Francis Kéré – architecture that empowers

Francis Kéré is one of Africa’s most prominent architects, perhaps best known for his new building for the parliament of Benin. It draws on the West African tradition of meeting under a tree to make decisions for the community. This is reflected in the soaring roof of the chamber, and in the shape of the building, with a central ‘trunk’ and large shaded plazas at the centre of a park.

That’s perhaps the most high profile of Kéré’s commissions, but many of his buildings are more modest. What I like most about them is the philosophy behind them. Like Samuel Mockbee, Michael Maltzan or Alejandro Aravena, his focus has been on architecture that benefits communities, rather than elites. “Everyone has a right to beauty,” he says.

Kéré trained in Berlin, where he is still based today. He was born in Burkina Faso, in the village of Gando, which had no running water and no electricity. And no school. He was the first from the village to get an education, dispatched by his father to a foster family 20km away. After getting a scholarship to study in Germany, he worked as a carpenter to pay his way through university at night school and then architecture training. One of the first things he wanted to do was build a school in his village.

The village suggested he raise the money to pay for one, but he had a different idea. “I told myself that we were going to do it ourselves.” Combining traditional techniques with insights from modern sustainable architecture, the school is designed to circulate air and stay cool with its distinctive ‘flying roof’.

It is built from earth, locally sourced and essentially free. Kéré trained local people in the necessary techniques so that they could build the school themselves – giving them a base of skills as well as a school. Builders from Gando now work across the region, sought out for specialist skills such as welding, which has contributed to the local economy.

This collaborative process means that the community has a real sense of ownership, investment and pride in their school, and Kéré had a perfect test bed for the ‘building with and for the community’ ethic that has defined his work since. “It’s the basis of my work to push people to participate in a project,” he says, “to convince a community to work, to carry stone and rocks to make foundations, to make bricks, to make a school.”

Part of that is not to stand to one side as the architect from abroad, but to join the work and build trust. “If you had seen me” he told an interviewer for Pin-Up magazine, “in village clothes, you would have been surprised. I was so happy cutting woods with the workers, because I was trained as a carpenter. At the beginning, they were really surprised too. Suddenly they started to see me differently, because we are all makers.”

There isn’t enough architecture like this, in my opinion – truly participative projects that build skills and trust the community to deliver what they need themselves. It happens occasionally in the UK, like the church that built its own PassiveHouse church hall, or the Scottish village that commissioned their own school when the government wouldn’t fund one.

It’s stories like this one that inspire my involvement with social entreprise in Luton, especially the People’s Cafe, which is all about local people taking ownership of a derelict building and turning it into a community centre. The obstacles in the way of the project are formidable, and nobody expected a pandemic when we started. But if Gando can do it in Burkina Faso, we can do it in Luton.

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