Conversation with Francis Kéré at Fórum do Futuro

José Caldeira / Câmara Municipal do Porto

In the context of the Forum of the Future, taking place in Porto, Paulo had the pleasure to chair a conversation with architect Francis Kéré. Here is the full transcript of Paulo’s opening address:

Francis Kéré is an internationally renowned architect. His work has been featured in many publications and exhibitions (including this year’s solo show Radically Simple at the Architecture Museum in Munich), and has received several awards (including the Aga Kahn Award for Architecture, the BSI Swiss Architectural Award and this year’s Arts and Letters Award in the U.S.A., among many more).

Kéré is a chartered member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He helds professorships at the Accademia di architettura in Mendrisio, in Switzerland, and at the Technical University of Munich, in Germany. Formerly, he taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Kéré runs a Berlin-based practice with projects across four different continents and this year he designed the summer pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery, in London.

But let’s step back a little bit. Let’s go back to the beginning of Kéré’s career, which set the basis for his approach to architecture. Once upon a time, Francis was born in Gando, a small village in Burkina Faso. He turned his destiny around through education, becoming one of the most representative figures in the African diaspora. As a child, Francis had to leave his family to attend school in the nearest town. He once said: “We were up to 160 children in a single room they called the ‘classroom’. The roof trapped the heat, raising the temperatures to over forty degrees. It was like a room to make bread in, but not to teach someone”.

Driven by his own optimism, and by the awareness that in his home country only education could make a difference, Kéré moved to Berlin to study architecture [he was the first person from his village to study abroad]. Even before he finished his studies, Kéré built a primary school in Gando. He founded an association to raise funds to build the school, called something like ‘Bricks for Gando’ in German [later renamed the Kéré Foundation].

Climate and budget considerations, along with the will to engage the community in the design and construction of the building itself, prompted Kéré to propose using traditional mud-brick methods. The only concession to his Western training was the school’s oversailing metal roof which provided shade from the brutal sun and protected the walls from the rain. These lightweight steel frames soon became an unintended playground for children, who liked to climb the roofs as if they were trees.

Despite the widely acclaimed result, the village’s initial reaction to Kéré’s design was disappointment. He complained in an interview: “According to people in my region, Europeans use concrete and steel when they build houses for themselves. This is seen as progress. But Europeans suggest a different solution in Africa: they should keep living in their small, dark clay huts. The villagers found that unacceptable because they connote clay with backwardness.” It wasn’t until a heavy rain proved the durability of clay-brick construction that Kéré was able to convince the community of the merits of his design.

The village participated in every aspect of the school’s construction. The villagers used their hands to dig out and sieve the clay. Very early in the morning, men began to carry stones to the construction site, while women brought water needed for construction, carrying it on their heads from a distance of up to seven kilometres. Women also played a crucial role in finishing the interior pavements: they danced on the earth until it was compacted and hard.

The Gando school is a model of sustainable building, from the way in which it allows for cooling air to pass through and around the building, to its innovative use of widely available local resources – both materials and unskilled labour.

It has also become an example of the power of architecture to uplift and inspire. The first school in Gando encouraged the implementation of further projects: another school, then a library, workshops, and so on. These buildings, in turn, have attracted other buildings around them – and even the neighbouring villages have built their own schools following Gando’s cooperative approach.

This is a magnificent example of the potential of architecture to provide a better future and to catalyse progress on a local scale. Here, the architect’s role was not just to design walls, doors, windows and roofs – although he did all of those too, with great quality, elegance, rigour and beauty. Kéré’s work suggests that only once buildings are inhabited can we know if their architecture truly suits them.

Above and beyond any architectural discourse, the school created the conditions for promoting education and cultivating civic responsibility. Kéré’s decision to compensate the support for his childhood studies with a school building was not coincidental. He knew that as a first public institution, the school would promote self-empowerment, cultivate political responsibility and enable the population to begin to acquire a proper civic voice – eventually becoming participants in the destiny of their village and country, instead of merely being affected by it. The simple building of a school was an act of social transformation.

Kéré’s work resonated on a global scale. Besides larger projects in Burkina Faso, including the new parliament building, he also has commissions in China, Germany, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, U.S.A., Sudan and Switzerland, and so on.

Let’s hear all about them from the man himself.

Please welcome Francis Kéré.

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