Less is More in an African Way
Francis Dibiédo Kéré’s loam architecture forms a cultural bridge between Africa and Germany – not as an export, but as a project of mutual exchange.
Francis Kéré erected his first building while still studying architecture: a school in his native village of Gando in Burkina Faso. At that time, his German fellow students made fun of his interest in loam huts in Africa. Today, he is one of the most sought-after protagonists of the international architecture scene: as guest professor, speaker, exhibition designer and architect. Small-scale schools and medical facilities made from simple, locally-available materials are still the main focus of his work, but his portfolio is far more varied: it encompasses the continuing development – in collaboration with artist Christoph Schlingensief – of the Opera Village in Laongo, the design for the National Assembly building in Ouagadougou (the capital of Burkina Faso), and a protective shelter for the UNESCO World Heritage site Meroe in Sudan. In Germany, he is at work on the re-purposing of former military barracks’ grounds in Münster und Mannheim into residential quarters, and is planning a temporary theatre at the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin.
Radical and simpleDespite this meteoric career, Kéré has remained what he always has been: closely bound up with his own village of Gando, curious about the world, and full of energy when speaking about his projects or initiating new ones. In 2003, he published his first building in an international architecture journal from Germany, a year later he was distinguished with the Aga Khan Award.
Primary School | Gando | Photo: Enrico Cano His preferred construction materials are loam, which he has local people press into bricks on site, inexpensive corrugated sheeting as roofing, reinforcing steel for filigree trussing, as well as simple concrete constructions. He also makes use of the water jugs common in his village as lighting for a library building by embedding them in the ceiling with their mouths facing down. His architectural concept: radical simplicity. Nonetheless, his buildings with their massive, orange- or ochre-red loam walls and the airy, light sunroof floating over them, have an incomparable charm.
Natural and socialAnd more importantly: they combine – by including residents in the building process – highest social quality with sustainable climate concepts. Natural ventilation and pleasant room comfort without elaborate technology, even in the hottest climate zones, are part and parcel of the standard of his outstandingly conceived and designed architecture. Kéré has now diversified and expanded his architectural repertoire. Above all, he is increasingly succeeding in realising not only individual houses, but entire ensembles, which, like farm houses in Burkina Faso, convey comfort and security in the midst of the steppe landscape.
Opera Village | Laongo | Burkina Faso | Photo: Daniel Schwartz/Gran Horizonte Media Francis Kéré’s international success is based on the intersection of two developments with very different dimensions, which at first glance appear to have nothing in common. On the one hand is his personal biography, that of a young man from West Africa who left his village at the age of seven as the only member of his family to learn to read and write. At the age of twenty, after a carpentry apprenticeship, he was granted a scholarship to Germany and – determined to apply the knowledge on sustainable construction gained there for the benefit of his African homeland – began studying architecture in Berlin at age thirty.
Regional and internationalConcurrently, the previously prevailing Eurocentric paradigm of the international art scene was expanding into a globalised post-colonial perspective: in 2002, Documenta 11 in Kassel was curated for the first time by Nigerian curator and author Okwui Enwezor, who demanded a new take on what is considered “high culture,” and confronted contemporary art with so called popular/folk culture. It was due to his influence that, among other things, initially regional awards such as the Aga Khan Award for architecture in countries shaped by Islam that has been offered since 1980, are meeting with increasing interest in the West.
Parliament in Ougadougou | design | © Kéré architecture Time and again, Francis Kéré finds sponsors and clients in Germany, through the Deutsch-Afrikanische-Gesellschaft (German-African Association/DAFRIG), through contacts at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archaeological Institute/DAI), to private persons and foundations, and not least through the non-profit organisation he founded, Schulbausteine für Gando (i.e. school building blocks for Gando).
Simple and unpretentiousFrancis Kéré loves to bring the message of his work out into the world. In 2013, he presented his work as part of the internationally renowned TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences. Exhibition designing is also one of his central interests. As early as 2008, he participated in the exhibition Updating Germany, the German contribution to the Architecture Biennial in Venice. In 2016, with Colourscape, he filled the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with brightly-coloured cord lanterns. The exhibition Radically Simple in the Architekturmuseum of the TU Munich in the Pinakothek der Moderne is the first large-scale overall view of his work from its beginnings in his native village to his projects in Germany and China.
Opera village clinic | Laongo | © Kéré architecture It was at a German university that Francis Kéré learned how it is possible to develop and grow realistic projects in central and southern Africa, and in doing so to offer a future to the people in their own homeland. He teaches us Germans the art of simplicity and unpretentiousness. He is a bridge-builder between cultures, and his mission – in view of increasing marginalisation and discrimination in Germany – will be all the more important in the future.