Francis Kéré: An Architect Between

This week a special event at the Harvard Graduate School of Design celebrated the work of Burkinabe architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, who has become known for his emphasis on community focused, collaborative, and environmentally sensitive design. A screening of several short films examined Kéré’s design process and philosophy and looked at his work through the eyes of those who use and build them. Following the screenings, Loeb Rahel Shawl, participated in a panel discussion with Daniel Schwartz, the director of three of the films, as well as Justin Tata, a planner and educator from Juba, South Sudan, Suzanne Blier, chair of fine arts and African and African American Studies at Harvard, and Michael Hooper, associate professor of urban planning at the GSD.  The panel, moderated by Harvard visiting scholar Marlene Rutzendorfer, touched upon Kéré’s life and work, as well as the role of collaboration and cultural exchange in architecture in the developing world.

Kéré was born in the village of Gando in southeastern Burkina Faso. After working as a carpenter he studied architecture in Berlin, where his office is currently located. His thesis project at the Technical University of Berlin was for a primary school in his hometown, which was completed in 2001 and which won the Aga Khan prize in 2004. Since then, Kéré has undertaken a number of projects within Burkina Faso, as well as in Mali, China, Switzerland, and Germany. Kéré’s designs employ local materials and construction techniques and evolve through a direct and collaborative relationship with the communities he is building in. Internationally, Kéré is also known as an educator and designer of architectural exhibitions, including at MOMA and the Venice Biennale.

The first film shown, by filmmaker Candida Richardson, interspersed footage of the Gando Primary School with narration by Kéré describing the building and his collaborative approach to design. This was followed by two short films by Daniel Schwartz, showing Burkina Faso and interviews with the schoolteacher in Gando and a builder who has worked on multiple Kéré projects. Finally, a longer film by Schwartz profiled Kéré in greater depth, in connection to Francis Kéré: Radically Simple, a solo exhibition at the Architekturmuseum der TU München, organized by Loeb alum Andres Lepik (LF ’12).

The discussion highlighted the need for designers to find creative solutions when faced with a shortage of both building materials and trained labor. Justin Tata described how in South Sudan, much of the construction work was being performed by workers from Uganda, and there was a lack of local knowledge needed for brick construction. In response, he has been experimenting with rammed earth, and has found that this is a locally viable, efficient, and economical technique within Juba. Rahel Shawl described a similar experience when she founded ABBA architects in Addis Ababa in 1992. After 18 years of the previous Marxist regime, the nation had lost a great deal of knowledge and skilled labor. Shawl described how she personally trained “street kids” as carpenters; many of these early employees are now large scale contractors within Ethiopia.

Another theme was the need for architects to be directly engaged onsite, and on the importance of community participation and buy-in. In the films, Kéré described his process as almost improvisatory; designs may begin in his studio in Berlin, but they develop constantly on site, in reaction to the changing availability of materials or the building techniques and knowledge of local communities. Shawl expressed a similar sentiment, saying that in her practice it was not possible to simply deliver a design on paper, but that it was critical to be present for the construction.

For both Kéré and Shawl, the physical presence of the architect seems to serve two purposes. On the one hand, it allows the architect to manage construction and uphold personal standards under challenging conditions. Perhaps more importantly, though, it allows for the transfer of knowledge, and the development of a community of builders. When asked at the end of the event about how building and development projects can become sustainable, Shawl highlighted the transfer of knowledge as the most important factor, between designers and builders as well as between institutions and cultures across continents.

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