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The Architect Shaping Africa’s Future: Diébédo Francis Kéré

Portrait of architect Diébédo Francis Kéré
Diébédo Francis Kéré in 2017. Photo courtesy of Erik-Jan Owerkerk.

By Adam Hencz

African architecture has received increasing international attention in the past decade, and Diébédo Francis Kéré, the winner of the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize, is, without doubt, a prominent driving force of the trend.

The Burkabé architect is best known for his unique applications of sustainable architecture that empower communities in infrastructure-hungry developing countries. Kéré has completed acclaimed projects from contemporary educational institutions and health facilities in his own rural community, through civic buildings across West Africa, to temporary structures in galleries, museums, and public spaces in the West.

Gando Primary School, project by  2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize Diébédo Francis Kéré
Diébédo Francis Kéré, Gando Primary School. Photo courtesy of Erik-Jan Owerkerk.

The first projects of Francis Kéré in Burkina Faso

A self-taught architect, Diébédo Francis Kéré was born in 1965 and grew up in Gando, in Burkina Faso, a small village with almost no access to clean drinking water, void of electricity, modern infrastructure, let alone architecture. As the eldest son of the village chief, Kéré had the privilege to attend primary school, and at age seven, he left his community to live with his uncle in the nearest town to study.

In 1985, he uprooted again and moved to Berlin on a vocational carpentry scholarship. He settled in Germany, learned how to make furniture at night, and worked hard during the day to get a scholarship in architecture at the Technische Universität Berlin. He started attending the school in 1995, graduating in 2004 with an advanced degree in architecture.

Interior of the reception hall of the Gando School Library
Interior of the reception hall of the Gando School Library. Photo by Kéré Architecture.

Although living far from Burkina Faso, his heart never left his community back in Gando. Kéré wanted to share his knowledge with his people and ease the everyday life of his community, so he raised funds to build the first school in his home village. His first completed building, the Gando Primary School, was built with the active participation of the people of his community. It was also the first gesture of his many social commitments to elevate, educate and strengthen Gando, and villages alike across Africa. The project established the foundation for Kéré’s ideology and was granted the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture for buildings benefitting Muslim communities.

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The project catalyzed the establishment of the Kéré Foundation and marked the birth of Kéré Architecture, his own architecture firm through which Kéré realized further social and eco projects in Gando like the extension of the primary school as well as building a school library.

Léo Doctors’ Housing. Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré.
Léo Doctors’ Housing. Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré.
Lycée Schorge Secondary School. Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré.
Lycée Schorge Secondary School. Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré.

Architecture of Diébédo Francis Kéré

Together with the developments in Gando, most of Kéré’s projects use local materials in innovative and sustainable ways to respond to the extreme weather conditions unique to West Africa. Combining accessible and abundant materials like clay with modern engineering, Kéré designed durable facilities that protected against the region’s hot climate with natural ventilation alleviating the need for air-conditioning.

“I considered my work a private task, a duty to this community. We have to fight to create the quality that we need to improve people’s lives.”

Francis Kéré

Kéré developed works that go beyond the conventional limits of architecture. His structures are built by members of the communities who participate in the construction from conception to completion, crafting nearly every part of the facilities. Kéré embraces the local climate in his design and fuses traditional methods with innovation to produce simple construction that eases future maintenance.

Kéré’s work has expanded beyond Gando, leading to commissions for health and educational facilities and civic facilities like the Léo Surgical Clinic and Health Centre or the C-shaped Lycée Schorge Secondary School along with two historic parliament buildings, the National Assembly of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou and the Benin National Assembly in Porto-Novo.

Diébédo Francis Kéré, the Serpentine Pavilion in 2017. Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan.
Diébédo Francis Kéré, the Serpentine Pavilion in 2017. Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan.

Kéré has designed many temporary and permanent structures across Europe and the United States and continued to articulate his socially engaged practice and ecological designs by developing the Serpentine Pavilion in 2017 as well as Xylem, a gathering pavilion for the Tippet Rise Art Centre in Montana. He built carved wooden elements and roofs that create dynamic shadow effects on the interior spaces, evoking the sacred baobab trees in Burkina Faso where people gather together, debate, and do everyday activities under the shade of the tree branches.

Aerial view of Serbalé Ke at Coachella. Photo by Iwan Baan.
Aerial view of Serbalé Ke at Coachella. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Sarbalé Ke, “the house of celebration” in Kéré’s native tongue, a temporary large-scale art installation at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, was the most recent addition to Burkina-Faso-inspired structures. The pink, orange, and blue exteriors of the 12 high-rise wooden towers adopt the palette of the sunrises and sunsets cascading through the surrounding mountains, filtering light during the day and illuminating the evenings.

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more on Architecture and Sustainability
Innovative Architecture: Ten Buildings that Redefine Sustainability
Architectural Photography: Top Photographers of Yesterday & Today
Sustainability in the Art World: Fighting the Environmental Crisis

Read more on Diébédo Francis Kéré and the Pritzker Architecture Prize
The Pritzker Architecture Prize’s homepage
Kéré Architecture

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