Pritzker Prize 2022: Francis Kéré is the first African to win the “Nobel of Architecture”

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

When he was 7 years old Francis Kere left home to go to school because his village of Gando in Burkina Faso did not have its own. Thirteen years later he moved to Germany on a carpentry grant with dreams of one day returning home to build the classrooms that didn’t exist then.

Kéré achieved just that by becoming an architect and completing his first building, Gando Primary School, in 2001. The project proved to be a springboard for his career and still guides his ethos today. The 56-year-old, who has continued to transform his village and other communities across Africa with his socially-focused designs, is now recognized as one of the greats in his field.

On Tuesday, organizers of the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel of Architecture,” announced Kéré as the 2022 winner.

As the first African architect in its 43-year history, Kéré has accomplished the feat with a portfolio consisting mostly of schools, health centers and community facilities – projects that were once considered too modest for a prize historically recognized by the designers of iconic buildings. Shortly after hearing the news, he spoke to CNN and credited his success to his community in Gando.

“It’s not just a price for myself,” he said on the phone from Berlin, Germany, where he has his Kéré Architecture office headquartered. “Without the courage to return home and get my people to join me on the journey to building the school that[launched]my career, this never would have been possible.”

Gando Primary School, pictured after Kéré completed an expansion in 2008.

Gando Primary School, pictured after Kéré completed an expansion in 2008. Credit: Courtesy of Francis Kere/Pritzker Architecture Prize

Kéré pours mud like concrete and makes use of local materials instead of imported ones. Kéré proposes a vision of architecture that both empowers communities and responds to the climate crisis. As such, Tuesday’s announcement of the Pritzker Prize is a nod of appreciation not only for him, but also for “vernacular” architecture – a term used to describe designs that respond directly to the local climate, materials and the building traditions react – themselves.

Although Kéré has since designed larger projects, including large-scale campuses and two national parliaments, his approach remains grounded in the principles established in Gando. The architect raised funds for the school from overseas and returned to his village with plans for a contemporary and sustainable 5,600-square-foot facility. Knowing the village had no access to electricity or air conditioning, he suggested strategically placed windows that would let in indirect sunlight while creating an airflow that acts as natural ventilation.

But despite working closely with local artisans, Kéré said he encountered resistance to his choice of materials. The use of traditional adobe bricks, which – even when fortified with concrete – provide natural cooling, was not entirely welcomed by villagers, who thought the structure would not withstand the rainy season as well as glass and steel. The villagers’ instinct to fuse modern materials and notions of progress has been encountered by the architect throughout his career.

“There’s still a sense that anything local is primitive,” he said. “Let’s say 90% of people in Burkina Faso use clay, but they see it as ‘poor people’s material’. So when they have more money to spend, they try to look for other materials.”

Kéré's serene design in the National Park of Mali in Bamako, Mali.

Kéré’s serene design in the National Park of Mali in Bamako, Mali. Credit: Courtesy of Francis Kere/Pritzker Architecture Prize

“Sometimes the western world – and how it communicates – makes things in the west (apparently) the best. And they are perceived by others as the best, without taking into account that local materials can be the solution to the climate crisis and can be our best alternative in terms of socio-economic (development).

“The more local materials are used, the better you can promote the local economy and (build) local knowledge, which also makes people proud.”

empower communities

In the two decades since completing his breakout project in Gando, Kéré has realized plans for a village library, teacher accommodation and a 2008 expansion that has greatly increased the school’s capacity. He has also adapted his approach to different contexts in Burkina Faso, where he has carried out almost a dozen projects, and across the continent, from Senegal to Uganda, from Togo to Sudan.

In Mozambique’s Benga Riverside Residential Community, Kéré incorporated existing baobab trees, shrubs and native grasses into his design, providing shade and protecting homes from dusty winds. His curvilinear SKF-RTL Children Learning Center in Kenya, on the other hand, was built from locally-made adobe.

Village Opera, a cultural project under construction in Laongo, Burkina Faso.

Village Opera, a cultural project under construction in Laongo, Burkina Faso. Credit: Courtesy of Francis Kere/Pritzker Architecture Prize

Either way, his work is about both the process and the design. Working with local artisans not only conveys ownership of community buildings, Kéré said, but also helps develop professional skills that can be used to generate future income. As the jury of this year’s Pritzker Prize, chaired by the 2016 winner Alejandro Aravenawrote in his quote about Kéré: “He knows from within that architecture is not about the object but about the goal; not about the product but about the process.”

Kéré’s background in carpentry makes him as much a builder as an architect. “I was fascinated by handwork and the cutting or assembling of materials,” he said. “And I try – even without knowing it – to do the same with my architecture.”

Still, he sees a growing gap between design and construction, as he believes many of today’s architects are alienated from the processes that bring their visions to life.

Design by Kéré Architecture for the Burkina Institute of Technology (BIT).

Design by Kéré Architecture for the Burkina Institute of Technology (BIT). Credit: Courtesy of Francis Kere/Pritzker Architecture Prize

“There’s a big disconnect,” said Kéré. “You have people just sitting in an office with a computer and designing and creating our world. That’s not the best approach… If you have a big (architecture) company, then it’s good to find a way to give people experience in construction websites.

“It doesn’t need a miracle, it’s possible. And we have to be aware that young professionals who spend (time) on construction sites and really see how materials are put together will have a different approach to design than those who just design on their computers.”

Growing profile

When Kéré’s philosophy is instinctively practical, he clearly recognizes the power of symbols and visual identities. Take, for example, his recently completed startup Lions Campus, an education center in north-east Kenya whose distinctive spiers both aid ventilation and mimic the region’s termite mounds, rooting the structure in its surroundings.

Francis Kéré's temporary pavilion in London's Hyde Park, a prestigious commission awarded to a different world-renowned architect each year.

Francis Kéré’s temporary pavilion in London’s Hyde Park, a prestigious commission awarded to a different world-renowned architect each year. Credit: Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images

Then there was her Tree Inspired Gazebo he designed for London’s Serpentine Galleries, which each year invite a leading international architect to produce a temporary installation. Part of a growing collection of Kéré’s work outside of Africa, the conceptual creation brought together various ideas underlying his work, from perforated wooden blocks that created natural air circulation to a rain-catching canopy that alluded to the challenges of water scarcity.
Kéré’s growing international profile has resulted in increasingly monumental commissions. After Burkina Faso’s National Assembly was destroyed during civil unrest in 2014, the architect was asked to envision a replacement in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou. The stepped facade of its pyramidal design offers both public space and a message of democratic openness, although the project was built after the 20th century coup in January.

However, the construction of another national assembly from Kéré in neighboring Benin is underway. Like its Serpentine Pavilion, its top-heavy form was inspired by trees – in this case West Africa’s Palaver tree – and their role as traditional meeting places, with the main volume of the Parliament blossoming from a hollow ‘stem’.

A digital impression of the Benin National Assembly under construction.

A digital impression of the Benin National Assembly under construction. Credit: Courtesy of Francis Kere/Pritzker Architecture Prize

In both cases, Kéré said, the challenge was to create uniquely African expressions of democracy, memory and identity. But although these national projects differ in scale from the architect’s schools and health centers, his approach remains rooted in localism.

“How do you make a project represent a nation? From a village to a nation state, you have to look around the country and ask, ‘Where do you have local and natural stone… and then we go and source it to order a style from somewhere else (not to borrow) .

“So I’m trying to translate the work I started in Gando into structures that represent national pride.”

Kéré will be formally named a Pritzker Prize winner at a ceremony in London later this year. Like all other winners, he will receive a $100,000 stipend and a bronze medal.

https://www.cnn.com/style/article/pritzker-prize-2022-francis-kere/index.html Pritzker Prize 2022: Francis Kéré is the first African to win the “Nobel of Architecture”

Charles Jones

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