Award-winning architect Diébédo Francis Kéré takes inspiration from his hometown in Burkina Faso to create new architectural narratives informed by both traditional practices and modern design.
Gando, a small village in Burkina Faso, is the hometown of award-winning architect Diébédo Francis Kéré and the location of one of his most well-known designs: a primary school completed in 2001. The project represents a triumph in improvisational and location-specific design, improving traditional architectural methods in order to create a sustainable building that does not rely on foreign materials or technology. ‘For me, the design of [a] building emerges from the needs of the user and also the environment,’ says Kéré. ‘I look at the climate, the geography, the building economy and the social structures in place. I look at how people are [currently] living in the region and try to understand why.’
The fundamental connection between the construction process and the social, cultural and environmental context of the building site is central to Kéré’s practice, which has variously been described as ‘socially engaged’ and ‘community architecture’. The value of involving the local community in a project is multifold, he explains. ‘If you involve the community from the beginning and they feel part of the process, eventually they will take ownership of the project. They will feel proud of what they helped create and they will protect it and care for it.’
This approach extends to helping to keep traditions alive by aligning modern, innovative ideas with traditional building methods. In Burkina Faso, Kéré created longer-lasting bricks that retain a local aesthetic by using a mixture of clay and cement. ‘Technology is so important in architecture, but it can be useless if it is not accessible and sustainable for [a] specific region,’ he says. ‘I think it is so important to teach new ideas that can push development and improve the way people live.’ The concept of ‘radical simplicity’ is key in this regard: ‘To build a clay wall that is able to resist multiple rainy seasons is a huge advancement for people in my region,’ Kéré explains. ‘It might seem simplistic, but it has radically affected quality of life.’ His goal, he says, is to make more out of local materials and, ultimately, to add value through design.
Sustainable design has always informed Kéré’s work, putting him at the head of his field as the concept of ‘going green’ becomes increasingly essential. For Kéré, this becomes about introducing effective ideas that can be understood and replicated long after the architect has left the building. ‘It is important that we don’t continue to produce cheap copies of buildings from the West in places like Africa,’ he says. ‘We can’t forget the realities of our environment. It is irresponsible to build the same way in Ouagadougou as you would in New York.’
Kéré’s work might remain rooted in the architectural traditions and designs of his home country, but it takes a forward-looking approach, cultivating local skills that will help to produce what he calls ‘our own architectural narratives’. As Kéré maintains, ‘Africa has a lot to offer. We need to recognise the value and creative power that we have.’