Diébédo Francis Kéré (born 10 April 1965) is a Burkinabé architect, recognized for creating innovative works that are often sustainable and collaborative in nature. This year he was awarded the Pritzker prize in architecture, perhaps the most prestigious in the field. Join me in discovering his creative and adaptive buildings, full of beauty and intelligence!
Educated at the Technical University of Berlin, he has lived in Berlin since 1985. Parallel to his studies, he established the Kéré Foundation (formerly Schulbausteine für Gando), and in 2005 he founded Kéré Architecture. 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 undertaken projects in various countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Togo, Sudan, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the USA, and the UK. In 2017 the Serpentine Galleries commissioned him to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London. He has held professorships at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Yale School of Architecture and the Swiss Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio. In 2017 he accepted the professorship for “Architectural Design and Participation” at TU München (Germany). In 2022, he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the first person from Africa and the first black person to do so.
His architecture studio, entitled Kéré Architecture is informed by tradition, our practice explores new modes of construction for which the foundations have long been laid. Innovative uses of local resources and participatory design methods allow us to work beyond the boundaries of most established design practices and shed dominant norms to set our own precedents. Working across diverse geographies, our portfolio spans a wide spectrum of projects from civic infrastructure to temporary installations, from concept to execution. Founded by Francis Kéré in 2005, with a dual focus on design and social commitment, the studio’s scope encompasses building, design and knowledge sharing.
How did Diébédo Francis Kéré Become an Internationall Recognized Architect?
Kéré was born in the village of Gando, Burkina Faso. He was the first child in the village to be sent to school as his father, the village chief, wanted his eldest son to learn how to read and translate his letters. Since no school existed in Gando, Kéré had to leave his family when he was 7 years old to live with his uncle in the city. In 1985, he uprooted again, this time, much further from home, traveling to Berlin on a vocational carpentry scholarship, learning to make roofs and furniture by day, while attending secondary classes at night. He was awarded a scholarship to attend Technische Universität Berlin (Berlin, Germany) in 1995, graduating in 2004 with an advanced degree in architecture. Although far from Burkina Faso, Kéré’s mind never strayed from his native homeland. He recognized the responsibility of his privilege, establishing the foundation “Schulbausteine für Gando e.V.”, translated to “school building blocks for Gando” and later renamed Kéré Foundation e.V., in 1998 to fundraise and advocate for a child’s right to a comfortable classroom. His first building, Gando Primary School (2001, Gando, Burkina Faso), was built by and for the people of Gando. Locals offered their input, labor and resources from conception to completion, crafting nearly every part of the school by hand, guided by the architect’s inventive forms of indigenous materials and modern engineering.
“I grew up in a community where there was no kindergarten, but where community was your family. Everyone took care of you and the entire village was your playground. My days were filled with securing food and water, but also simply being together, talking together, building houses together. I remember the room where my grandmother would sit and tell stories with a little light, while we would huddle close to each other and her voice inside the room enclosed us, summoning us to come closer and form a safe place. This was my first sense of architecture.”
During his studies he felt it was his duty to contribute to his family and to the community which had supported him, and to give the next generation the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. In 1998, with the help of his friends, Kéré set up the association Schulbausteine für Gando e.V. (now Kéré Foundation), which loosely translates as “Building Blocks for Gando”, to fund the construction of a primary school for his village. His objective was to combine the knowledge he had gained in Europe, with traditional building methods from Burkina Faso. He completed his studies and built the first school in Gando as his diploma project in 2004, while also opening his own architectural office Kéré Architecture. Kéré began working to design a school for his home village of Gando while he was enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin. The collaborative processes Kéré developed with Gando inhabitants and the innovative, local and ecological techniques and materials they created led Kéré to receive a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2009. With each trip back to Gando, Kéré has bestowed purposeful ideas, technical knowledge, environmental understanding and aesthetic solutions, but his service to humanity through cultural sensitivity, process of engagement and devotion proves as a constant example of generosity to the world. “I considered my work a private task, a duty to this community. But every person can take the time to go and investigate from things that are existing. We have to fight to create the quality that we need to improve people’s lives.”
Kéré’s architecture was conceived of and built with the help of village inhabitants. The village, located south east of Ouagadougou, has approximately 3000 inhabitants who live in mud huts without access to running water or electricity. According to the UN Human Development Index in 2011, Burkina Faso is the 7th least developed country in the world. Most residents are subsistence farmers, remaining dependent on the harsh climate which has restricted rainfall between October and June, and high daytime temperatures of 45 °C.
“Good architecture in Burkina Faso is a classroom where you can sit, have light that is filtered, entering the way that you want to use it, across a blackboard or on a desk. How can we take away the heat coming from the sun, but use the light to our benefit? Creating climate conditions to give basic comfort allows for true teaching, learning and excitement.”
His work has expanded beyond school buildings in African countries to include temporary and permanent structures in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Two historic parliament buildings, the National Assembly of Burkina Faso (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso) and Benin National Assembly (Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin), have been commissioned, with the latter currently under construction.
What has Diébédo Francis Kéré Built?
1. Dano Secondary School
The secondary school project in Dano, Burkina Faso was inspired by Kéré’s previous work in Gando. The excessive daytime heat was once again the major issue, but this time there were different local resources. Laterite stone, native to the region, was used as the main building material. The building was set at an east–west orientation which reduces direct solar radiation onto the walls, and the sharply protruding roof creates a lot of shade. The roof design with its system of natural ventilation allows the air to circulate between the mud brick ceiling and the raised tin roof. The building consists of three classrooms, a computer room and an office. There is also an amphitheatre designed for use during break times. Finished in 2007, the building work was largely done by people trained in the Gando school projects, giving them the opportunity to use and develop their skills, while also reducing construction costs.
2. Centre for Earth Architecture, Mopti
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has spent over 10 years renovating mosques in Northern Mali. Finished in 2010, the Centre for Earth Architecture in Mopti is part of this series of projects, following the restoration of the mosque and the construction of a new sewerage system. The Centre is intended to be much more than an exhibition space: the building is the product of the same ancient building techniques used in the Great Mosques in Mopti, Timbuktu and Djenné. It demonstrates how a material that is a part of the area’s heritage can be used in a modern context. The Centre is made up of an exhibition hall, a community centre, public toilets and a restaurant, responding to the needs of the district management of Komoguel and visitors to the area, as well as the local community. From the top of the flood barrier you can see that the building is aligned with the mosque. The building has a simple structure and its height corresponds to the neighbouring buildings without compromising the view of the mosque. When viewed from across the lake the Centre manages to maintain a connection with the mosque but does not dominate the view.
The Centre is divided into three different buildings which are connected by two roof surfaces. Clay for the building was brought from 5 km away, so that the red colour would contrast with the colour of the local buildings, which are all made using traditional mud construction. The rusty red colour of the laterite clay is due to its high iron oxide content. All the walls and barrel vaults in the Centre are made out of BTC (compressed earth blocks) and are not plastered or painted. These are very well suited to the climatic conditions as they create a natural temperature buffer, making indoor temperatures much more comfortable. The overhanging roof blocks keep the walls cool and provide shaded outdoor spaces. The building is naturally ventilated through openings in the walls and vaults, therefore mechanical air-conditioning is not needed. Most vernacular buildings in Mopti have wooden ceilings filled with clay. Kéré used a new system in this building that involves no wood – BTC vaults. He wants to promote the use of clay but to be sparing in his use of wood, as deforestation is a huge environmental issue in Mali.
3. Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
Since 2000, the Serpentine Galleries annually commission an international architecture practice to design the Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, London. In 2017, they chose Francis Kéré. Taking inspiration from the great tree in his hometown of Gando under which members of the community meet to reflect on the day, Kéré’s design is based on creating this sense of community while connecting people with nature. A great overhanging roof canopy made of steel and a transparent skin covers the entire footprint of Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion, allowing sunlight to enter the space while also protecting it from the rain. Wooden shading elements line the underside of the roof, creating a dynamic shadow effect that changes with the movement of the sun and clouds. The wall system is made of prefabricated wooden blocks assembled into triangular modules with slight apertures, giving a lightness and transparency to the building enclosure. The curved walls are split into four fragments, allowing four unique access points to Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion. Completely detached from the roof canopy, these elements allow both the air and visitors to freely circulate.
At the centre of Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion is a large opening in the canopy, creating an immediate connection to the sky. When it rains, the roof becomes a funnel channeling water into the heart of the structure. This rain collection acts symbolically, highlighting water as a fundamental resource for human survival and prosperity. In the evening, the canopy becomes a source of illumination. Wall perforations give glimpses of movement and activity inside the pavilion to those outside. In this way, Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion becomes a beacon of light, a symbol of storytelling and togetherness. Following an extended run in London from June to November 2017, Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion was sold to the Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
4. Lycée Schorge
Located in the third most populated city in Burkina Faso, the Lycée Schorge Secondary School sets a new standard for educational excellence in the region, while providing an inspiring showcase of local building materials applied to an iconic and innovative design. The school consists of nine modules arranged radially around a courtyard, protecting the central space from wind and dust. A series of steps creates a loosely defined amphitheatre, which accommodates informal gatherings as well as assemblies and celebrations for the school and wider community. The walls of each module are built out of locally sourced laterite stone, which lends them their striking deep red colour. When first extracted from the earth, laterite can be easily cut and shaped into bricks, which are then left in the sun to harden. The material provides an excellent source of thermal mass, absorbing the heavy daytime heat and radiating it at night.
A secondary façade made of local eucalyptus wood wraps around the classrooms like a transparent fabric and creates a variety of shaded intermediary spaces between itself and the classrooms where students can gather informally to wait for their classes. In these spaces, the organic vertical elements produce a stunning play of light. The classrooms’ ceilings, made of perforated plaster vaults, diffuse indirect sunlight in order to improve the light quality while avoiding the heat otherwise caused by direct radiation. Wind towers located at the back of each classroom allow hot air to escape, thus helping to further lower the interior temperature. The sculptural forms of these towers stand out above the main body of the building, creating a landmark in its surroundings. In order to minimise costs and reduce material waste, the school’s furniture is made from local hardwoods and steel offcuts from the roof construction.
Kéré Architecture designed Xylem, the gathering pavilion for the Tippet Rise Art Centre, as a quiet, protective shelter. Named to evoke the vital internal layers of a tree’s living structure, Xylem is a place where visitors of this vast outdoor art space can gather to converse, or sit and contemplate in solitude. Located in a slightly sunken landform between the main facilities of the art centre and the start of the hiking tracks, the pavilion nestles in a clearing surrounded by aspen trees, facing a small creek. Entirely carved in wooden logs, the pavilion invites visitors into the heart of the trees. The sustainable pinewood used for the entire pavilion, locally sourced from a natural pruning process that saves forests from parasitic bugs, is used in its raw state.
The logs of the canopy are grouped in circular bundles within a modular hexagonal structure in weathering steel, supported by seven steel columns. The upper surface of the canopy is carved sinuously to blend into the surrounding hills. Simultaneously massive yet light, the roof is inspired by the tuguna, the sacred gathering space of many small Burkinabè communities – a low-level wood and straw shelter that offers protection from the sun while allowing for ventilation. In the pavilion, sunlight filters through the vertical logs, creating a soft play of light and shadow on the curvilinear seating and polished concrete circular platform below. The spatial complexity of the carved wooden seating elements encourages visitors to explore different views of the surrounding landscape. Xylem creates a link between Montana in the US and Burkina Faso, as it was built in parallel with the Naaba Belem Goumma Secondary School in Francis Kéré’s birthplace, Gando.
6. Léo Doctors’ Housing
Since its initial opening in 2014, the Léo Surgical Clinic and Health Centre has been operating at full capacity under the direction of the non-profit organisation Operieren in Afrika e.V. The mission of the project was not only to provide much-needed facilities for surgery and medical assistance, but also to establish an exchange of knowledge and expertise between visiting medical specialists and local doctors. The Léo Doctors’ Housing is part of this vision, providing accommodation for the clinic’s volunteer and resident staff. It consists of five separate apartments arranged along a communal courtyard that provides a number of shared amenities. Each of the en-suite single-bedroom apartments is fitted with its own private living room, garden and outdoor terrace.
The design follows a modular system. The construction consists of a double-layer wall of concrete block and compressed stabilised earth blocks (CEB). The dual layers add structural integrity, while increasing thermal mass to help keep the interiors cool. A coating of coloured plaster both lends the façade an articulated effect and protects the exterior walls against weathering. The interior ceiling is designed as a singular vault made of CEB with the ends left open for ventilation and to allow daylight to penetrate. A roof of corrugated metal sheeting is elevated above the ceiling, protecting the interiors from excessive heat while sheltering them from rain and sun. The slope of the roof directs rainfall into an onsite water reservoir, which is used for irrigation. A perimeter wall of concrete blocks protects the privacy and security of the housing complex and the landscaping within creates a sanctuary for the inhabitants. A cooling system of drainage ponds absorbs and retains rainwater. These are planted with water lilies to limit evaporation, while fish eat the larvae of mosquitos and other disease-transmitting insects. An interplay of functions and provision of quality of life.
7. National Park of Mali
To mark the 50th anniversary of Mali’s independence, the National Park of Mali in Bamako was refurbished and reopened with the addition of several new amenities. The 103-hectare park sits within a 2,100-hectare reserve of protected forest, which acts as an important green belt for the fast-growing capital. As part of the first phase of this ambitious project, Kéré Architecture was invited to design a number of built interventions throughout the park, including points of entry, a youth and sports centre, a restaurant, public toilets and kiosks.
All buildings are externally clad with natural stone from the region, reinforcing local cultural heritage while cutting construction costs. The thermal mass created by the stone walls also helps to balance the interior climate of the buildings. Large overhanging roofs offer generous shaded spaces around the perimeter of the buildings and allow for natural ventilation. The buildings are designed to rely entirely on their passive cooling systems, although certain buildings offer the option of sealing their roof vents in order to operate with air-conditioning. Aiming to take full advantage of the spectacular views over the park and nearby lake, the restaurant is located on a rock formation, nestling on different levels that reflect the natural contours. All the buildings in the scheme are linked by a pedestrian network, which also connects with the National Museum, as well as various natural attractions. To create a sense of unity between the interventions spread throughout the park, the buildings all follow the same architectural language.
8. Startup Lions Campus
The Startup Lions Campus is an information and communication technologies (ICT) campus, located on the banks of Lake Turkana, Kenya. The project responds to the pressing challenge of youth unemployment faced in the region by offering high-level training and access to international job opportunities, allowing young entrepreneurs to thrive professionally without having to leave their place of origin. The campus will provide 100 new workstations and is the first step in an ambitious vision of spreading ICT networks in remote areas. The project celebrates the unique morphology and natural beauty of its site. It is built over two levels that follow the natural slope and features extensive roof terraces that offer sweeping views over Lake Turkana. The roof terraces are shaded by creeping vegetation, providing pleasant outdoor meeting spaces and opportunities for the informal exchange of ideas.
The building takes inspiration from the towering mounds built by termite colonies in the region. Tall ventilation towers create a stack effect to naturally cool the main working spaces by extracting warm air upwards, while fresh air is introduced through specially designed low-level openings. This system allows the campus to withstand high temperatures and is especially well suited as it prevents dust from damaging the IT equipment. In addition to their functional role, the towers create a landmark in the surroundings. The campus is built out of locally sourced quarry stone with a plaster finish. In choosing which materials and construction techniques to use, ecological sustainability, cost and availability factors were weighed to arrive at the best compromise. Collaboration with the local community was key in this decision-making process, drawing from their experience and expertise.
9. Centre for Health and Social Welfare
The Centre for Health and Social Welfare was conceived as part of the Opera Village, to meet the medical needs of the population in and around Laongo. It is divided into three interlocking units: dentistry, gynaecology and obstetrics, and general medicine. These are arranged around a series of shaded courtyards that function as waiting areas. The courtyards are carefully designed to create a calm and intimate atmosphere for patients’ visitors and families to retire to.
The dynamic fenestration layout is based on three distinct vantage points: standing, sitting and lying – a doctor striding across the ward, a visitor patiently sitting, a bedridden patient gazing into the distance. Each window seems to hang on the wall like a picture frame, capturing a different aspect of the landscape. This allows for a strong connection to the surroundings while minimising direct solar radiation. From the outside, the openings create a dynamic motif on the ochre render of the walls, lending the façades their distinctive character. In keeping with the Opera Village, the centre is built out of locally produced clay bricks and integrates other materials readily available on site, such as laterite stones to pave the courtyards and eucalyptus wood to clad the roof overhangs. The building is planned for effective natural ventilation; cool air enters through low level openings in the outer walls, flows through the spaces and exits via the courtyards.
10. Noomdo Orphanage
Drawing inspiration from the nearby residential compounds, the Noomdo Orphanage is laid out as a series of clusters built around a communal outdoor space. The complex consists of four residential units for children, an administrative building, a shaded open-air dining hall and a workshop. Each unit encloses its own courtyard to allow children of different age groups and gender their privacy, while the spaces between the units and the perimeter wall lend themselves to group activities. The central courtyard, slightly sunken in respect to the buildings that embrace it, is the space where communal gatherings take place. In this way, the architecture creates an array of spaces characterised by varying degrees of privacy, all within a realm that ensures the children’s safety.
The walls and outdoor flooring of the facility are made of locally sourced laterite stone, which lends them their striking deep red colour. When first extracted from the earth, laterite can be easily cut and shaped into bricks, which are then left in the sun to harden. The material provides an excellent source of thermal mass, absorbing the heavy daytime heat and radiating it at night. The building’s window modules are specially designed to respond to several practical challenges. Each module is fitted with mosquito netting and adjustable wooden louvres made of reclaimed material. The lower section of the module features an air vent, inducing the flow of fresh air towards the inside. The double-skin roof, consisting of a shallow barrel vault ceiling with a canopy elevated on steel trusses, allows hot air to escape upwards.
Working beyond the realm of most established contemporary architecture practices, Kéré has gathered expert knowledge in a number of areas through our diverse portfolio of projects. His approach is local and participatory, learning from and responding to each project’s context and placing a project’s users at the centre of the design process, in order to ask the right questions. It then draws from his studio’s legacy of creativity and resourcefulness to respond with sustainable solutions that project an afro-futuristic vision, casting off dominant norms to set our own precedents. Favouring local and environmentally sustainable resources, he has explored new ways of transforming materials, gaining particular experience with the use of clay. The concern for thermal comfort stems from a careful study of local knowledge, resulting in the honing of various innovative roof elements. His innovative work with materials to adapt to climate, and his socially oriented projects prove him to be a human and life centred architect: building for people and for the benefit of the planet.