Francis Kéré and Michael Bierut

It began with an email in winter 2011 from Michael Bierut–partner at Pentagram and board member of the Architectural League–to League Program Director Anne Rieselbach. “Just saw this guy speak in Cape Town,” he wrote of Diébédo Francis Kéré. “His story and his work are absolutely compelling. You have to get him to New York.” At the time, Kéré’s primary school in his home village of Gando, Burkina Faso, was one of the stand-out projects in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement. It would take nearly a year before schedules would align, but on February 9, 2012, the Architectural League hosted a Current Work lecture by Francis Kéré in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, co-sponsored by Cooper Union’s Institute for Sustainable Design. 

Born and raised in Gando, Kéré began his career studying carpentry in Burkina Faso before receiving a scholarship to attend the Technische Universität Berlin, where he graduated with a degree in architecture. He has since gained international recognition for a body of work that is deeply inspired by local traditions and materials, and which involves to the degree possible the local community in fabrication and building.

Kéré received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 for his primary school in Gando. He has since designed and worked with his village to build several related projects, including an extension to the primary school, teachers’ housing, a public library, and a secondary school, which itself recently won the Global Holcim Awards Gold 2012. In addition to his work in Gando, his office also has projects in Switzerland, India, and China.

On the morning after his lecture, Michael Bierut sat down with Kéré in a conference room at Pentagram for a conversation about Kéré’s projects, social design, and leadership.

Michael Bierut:
I remember when I saw your lecture in Cape Town, you began your talk there similarly to the way it began last night. You said something like, “Where I’m from, if you build a wall that stands up through the rainy season, that’s architecture.”

Francis Kéré: Yes! People are happy! People just enjoy it! People say, “Wow! Look at it! It’s straight and it’s standing in the rainy season!” And people just come to see how it works. That is it. So you can give things to people, and that is what you can do with architecture. People really, really appreciate it.

MB: When you described your childhood in Gando, you showed that vivid picture of you in the old school house with a hundred kids, all trying to learn in the heat of the poorly ventilated school room. Was there a moment there when you realized that you wanted to become an architect? How did that idea come into your head? It didn’t happen to the kid on your left or the kid on your right–it was you. Why?

FK: I think at that time, I wanted to make things better. So simply to create spaces where people can stay and learn. Enjoy sitting, being in the place. That is one point, but the most important point in my life is when I left my parents when I was seven years old to be able to attend primary education. I went to the city and I was living by relatives and I had to work hard. Very hard. One part of this working was about making repairs to housing. So my part was to bring stone from far away, which would be used to repair the houses. And it was hard. And in my mind, I was thinking to change all of that one day, to make better buildings so that nobody will suffer making repairs and to create buildings where it is good to stay, you know? That is what motivated me.

MB: What led you to study in Germany as opposed to other places you may have gone?

FK: I came to Germany through a scholarship. Without the scholarship, I would never be able to go. I went to Germany to be trained to develop my work in wood, the pattern of wood, for carpentry. But there is no wood in Burkina Faso–there’s nothing! But it was a door to another world, so I just took it and went to Germany.

MB: Did you have expectations about what it would be like?

FK: No…(laughs)

MB: Did you have any idea what it would be like?

FK: No. I didn’t understand a single word in German. I went there, but I knew from school [in Gando] that Germany was a well-developed country. This was a leading economy in Europe. And I knew that they make good tools, and I was always connected to making. I wanted to discover, and I didn’t care what would happen. I knew that it was cold in Germany, but, you know, I got this chance to leave my community to learn from another community. That was important. In Burkina Faso you have to know there is not enough school–even today! So, that is it. My expectation was not that high; I was open to…I sought whatever will come to me.

MB: You showed pictures of some Western style buildings in Gando, in Burkina Faso. When you got to Europe, were there buildings that you saw and thought, “Ah! That’s architecture”?

FK: Not that much. At the beginning I was interested in techniques. How to fix things; how to get things fixed and work together, you know? Where is the material coming from? So after two years studying, I started to travel out of Berlin to discover, where are the bricks coming from? One time my colleague was travelling to Versailles, in France, to see the castle, the big garden. There is no place in Gando to put something like this and not the money. And another time someone was going to New York. I would say, “Oh, great!” But there is no money to go there. So I keep on learning techniques–engineering, how things can work and how you can choose all the materials. How can you translate what I am seeing [in Europe] for my community, using local materials? That was what I was interested in. Later, you get in touch with literature, documentation…you learn about pioneers, somebody like Le Corbusier, and you say, “Oh! Too much money for concrete. Too much reading…who will read this in Gando because nobody will be able to read it!” So you know what I mean: this is my way to look at the Western world. But then I discover somebody like Louis Kahn, who really, really inspired me because of his way of making. I am interested in the way things have been made. That is what I discovered in the Western world and what I was trained to understand and to translate for my people.

MB: Last night, someone asked a question and I sensed that there was some surprise on their part that your work has so much precision and engineering elegance. A lot of times when you think about vernacular work, it has a rustic quality that feels kind of purposely rough and hand-made. But it seems you have a real drive to push people, to see how perfect can you make that arch, how straight can you make that wall. And that must mean something above and beyond just making it straight or perfect–it’s expressing something larger for you, I’m guessing, right?

Yeah. We try to make the best all the time. When you do something that is not able to evoke emotion, you will not win the people. And that’s what I’m trying to do. They use primitive tools, but with heart, to try to figure out: How can I make it better? How can I make it with that? How can I get the best result, but with primitive tools and how would it work?

MB: Another thing that I think struck people during your talk was your example of when you went to Mali to work on the national park there and the time you spent going to the markets to see what materials were there, what was available. That and observing and listening, too. That’s obviously important to your way of doing architecture; do you think that’s important to architecture in general?

FK: It depends. It depends on the place, it depends on the client, to give you the opportunity to check out what is available. What can I do different and not to go this way of making the drawings and then you hire constructors and you say, “This is this kind of wood I want to have.” I think today for architecture, we must have the courage to say, “No! I will go to the market. I will try to figure out what is available in New York, what is easy to get. And how can I use it the best?” This will help us to do something that is different, but it’s working. Even in New York.

MB: Absolutely. I’m jumping around a little bit here, but there were a number of times when you talked about music in different ways. Could you talk about music in your work?

FK: Music is great. Really. When you are in Africa, and you look at how the tradition is managed, you will be surprised. First, when we have a certain kind of work, we have a drummer. You see him beating, and you say, “Okay.” But you will be surprised, because then some people come with specific tools to the building site…because [the drummer] is calling the people! And the people understand what they have to do; they’re coming with the special tools. And then he keeps beating, beating, and you see the people coming like that. And at a certain stage, you see they’re well organized, and they’re really ready to start. And when they start, the music changes. And it is what pushes them, you know? It is a collective experience; it’s bringing them together. You may say that they become like one voice. If there’s a reason, it is the beat. I cannot explain it, you know? When you are in Gando, and you see what happens with music, what music can do, and how you can introduce this to what I’m doing, to push the people to work very hard. This beating–it is so powerful! So like [beating the table with his hand], “Uh! Uh! Uh!” The women are singing and hours and hours. You stand and say, “Wow!” And I got energy from this. That is what music can do. And it is not easy to explain it in a lecture; you make it short, because you think, “I’m going to bore these people….”

MB: (laughs) No, it was very vivid. And you said that in fact you sometimes feel you’re not acting as an architect, but like an orchestra director in a way.

FK: Yeah, yeah.

MB: And even the pictures you show, they look like that.

FK: Most of the time, I feel like that. I was in the village last week, I was in Gando. You see that it has a deformation [pointing to his right index finger]. It’s because I draw, draw, draw [mimicking drawing in the sand]; that is what I’m doing. It’s like, you have to be quick, you have to be fast, to keep the people doing something, because they’re so full of energy, and they’re excited to see what will happen. “This Francis, he wants that.” We’ll talk about it, we’ll show something and they say, “Oh, that is great! Let’s do it!” So I have to run and manage all these things and it gives you energy; it keeps you running, running!

MB: Do they think of you as an architect or are you something else?

FK: You know, I was surprised because a journalist asked the children what they were going to be [when they grew up]–what is their vocation? And some was saying to the journalist, “We’re going to be Francis.” (laughs) So that’s what I’m doing: it’s Francis. “What he is doing, we want to go to do that.” I was really, really surprised.

MB: That’s fantastic! It must have been very moving actually to hear that. Last night you were saying that you’re now doing projects all over the place now.

FK: Not all over, but almost. The techniques that are taught to my people, they are on the way to spread them in Burkina Faso and in the neighboring countries. And I have, of course, a little project in Geneva, which gives me money to feed the office–you have to have that. I have an exciting project in China. I am getting experience in China–labor, traditional knowledge, how they make it, working with the mass, and even politics. It’s a good experience I’m getting in Zhou Shan with an architect called Wang Shu. And yeah, in some cities in Africa I am asked to do prestigious projects like the park in Bamako. I am surprised! But I am happy about it. It’s good!

MB: I can tell that no matter what happens, you’ll always return to Burkina Faso and to Gando to keep working there, right?

FK: Yes! I do those projects to earn money. I need it. I have [an office] I have to keep, and I have to keep the projects going on in Gando. You need money for that; that is the fact. But, Gando is…is here (patting chest). It is exciting. Before Christmas, even your ambassador was there and he was impressed. He’s the new U.S. ambassador [to Burkino Faso], and he was in Gando. And I was there and they said to me, “We have to tell you that the American ambassador is coming to Gando to visit the school.” And he was there. And he was speaking, speaking, asking, checking…you will not recognize the politician. He was looking, and it is getting dark, and dark. People are coming because they heard about the project, because he said, “This is the example we’re looking for. This is how you can change the life condition in Africa.” And all this gives me power; it proves to me that the way is right. Keep on doing it.

MB: And I would think that when you lead a community in a building project, like you say, those buildings aren’t getting built because of the drawings, or just because of the drawings; it’s because of your ability to inspire people who don’t think of themselves as builders–and certainly don’t think of themselves as architects–just for [the chance] to participate in making the thing, right? I don’t think one of the people there would say, “We’re so lucky that Francis Kéré built these buildings for us.” They’d say, “Look at this thing we’ve built.” Right?

Yes. When these people–who in the past had fear when somebody from the government camp came around–now, they go take him by the hand and say, “Look at how we made it!” When the ambassador was there, it was the same! Everybody was fighting to explain it, [even though] I was there, you know? (laughs) And then I explain it to him, and when I start to speak English, the people were, “Oh! He’s also speaking the language of these guys,” And then the [school] director came and tried to explain; it was fantastic. The people are saying, “This is our work. We made it!”

MB: Which is a really unusual thing. There’s this big movement that goes all the way down to product design, graphic design, this thing called service design, which is very big in the UK, that has to do with the way that service is provided. All those are wrapped up in this thing called “co-design,” which means that you can see the design process not as something you do unilaterally in a situation, but you do it kind of “with the community.” But a lot of times, what that means is a big bunch of people putting their ideas up on the wall on everything. Like community design charrettes. What I admire about what you do is that you’re able to use your own skill and intelligence and experience to elevate that process without making it seem like it’s being imposed on people, so they can look at an arch that stays up, and a wall that doesn’t go down in the rain, and they say, “We built this.” But it’s not because there is some session with whiteboards and post-it notes and bullshit like that. (Laughs) It’s a real path forward. Designers and architects really do think they know how to do something, but they can tell the limitations to what they are able to do. They want to help and they don’t have the language or the methodology to do it. You are an example of someone who does.

FK: Thank you. And, in my own world, what I have discovered is, talking with the people makes the project…better. And stronger. And because you know that it will carry the reflection of different people. I think that is why my buildings are being really appreciated by the people–because they see it, it is their idea. You discover that the community own it, the people own it. That this is only possible because you open the field for the discussion so that everybody put his little part in. I think that is why they love the building and in Burkina Faso, it’s a movement now. It’s a big, big movement. They let me speak sometime on television. I don’t put pressure on the fact that we work with the people, because this is just how we do it. I don’t need to explain: we need these people!  So they came and they’re part of it. So it’s getting more important in Burkina Faso to do this kind of work.

MB: A lot of designers talk about their projects like you do, about opening up the process and listening to the people, but they don’t always get the same results. I think a weird thing happens, a kind of passive aggressive thing, where the architect in his or her heart is secretly unwilling to give up control. And they listen only to the degree that they can kind of always check in their head–“I want to do that, I don’t want to do that, I have to figure out a way to make this person happy without letting that person mess up what I want to do.” It’s just this kind of negotiation that happens. I’ve talked to architects that are outright dismissive about this process. They can be very, very diplomatic, where they sort of say all the right things, but basically when the door’s closed, they’ll go and do what they wanted to do anyway, so they haven’t really been listening and they don’t really lead. What you’re doing isn’t that just that you’re listening, it’s that ability to lead….

FK: I don’t listen and then go [do what I want]. We make a decision and we say: okay, this is what we have to reach. With this and this and this means. This is the direction, so try. And then we have to change the drawing. When somebody new starts in the office and they see the project of Gando, they’re surprised that they’re able to ask a question and [change the design], even if they’re new. Sometimes when you work on the project and you keep fighting, “This is mine! This is mine! This is mine!” You forget a lot of things because you just see this. You’re not open for ideas. And that’s why you cannot win a community.  You cannot have a project where everybody says, “This is mine.”

MB: In contrast to a typical American building project, that’s managed and engineered. My fear is that people will encounter this and think “Ah, this is just third world, rural handicraft, brought on by necessity and deprivation.”  But the principles you’re talking about you could do in the most highly developed country in the world and they would have some value. There are projects I’ve worked on that actually had opportunities to be improved along the way because someone who’s contributing to it would have a better idea about how to accomplish a certain thing.  But I’ll say, “No, that’s been agreed already—that’s already gone out to bid, it can’t be changed.” There’s a kind of rigidity to all that stuff, this idea that efficiency demands that, doesn’t permit that. It’s really interesting. There are lessons for all sorts of things, not just about social design, but that building a corporate skyscraper in New York could be transformed in the same way. And the metaphor of the orchestra conductor is interesting too, because, if you look at what an orchestra conductor does–the violinist or the oboe player, or the drummer, you can hear what their doing, you can see it takes skill, and the baton doesn’t seem to require that much technique to deploy, but it’s key to the whole thing.  And the conductor is listening and reacting to what’s happening in real time. Working with the skills that are there. If you know you have a strong player who can do this, that changes how you do the performance.

FK: That is what we’re trying to do with listening, but let the people do and learn from them. Especially for making it, when you describe to them which tactics to use, you know they will come with better techniques. And they will surprise you. You have to be able to let go, in order to be able to learn.  And you will learn.

Podcast, Francis Kéré 2012 Current Work lecture

Further Reading
Francis Kéré Architecture
Francis Kéré at Design Indaba 2011
Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement

Condensed and edited by Gregory Wessner from a conversation between Michael Bierut and Frances Kéré on February 10, 2012. Project images courtesy of Francis Kéré Architecture. All rights reserved. Interview photos: Gregory Wessner.