From humble beginnings through architectural school in Berlin and back to his home in Burkino Faso, Francis Kéré provides an example of humility, innovation and care – all core principles of an architect who gives back.

Born in Gando, a village to the southeast of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Diébédo Francis Kéré offers work that demonstrates the combined strength of education and architecture to empower individuals and communities.

Often taken for granted by those for whom schooling was a natural part of their intellectual development, the gift of education has allowed Kéré to inspire and enable the education of many rural Burikabé children through his architecture.

As the eldest son of the village chief and the first child in his village to be educated, Kéré carried a deep sense of responsibility to the people of Gando.

He trained as a craftsman, and after being sent on an apprenticeship in development aid to Germany, Kéré enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin to study architecture.

Formation of a legacy

In 1998, as a student in Berlin, Kéré founded Schulbausteine für Gando. The primary aim of the organisation, loosely translated as “building blocks for Gando”, was to build a primary school in Gando.

The completion of the primary school in 2001 was a momentous achievement. Kéré demonstrated how, through “critical regionalism”, innovative approaches could be used to create an environmentally responsible, climatically sensitive and culturally embedded building.

Solutions to the building’s construction were negotiated and improved with input from community members and community builders; Kéré played a facilitative role. In the end, this involvement in the design and construction of the school upskilled the community so that they can maintain the building, and in future extend it.

“The process of building with, as opposed to building for, a community ensures its social and economic sustainability,” says Kéré.

The Kéré Primary School débuted what were to become Kéré’s architectural hallmarks. The long rectilinear building is made from compressed earth bricks formed from the red soil of the surrounding area. These provide thermal mass to keep the inside of the classrooms cool. Vertical brick piers punctuate the length of the building, providing support for a concrete ring beam. Tall and narrow openings in the perimeter wall allow airflow through the classrooms and are mediated by wooden louvers. The building’s most dramatic and elegant component is its gently sweeping corrugated iron roof. Corrugated sheeting seems to float on an intricate mesh of steel reinforcing, designed ingeniously to support the roof in a beautiful, cost effective and easily replicable way.

The roof protects the classrooms from the extreme sun during the day, and allows and causes cool air to flow through the structure.

Since 2005 additions to the primary school includes: four new classrooms, a school kitchen, a library and a football pitch, doubling the capacity of the school.

Kéré improved the design of the first school with the addition of compressed stabilised earth block vaults, from which the roof is suspended, allowing the classrooms to be ventilated.

“I see many challenges facing architects today. By introducing new ideas about building, you challenge the methods of construction that have been used for years. There is a misconception that sustainable architecture is expensive, complicated, and needs a lot of maintenance,” say Kéré.

The road ahead

Kéré Architecture has undertaken over sixteen architecture, research and exhibition projects around the world.

While all of his projects are testament to his sustainability principles, his continued work in Burkina Faso remains the truest reflection of his architectural prowess. Projects such as the Gando Library and Teacher’s Housing demonstrate new tectonic explorations in space making, design and materiality, and the Gando Secondary School represents an evolution in Kéré’s traditional school design with an undulating, scalloped structure.

Kéré Architecture’s largest project to date – the Gando Secondary School – is currently under construction. A feat in low-tech sustainable construction and technology, the building uses a passive geothermal technique to cool structures partially sunken in the ground. “Air circulated and cooled in buried pipes is passively brought into classrooms through vents in the floor and expelled as hot air through the roof structure,” Kéré explains.

Kéré’s work, while generally small in scale, has important implications. He has shown how the principles of participatory design, community empowerment and self-build can produce an architecture totally integrated in nature and society.

“Testing and experimentation are integral as each project builds on the strengths of the last, and sustainable technologies are so integrated that the architecture shifts beyond the trappings and constraints of green architecture,” he says.

To other architects: “My best advice is don’t give up. If you have good ideas and you are passionate, you should not wait to begin. Sometimes it is better to take small steps by yourself in order to raise awareness for your cause. Become a thoughtful and powerful voice for the community you represent. Inspire others to believe in new potentials with your architecture.”

Home town projects, beyond schools

Kéré has always been driven to improve access to education in Burkina Faso. Through his innate ability as an architect he has far exceeded his original goal of building a primary school in Gando, but has become an inspiration and example of the passion, innovation and humility that are central to creating outstanding architecture. He has also designed the Gando library, a surgical clinic in Léo and the opera village in Laongo is still under construction.

The full feature appears in the August-September 2014 issue on page 53.