The Pritzker Prize is the most prestigious prize in Architecture, like what the Nobel prize is in other areas. March 15th 2022 will remain a lodestar in History; the Pritzker Prize was awarded to a black man for the first time, and to add more to the breakthrough, the winner is an African: Burkinabè Diébédo Francis KÉRÉ.
56-year-old KÉRÉ hails from Gando a village located 200 kilometers from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, in the Centre East Region, with a population of approximately 3,000 inhabitants. Born and raised in an area where very few children have access to Western education; with no potable water and almost non -existent health care facilities, KÉRÉ was sent to school (the first child in his community to have done so) because his father wanted his son to be able to write and read letters for him, one day. The laureate refers to his background in the following terms and one finds here his early love for communalistic life, sense of space and how space configuration and comfort are related: “I grew up in a community where there was no kindergarten, but where community was your family, I remember the room where my grandmother would sit and tell stories with a little light, while we would huddle close to each other and her voice inside the room enclosed us, summoning us to come closer and form a safe place. This was my first sense of architecture”. At the age of seven, he found himself crammed into an extremely hot classroom with more than 100 other students. He then started dreaming of building cooler structures later in life. This experience of poor building facilities at school in his community was his earliest inspiration to improve the educational lives of Burkina Faso’s children, using architecture.
At an early age, he was sent to a neighboring town to learn traditional building techniques. Later, through a scholarship, he moved to Germany, and started studying architecture at the Technical University of Berlin in 1995. KÉRÉ ultimately became an architect who combines traditional architecture with the modern one, that of his hometown with the Western ones. He is a brilliant example of an African who trained in the West and succeeds in harmoniously putting his “heterogenous” expertise to use by helping his native community in Burkina as well as other parts of the world. He is a trained engineer who combines traditional building materials with modern engineering methods.
KÉRÉ’s style and oeuvre
As someone who has a wholistic view of Art, this architect is not moved by construction only; he rubs shoulders with other artists whose works he admires and that certainly contributes to his distinct style. His collaboration with the German theater director Christoph Schlingensief led to the construction of a multidisciplinary arts, education and health center in Burkina Faso, known as the Opera Village Africa (Operndorf Afrika), an arts education project located in Ouagadougou but with strong ramifications in Germany. Based in Berlin, Francis Kéré founded the Kéré Foundation in order to fund the construction of a primary school in his hometown of Gando. He links architecture to space, cities, education and the future, an extraordinary vision that many lack in Africa. His foresightedness and ingenuity of thought transpires in statements like the following: “Architecture is an instrument we can use to create better cities, to create space to inspire people, to create classrooms which inspire the best generation” In 1998, Francis Kéré launched a project to build a school in his native village, convinced of the fact that education was the first step for the personal and economic development of his community. Three rectangular modules connected by a single roof make up the basic structure of the building, and each one of them accommodates one classroom for fifty students. The ceiling and walls are built with clay bricks, made on site by the villagers themselves. To ensure natural ventilation and protect the school from rain and sunlight, the ceramic ceiling and zinc roof are separated by a light steel lattice. The Primary School received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 (a prize that rewards building projects that address the needs of societies with a large Muslim population), and more importantly, it became a landmark of community pride. As the collective knowledge of construction began to spread and inspire Gando, new cultural and educational projects have since been introduced for further support to sustainable development in the village. One of the techniques that only KÉRÉ masters is a construction style that creates appropriate ventilation, temperature and light in the same structure because of the materiasl used, the angles and shapes of windows and other openings. The Pritzker Prize facilitators noted that in their announcement: “A poetic expression of light is consistent throughout Kéré’s works. Rays of sun filter into buildings, courtyards and intermediary spaces, overcoming harsh midday conditions to offer places of serenity or gathering.”
Internationally Acclaimed Buildings
Money of KERE’s chefs d’oeuvre have attracted immense admiration. Beyond his designs in Burkina Faso, the award-winning architect has also designed permanent and temporary structures across Europe and the United States, such as London’s 2017 Serpentine Pavilion. Each year, the Serpentine Gallery invites an international architect to build their first ever London edifice on its grounds. His inspiration for the design was the trees in his home village of Gando, with structures that sought to connect the visitors with the surrounding nature. Mr. Kéré has also done designs for the famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which runs each year in California and attracts celebrities and big names in the entertainment industry with Billie Eilish, Swedish House Mafia and Kanye West among those set to perform this year. Mr. Kéré’s design for the 2019 festival was named Sarbalé Ke, which means House of Celebration in his mother tongue. His inspiration for the structure was the Baobaob tree, a transposition into the West of the African traditional way and habit of peaceful meetings, fruitful discussions and amicable settlement of disputes. The laureate was very emotional and did not expect such a distinction. He claims he was simply engrossed in bringing positive transformation into his community, in Burkina, in Germany and “putting his signature” to other parts of the world. The Burkinabè Diébédo Francis KÉRÉ’s work earns blacks all over the world a special accolade, distinction and achievement.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.