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Burkino Faso Architect Returns Home to Rebuild His Country

Robin Pogrebin | Architectural Digest   in  ·
November 7, 2014

After earning his architecture degree at Berlin’s Technische Universität in 2004, Diébédo Francis Kéré could have comfortably stayed in Germany. He could have chosen to focus on skyscrapers, museums, and other attention-grabbing public buildings, the kinds of projects that attract the boldest headlines—and, typically, the biggest fees. But instead Kéré returned to Gando, a small town in the largely agrarian West African nation of Burkina Faso, where he grew up as the eldest son of the village chief and the only child in his family to attend school. And yet, unexpectedly, he has achieved renown for his innovative civic buildings there, which combine regional construction materials with 21st-century know-how and provide training and jobs for local laborers.

“It’s my duty to my people,” Kéré says. “Architecture has a social role to play. I wanted to start providing my community with infrastructure.”

Kéré began to lay the groundwork for his professional focus well before he finished his studies. Back in 1998 he established the charitable foundation Bricks for Gando to raise money for a primary school he envisioned for his hometown. “I started by asking my classmates to spend less money on coffee and cigarettes,” he jokes. A few years later, using donated funds, Kéré was able to construct the school—a campus comprising three classroom buildings arranged in a row, separated by outdoor antechambers for teaching and recreation. As with his subsequent projects in Burkina Faso, he employed indigenous materials, most notably clay, which he used to make thick walls, an ancient way to maintain cool interiors even in a climate where temperatures routinely top 100˚F. The buildings feature brick ceilings with long slits for ventilation and are topped by elegant floating roofs that allow rising hot air to circulate out of the interiors. In 2004 the school received a prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture and was cited by the jury as “a structure of grace, warmth, and sophistication, in sympathy with the local climate and culture,” while the design was further praised for its fusion of “the practical and the poetic.”

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