In Burkina Faso, as in many African countries, architecture is still strongly influenced by European ideals – introduced during the colonial period. Francis Kéré opposes this. In his keynote speech, he showed how he promotes locally anchored, autonomous architecture using local materials.
“In Burkina Faso, urban planning was introduced through colonialism,” said Francis Kéré. This historical background is still relevant today. In the capital Ouagadougou, one can still see the intention to create a second Paris. Even in people’s minds, colonialism remains an influencing factor: The prevalent notion of what makes good architecture is still strongly influenced by European ideals.
Francis Kéré explained that this was why his first building project in Burkina Faso met so much resistance. When he wanted to build a school in Gando after he finished his studies in Germany, everyone was initially proud. There was no school in the village at that time. But when the residents found out that the school was to be built of clay, they were disappointed. “Because in the eyes of the people of Burkina Faso, a schoolhouse is something from France,” explained Francis Kéré. “And it therefore has to be made of glass, concrete and steel.”
This is a big problem in Burkina Faso, the architect said. “We love Europe – but in the end, we’re just left with cheap copies.” Francis Kéré chose a different path. “I wanted to use the most widely available material.” So, despite the initial resistance of the population, he opted for clay as a building material, which was processed using the local workforce. Because many of the construction workers could neither read nor write, the architect deployed aids such as mockups. The building that thus arose is simple but effective. At a place where average temperatures of 40°C prevail, cooling is imperative. Francis Kéré relied on simple means of cooling such as many openings and a simple ventilation system. In the meantime, the local population has become convinced of the new schoolhouse – and the building is still in top condition. “This is the way we have to go,” said the winner of the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Gold 2012, “adapted to the local environment and inspired by tradition.”
A new “old” way
This principle can be applied to more than choosing the right building materials. Burkina Faso also displays vernacular architecture that is not oriented toward Europe but instead is well adapted to local conditions – and has proven its value. This architecture must be rediscovered and further developed, and that is precisely what Francis Kéré does. For example, when he was commissioned to design a housing complex for the staff of a hospital, he studied the construction and design of traditional villages and applied the essential features to the new project: ample interstitial space, open roof assemblies, and recreational spaces between the individual components of the complex. This way of building is actually anchored in the tradition of the country but was largely lost through the course of colonialism. Today, the lessons of history and the use of local materials have led to “a renewal of the way we do things,” said Francis Kéré – emphasising the importance of this new old way.
Architecture is not an isolated discipline; the rediscovery of our own attributes is about more than just individual buildings. “I think we have to let Africa grow and go its own way,” stated Francis Kéré. His architecture is an expression of this conviction. “As technicians from this continent, we have a burden: Where to go? What to do? Should we create towers? Glass palaces?” he asked – of course rhetorically, because he does exactly the opposite. He is committed to doing his part to help Africa find its own way again.
Overcoming material prejudice
This work essentially requires great persuasive effort, which Francis Kéré must expend again and again, for example, with the construction of Lycee Schorge High School in Koudougou. Laterite was to be used as a building material. This rock is widespread in large parts of Africa, including Burkina Faso. Laterite is highly ferrous. During mining it is soft and malleable but when it comes into contact with air it hardens. “It’s a miracle,” said Francis Kéré. The material is inexpensive, easily accessible, and ideal for the production of building blocks. “But, like clay, it is rejected by the local population because it is a poor people’s material.” Such prejudices must be overcome. “So, what I did was cutting it while everyone was watching,” said Francis Kéré, “and this way people were convinced. The key to making people believe is to make them see the positive result.”
After initially being rejected, his buildings are always ultimately accepted by the population – sometimes even to the surprise of his clients, told Francis Kéré. His approach is gaining influence. His persuasive efforts are effective – on one hand because of the commitment of the architect, and on the other because the advantages of local, traditional ways of building are plainly obvious.
This approach applies not only to Africa, Francis Kéré added. He presented one of his latest projects: the pavilion of the Serpentine Gallery in London. Here, too, tradition is at play. His design drew on London’s traditional textile patterns and masonry-bond patterns. Francis Kéré opted for a local, widely available building material: wood – because “even the richest nation cannot afford to waste a lot of material.”
This article is based on the keynote address of Francis Kéré at the LafargeHolcim Forum “Re-materializing Construction” held in Cairo, Egypt in April 2019.See more
In less than a month, the 6th International LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction will take place in Egypt. The symposium will focus on strategies to “re-materialize” construction by reducing consumption throughout the material cycle from extraction to processing, transport, installation, maintenance, and removal. In the context of the lecture series “Affinity Architecture” at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) a full auditorium of students was inspired by some of the key contributors to the upcoming Forum on “Re-materializing Construction” and their approaches to sustainable design in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the context of the lecture series “Affinity Architecture” at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) a full auditorium of students was inspired by some of the key contributors to the upcoming Forum on “Re-materializing Construction” and their approaches to sustainable design in sub-Saharan Africa.
Combining the contemporary with the traditional
Francis Kéré will be a keynote speaker at the LafargeHolcim Forum. The principal of Kéré Architecture will present his unique blend of architecture that is deeply rooted in his native Burkina Faso, and blends innovation and sustainable techniques with limited resources. “I learnt how to build with steel and glass in Germany – but in my homeland of Burkina Faso, I learnt how to build with cement-stabilized clay,” Francis Kéré explained.
At the ETH Zurich, he presented his Global LafargeHolcim Awards-winning project of 2012, a secondary school in his home town Gando, and illustrated how inexperienced architects are tempted to use contemporary building techniques and materials in developing countries, resulting in unsustainable projects. Despite the oppressive heat, the temperature inside his school classrooms cannot be controlled by closing spaces and cooling with modern air-conditioners: electricity is expensive and long-term maintenance unavailable. His solution used locally-sourced clay as the principal building material, combined with a design that incorporates passive ventilation, underground cooling, double-skin roofs, and planting vegetation. “Combining traditional and contemporary materials and techniques led to affordable and sustainable solutions that are now proven to be successful,” he said.
About the power of an example
Another Forum keynote speech will be delivered by Anne Lacaton (left), from the award-winning practice Lacaton & Vassal, whose work showcases the importance of building upon existing conditions to create new architecture. At the ETH Zurich, she called for “creative economy and poetic pragmatism” when building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa.
Instead of protecting and fighting against the climate, architects must understand to live with the given. She encouraged the students to carefully observe, and to consider “temporary being a strategy.”
When sharing knowledge becomes reciprocal
Global LafargeHolcim Awards winner from 2018, Mariam Kamara (below, left), presented her work as part of the “Affinity Architecture” lecture series. She co-led a reinterpretation project where traditional local construction techniques were used for a new mosque and community center in Dandaji, Niger – where involving the local artisans, masons, and the community led to a knowledge transfer beneficial to all. In addition, the involvement guaranteed pride and acceptance of modern architecture and new materials. Her project, winning a Global LafargeHolcim Award, is an example of this reciprocal learning.
“By understanding the needs of the community, in this case for public space, we created not only a place to meet, but also a local economy,” said Mariam Kamara, pointing at a farmer’s day market that now uses the public space. “Involve the community, and let them work together. By helping build new infrastructure, they earn a living. And this creates a sense of pride and ownership, enabling long-term and sustainable development of regions affected by migration into cities," she noted.
Vast potential of sustainable construction
Professor of Architecture & Design, Marc Angélil, moderated the ETH Zurich event and will also moderate the LafargeHolcim Forum in Cairo. He took up the lessons by Francis Kéré, Mariam Kamara, and Anne Lacaton and pointed at the vast potential of sustainable construction in Africa: The creation of rural urban cities to prevent people moving into megacities, the economic potential when local communities and craftsmen are involvement in building, and the environmental benefits of combining traditional and contemporary knowledge