Opening the door to a world “unknown”
From the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Francis Kéré, we get a glimpse into a world he has known his entire lifetime. In a recent interview with Anne Quito, Kéré and Quito have an exquisite and insightful dialogue about what his experiences living and growing up in Africa are, what the West is missing from the narrative, and how design has allowed him to embody who he is and natures influence on his work.
Firstly, lets introduce Diébédo Francis Kéré. Born on April 10, 1965, in the village of Gando, Burkina Faso, Kéré became a Burkinabé architect recognized for creating innovative works that are sustainable and collaborative in nature. He studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin and graduated in 2004.
While studying, he established the Kéré Foundation (formerly Schulbausteine für Gando) and founded Kéré Architecture in 2005. His architectural practice has been recognized internationally with awards including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (2004) for his first building, the Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso, and the Global Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction 2012 Gold.
Kéré has completed many projects in several countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Togo, Sudan, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the USA, and the UK. He was a professor at a multitude of universities including the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design, Yale School of Architecture, Swiss Academia di Architettura di Mendrisio, and the Technical University of Munich.
His latest achievement is being the first African to win the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize.
The Triennale Milano’s new exhibition is tackling the Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries: a deep experience, which involves designers, architects, artists, playwrights, and musicians, and gives us the opportunity to overturn our idea of the world. Francis Kéré is tasked with representing the culture of Africa as a curiosity in an international exhibition (which is no easy task).
“Kéré described the job of representing Africa at the Triennale as both a privilege and a burden.” — QUARTZ AFRICA
Rather than publishing a long and complicated manifesto, he instead offers examples in the form of installations that show off the originality of Africa while removing any myths and misinformation. Some of his installations include a seating area at the Triennale’s cafe that evokes community gatherings around a big shady tree practiced throughout Africa and a 40-ft immersive tower at the Triennale’s entrance that invites visitors to kneel at one point.
The structure is meant to convey the exhibition’s theme of navigating the “Unknown, Unknowns” as well as showcase building techniques and materials remaining in Africa.
The Kéré and Quito dialogue summarized below is meant to give us more insight into what he wants us to understand about Africa.
“Kéré: It’s so immense and culturally diverse; it’s a continent with its own values, history, and expectations on life.”
Quito starts the interview by asking Kéré what the world does not know about Africa still. From his perspective, he states that it's clear the West does not understand what matters to young Africans. Rather than seeing it as a young, dynamic continent, Africa is still seen as a place that needs help.
If we don't know what matters to our neighbors, then we will never really know them. Additionally, he goes on to say how people in the West consider Africa as only one country. People are not aware of just how large the continent is and how many different countries exist.
The next question Quito asks is how he feels about being asked to be a kind of ambassador for the continent.
“Kéré: Being able to talk about Africa is a privilege. I came from a very poor country and suddenly, through design, I have this kind of visibility.”
He wants to highlight the idea that even though people are fighting to make a living, they’re generally happy and enjoy life. Having a sense of self-awareness is the key. Just because something makes Western people happy doesn't mean Africans want that. For example, big cars might make an American happy but in Burkina Faso, a good mango tree or a beautifully-designed house out of wood or cement blocks may be more meaningful. Happiness is relative.
Quito furthers the interview by asking Kéré if he aspires to link happiness and architecture in his work.
Kéré: For me, creating something that helps people lead better, healthier lives is one of the main goals of architecture. I think about this no matter what project I’m working on.
He discusses how he approaches his design. He used a chair as an example explaining how he wants people to feel both physically comfortable and also emotionally supported so that they may feel stronger and want to give back to the community.
Quito continues by asking Kéré what makes African architecture worth knowing.
Kéré: Throughout Africa, groups of people have found a way to live in harmony with nature. If you look at the carbon footprint of this huge continent, it’s producing less than 5% of the world’s total emissions. Perhaps we can contribute [ideas] for the rest of the world.
Kere talks about his installment at the Triennale called “Yesterday’s Tomorrow.” He says it is about the importance of the past. He speaks about building from knowledge and experience to really serve humanity. It is up to the designers to always consider how it could benefit everyone and thing involved. And if we don’t take this into consideration, we will fail.
Quito wraps up the interview by asking Kéré how winning the Pritzker Prize has changed his life.
Kéré: This [award] is the best thing that can happen to someone. It will for sure change my life completely and the life of my office.
The Pritzker is a big recognition, but I see it more as a push to go forward, you know. I’ve been awarded courage — I feel it, I see it. It’s like saying, “Go, Francis. Do it. Don’t fear.” I feel I have so much energy than ever before.
He works and creates from the heart and the mind. He knows he is ready to really keep going. He is hoping that with this new visibility he can use these opportunities to expand his architecture from small to big and really try to care for humanity. “Keep caring — that’s what we’re trying to do.”
It is intelligent, compassionate, and creative individuals like Kéré that are what makes being in the AEC industry something to take pride in. He goes above and beyond for the people he cares about and always takes into consideration the community and nature when it comes to design. If more people designed structures with the same kind of intent and love that Kere does, we may just be able to grow in a more sustainable direction for the sake of mankind.
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