His home village in Burkina Faso had neither electricity nor running water. But Diebedo Francis Kere’s father wanted to offer his eldest son a better future. He was the only of 13 siblings to be sent to school, at the age of 7.
That privilege, however, meant that Francis had to leave his village. Far from his family, he sat with more than 100 children in a dark and stuffy classroom that frequently overheated.
That’s when he started dreaming that he would one day build better schools with natural light and better air circulation.
Today, Francis Kere is one of the world’s elite architects and a leading voice in sustainable design.
In 2022, he became the first Black architect, and the first one from the African continent, to receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize — an award seen as the “Nobel Prize” of architecture.
Now the Japan Art Association honored him on Tuesday with the Praemium Imperiale for his life’s work.
From Gando to Berlin
Francis Kere, who was born in the small village of Gando in 1965, moved to Berlin as a young man thanks to a scholarship.
He first completed vocational training as a carpenter in the German capital before starting to study architecture at the Technical University in 1995.
While still a student, he completed his first major project, building a primary school out of clay in Gando — light and airy, just like the one he wished for as a child.
For his respectful use of resources and his environmental approach, he received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004, the first of many awards.
He almost didn’t return to university, but his professors convinced him to complete his studies.
In 2005, he founded his own office in Berlin, Kere Architecture.
He now has both German and Burkinabe citizenship.
His internationally acclaimed projects include the “Opera Village Africa” initiated by the late director Christoph Schlingensief.
Kere uses clay as a building material
With the construction of the elementary school in Gando, Kere demonstrated how the oldest but also most ecological building material in the world can be used in a more modern and resistant way.
Kere’s bricks are made of clay, which has been used in the Sahel region for centuries due to its temperature-regulating properties, and laterite, a soil type that has a rusty-red coloration due to its high iron oxide content. A little bit of cement is added to the slightly moistened earth that is pressed into bricks, which makes them strong and waterproof.
The building’s design is so clever that it does not need air conditioning to remain cool, working with natural air circulation instead. Kere also designs his buildings in harmony with the path of the sun, integrating natural shade into his concepts.
Higher quality despite fewer resources
“For a better future for all of us — not just in Africa, but for all of us on this planet — it is important to go back and actually only use materials that nature freely gives us and to stop overexploiting them,” Kere told DW while working on one of his latest construction projects in Senegal, the Goethe Institute in Dakar.
Dealing with the extreme temperatures is one of Kere’s key concerns. The roof of his building in Dakar is literally its crowning glory.
“Like the crown of a tree, this structure provides shade and protection. Here you can meet or simply relax,” he said at the presentation of the building project.
Community as a resource
Whether in Dakar or in the Republic of Benin, where he is currently building the new parliament, Kere’s approach follows traditional rules and is based on a holistic concept, largely involving local workers.
“Building is a big task and it requires many, many people to work together; people who also have a lot of experience and pass on their knowledge to the next generation,” said the architect. “That means it’s a community event, and I’ve integrated that idea into my projects.”
Remaining true to his first design, the village school in Gando, Kere is committed to architectural designs filled with air and light, which harness the local community’s energy and convey identity and pride. “Of course I want to create quality and comfort. But above all, I want the result to inspire people,” he said.
This is also the case in his current project, the Parliament of the Republic of Benin, which incorporates the traditional African “palaver tree” — which refers to the African custom of regularly meeting to build social ties and settle disputes without violence at a set location, often a tree. It stands for democratic values and cultural awareness.
The ‘Nobel Prize’ of the arts
The Praemium Imperiale is one of the most important arts prizes in the world.
The prestigious global arts award is given every year in five different fields — along with Kere’s prize in architecture, this year’s winners are Vija Celmins in painting, Olafur Eliasson in sculpture, Wynton Marsalis in music and Robert Wilson in theater/film.
Each prize is endowed with 15 million yen (€95,000, $102,000).
The Praemium Imperiale has been awarded annually since 1989 by the Japan Art Association. The Japanese imperial family created it to commemorate Prince Takamatsu, who died in 1987.
The award ceremony will take place in October in Tokyo.
Previous winners of the Praemium Imperiale include architects such as Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, director Martin Scorsese, photographer Cindy Sherman and German painter Georg Baselitz.
This article was originally written in German.