Diébédo Francis Kéré grew up in a small village in Burkina Faso with no electricity, no clean water, no public transportation, and no educational facility. So when he returned home from studying architecture in Berlin, the first thing he did was build a school.
This week, the 56-year-old architect was awarded the Pritzker Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for architects. Known for building schools and medical centers with the help of local communities using locally available materials, he’s the first Black architect to receive the industry’s most coveted award. He joins the ranks of other esteemed architecture icons like Philip Johnson, Zaha Hadid, and Tadao Ando.
Kéré studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin, where he graduated in 2004. He was still studying when he returned to his native Gando and built the village’s first school—his very first building. “Being part of a community, you have a duty to that community,” he says on a video call from his Berlin office. Kéré knew he wanted to build a school in his village but he didn’t want to wait until he graduated and was further along in his career. “I don’t like this word give back,” he says. “‘Give back’ means you have to wait and become very wealthy. Why should we wait? Why don’t we use our talent to start from the beginning?”
The Gando Primary School opened in 2001. The simple yet highly efficient clay brick building earned Kéré the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Since then, he has designed half a dozen schools across Africa, from a nursery and primary school in Tete, Mozambique, to the Burkina Institute of Technology in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. In his hometown, he built a series of adobe houses to attract more qualified teachers to the area, and he is now working on a library with a concrete roof punctuated with dozens of locally crafted clay pots, which were sawed in half to allow for natural light to filter into the building.
Kéré says his focus on schools comes from sheer necessity. “If you’re coming from a place where schools are nonexistent, you start there.” Unsurprisingly, his initial building boosted education in the village. So many kids enrolled at the Gando Primary School that he returned two years later to design an extension. The two buildings now form an L-shape, with four additional classrooms. Close by, he is working on a high school complex of buildings arranged around a central courtyard. “It shows you there is a big need,” he says of the sparse network of schools in the province of Boulgou, where Gando is located.
In all three schools in Gando, Kéré chose clay as the main material because it’s abundantly available and traditionally used to build houses in the region. For the Gando Primary School, he used a third of his budget to buy a $20,000 machine that makes compressed clay bricks. (He started what is now known as the Kéré Foundation to raise the remaining funds.) “[The machine] is still working today,” he says, adding that it was also used to build the school’s extension, which opened in 2008.
For the high school, which will be completed soon, cast walls made of poured clay have been mixed with cement and aggregate. “The benefit of this technique is that you can build a classroom in one week,” Kéré says, compared to about three months when building with bricks.
In response to Africa’s arid landscape and harsh climate, Kéré designs his buildings to promote ventilation, shade, and comfort. At the Gando Primary School, he topped the building with an overhanging tin roof to cool it and protect it from the rain. For his Startup Lions campus in Kenya, he drew inspiration from the towering termite mounds in the region to design tall ventilation towers that help cool the interior and prevent dust from damaging the IT equipment. And at Lycée Schorge on the outskirts of Koudougou, he wrapped classrooms with a wooden screen that shades them and creates a buffer space between the rooms and the courtyard.
Kéré has designed several buildings outside of Africa, but he never strays too far from his roots. In 2017, he was selected to design London’s Serpentine Pavilion—considered one of the world’s most prestigious architectural commissions. His pavilion was crowned with a slatted roof inspired by a tree in Gando, and a central funnel to collect rainwater that could irrigate the surrounding park. And in 2019, he designed a wooden pavilion for the Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana. Made from locally sourced pine logs bundled together with steel ties, its roof is inspired by the tuguna, a wood and straw gathering space that offers protection from the sun in many small communities in Burkina Faso.
Kéré is now building the Parliament house for Benin—a spectacular structure resting on thin pillars and wrapped around a generous courtyard. He’s also finishing a 17,000-square-foot playground and community center in Kampala, Uganda, that is raised on a platform with a drainage system to protect it from recurrent floods.
To cut costs, he has adopted modular construction, mostly building with prefabricated modules that are assembled together “to create a holistic ensemble.” His pavilion at Tippet Rise is modular, as are many of his school buildings across Africa. But Kéré’s biggest asset for cutting costs is training the local community. “You need people who are skilled,” he says. “If you build a bridge, it’s a great thing and people can use the bridge, but if you build engineers . . .,” he trails off, waiting for me to complete the sentence. They can build a bridge themselves.