I sat next to Francis Kéré for two hours at the PICNIC Surprising Africa conference before I learned that I was sitting next to one of my heroes. He’s one of the winners of the Aga Khan award for architecture for his inspirational Gando primary school, designed when he was an architecture student in Berlin.
Interior of Kere’s award-winning school building in Gando, Burkina Faso
Exterior of the Gando primary school. The metal roof, made from sheeting and welded rebar, protects an earth ceiling.
The building is pretty much the best example of African solutions to African problems that I can think of. Realizing that his fellow villagers in Gando were brilliantly skilled at building with clay, he looked for ways to use local techniques and materials to build practical, long-lasting structures that can be locally built and maintained. The school is cool, light and vastly superior to the structure it’s replacing.
I desperately want to show you all the images from Kéré’s talk – he shows amazing photos of Burkina, including a stunning shot of a dividing line in Ouagadougou, where the formal, rectilinear grid of the city turns into informal, unplanned and organic sprawl. He’s a critic of African tendencies to ape western building styles, showing us houses that have arbitrarily picked up Chinese or European touches, which mostly look out of place and cheap.
His designs leverage skills that have developed over generations, like the intricate process of laying and polishing a clay floor. He documents the process, which involves laying chunks of clay, pounding them into small pieces with heavy wooden hammers, breaking them more finely with hands and feet, and finally polishing with large stones. The resulting structure is cool, beautiful and affordable for his friends and neighbors.
But local ways aren’t without their flaws. The reason Burkinabe are moving away from clay and towards concrete is because clay buildings melt in the spring rains. Kéré’s solution is to build second roofs, soaring structures made from welded rebar and corrugated sheets. These materials are common in any African context, but Kéré turns them into practical structures with shapes worthy of Eero Saarinen. To his credit, Kéré is clear that it’s his team – 25 guys from Burkina Faso, some from his village, with a variety of metalwork and clayworking skills – that do the hard work.
Talking with Francis afterwards, he told a small group of us that, even though he was honored with the Aga Khan Prize, it’s hard to convince the authorities in Burkina Faso to give him commissions. Because he’s a local boy, they have a hard time believing that he’s an internationally known architect. The fact that he sleeps outside with his crew while working on a project just confuses them even more.
I told Francis that he’s someone who has long inspired me. My experience has taught me that most solutions imported into Africa fail… badly. The most revolutionary solutions to African problems come from the people who are living with those problems. Francis’s architecture is a beautiful manifestation of this design principle.
My dream is that the vocabulary he’s developed for Gando – already expressed in two school buildings, a health clinic and housing for teachers – will be replicated and spread throughout the region. Already his primary school in Gando has received the ultimate compliment. He designed the school for 120 pupils, and it now has over 500. He doesn’t claim credit for the school’s growth, but I don’t think the building’s success and the school’s expansion are coincidental. Who wouldn’t want to go to school in a building that looks like that?