it lacks infrastructure and qualified people (in design and construction) who are affordable. China has the potential to send those specialists (in design and construction).

D233: You are currently working on a project in Zhoushan, China. What are your thoughts about working abroad in such a fast-developing country? What lessons have you learned in China that might help to better inform African architects and designers?

Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker prize architect, approached Francis Kere to partake in the Zhoushan Harbour Development, a conceptual urban rehabilitation project in China. The purpose of the project is to “transform the industrial harbor area, Putuo, into a touristic and cultural district.” Kere’s role in the project involves designing an exhibition gallery, information center, artists’ studios, and a “cultural creativity garden.” The design of the project employs key sustainable principles found in the many of Kere’s work in Burkina Faso. Low-tech natural ventilation system is an integral piece of the project. Materials that are native to China, such concrete and bamboo, are also prevalent within the scheme. Ultimately, the building skillfully bridges inhabitants between manmade and natural world.

Diédébo Francis Kéré (October, 2013)

DFK: We are trained as architects. We have the capacity to deal with any architectural challenge. You simply need to have the right business partners who are asking for sustainability and quality. If these factors come together, we are ready to go.

D233: What is your favorite project in your office? Why?

DFK: Our design in Zhoushan was part of an experimental urban rehabilitation project, led by the Chinese architect, Wang Shu. We were designing an exhibition gallery, an information centre, artists studios and a cultural creativity garden for the area. Wang Shu is an architect who reacts to the local conditions in a very sensitive way. We were very lucky to have the chance to be part of this project. My advice to other architects working in China would be to carefully choose the local contacts. Once again, it depends on the clients and your ability to tackle challenges. For me, it was important to discover and understand the (Chinese) culture’s long handicraft building tradition.

D233: What would be your dream project?

DFK: This question has often been posed to me. In truth, I just like the projects I am doing. I want to continue with my work.

D233: How has the Holcim award impacted you as a designer?

DFK: TFor the first time an unbuilt project has been awarded. To be honored for design work is showing new quality in my work. The Holcim award brought big publicity. Of course the prize money was very helpful financially to make a big step in the stucking process.

D233: How have you evolved as designer from the start of your first project to now? What has changed in your perceptions as designer?

DFK: I do not follow trends. When I started with my work, there were few examples of a comparable scale that could have inspired me. I have developed my own design language, always based around the key principles of adapting to local culture and climate and facilitating community participation. Today there are many examples of these projects.

D233: Who inspires you? Why?

DFK: Like many architects, I would cite Louis Kahn as a great influence in my work. I have heard that he once said, “a brick wants to be more than just a brick.“ We are trying to implement this design principle through our work, as well. It is a great revelation for us. I find his buildings, and especially his dedication to architecture, as a holistic approach to this discipline. I also like the excellent example of Mies van der Rohe’s rationalism.

D233: What do you believe is the role of the artist or designer in contemporary African society?

DFK: To inspire the youth to go beyond (their perceived) limitations.

D233: Do you have any advice for young architects, especially within Africa, who are just beginning their careers?

DFK: Africa is hungry for development. Design and architecture is helping to bring this development into daily life. It is time to see the potential that is already there and not to import ready-made design strategies, means and methods from countries with totally different conditions. There are great chances for young architects to realize projects in a much easier way than they would have the chance to in more industrialized countries. The local people are just waiting for things to happen. If one is able to honor the local resources and the power of the people, there is almost unlimited freedom to build.

For more information on the projects of Kéré Architecture, click here.

Image Credits

Drawings, Renderings & Opening Portrait Of Diédébo Francis Kéré Courtesy Of Kéré Architects

Other Images Of Francis Kéré On Design233 Courtesy Of Fast Company (

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