Francis Kéré in Mali

In the design of service structures for the National Park of Mali and the visitors' centre at the Great Mosque of Mopti, Diébédo Francis Kéré mediates between notions of technology and vernacular tradition.


Architecture / Caroline James

In Dogon country, boulders are like dusty play blocks scattered over an immense scale. Even the baobab fails to give us a sense of place or proportion. It is hard to imagine how one enormous tree has witnessed millennia of human industry and survival. The vast Bandiagara escarpment stretching 150 kilometres in a diagonal cut across Southern Mali does little to comfort us under the unfathomable works of nature. Relief comes from high above: sandstone cliffs reaching as high as 500 metres are punctured with round structures built with mud and stone. They, too, would be scaleless were it not for the windows cut out at shoulder height to let light in and frame a view of the outside.

Last January, I accompanied the architect Diébédo Francis Kéré and a few colleagues to Dogon country, near the border with Kéré's native Burkina Faso. We met up in Mopti to discuss two recent projects commissioned by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to mark the 50th anniversary of Mali's independence from France. One is the visitor's facility at the Great Mosque of Mopti, a public space for the display of Mali's vernacular mud architecture. The building was completed following the 2006 renovation of the adjacent mosque. During the 14th century, the expansion of Islam in Mali led to the creation of adobe brick mosques with elaborate mud turrets. An internal wood lattice structure doubles as a scaffold system for the annual re-application of mud. The second project is the National Park of Mali set in the capital of Bamako, representing one of the most important civic projects ever to take shape in West Africa.

The first time I met Kéré was in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, curated by Andres Lepik, which featured Kéré's masterful 2001 Gando Primary School. Here in Dogon country, our afternoon spent conversing together reframed my understanding of Kéré's attitude towards architecture as a complex mediation between technology and the vernacular. It was Kéré's first visit to Dogon country, an area populated by a people who arrived here in the early 15th century. The location of their original homeland is unclear, although one oral tradition places it in present-day Burkina Faso. As Kéré observed, "Dogon country is a very special place. The landscape is not something nice and domestic like it is at home in Europe. In Dogon country it is spectacular. When you're there, you think about the architect, and then you think about what nature is able to do."

Top image: The park restaurant is situated on a rocky outcrop. A large metal roof, supported by a metal structural system, shelters four different blocks, each serving a different purpose. Above: The sports centre comprises three constructions facing an open-sky courtyard. Kéré designed a large overhanging roof in order to give the inner piazza the greatest possible amount of shade.

Massive baobab trees grow at a distance from one another, since their massive roots need space. These trees have textured bands where the Dogon cut away part of the bark for medicinal and ritual purposes, and the bands form a pattern across all the baobabs. While walking along the savannah plain set between two sheer cliffs fringed with Dogon villages, Kéré commented how the array of baobab trees resembles architecture. "You have a single element, when you see these beautiful trees," Kéré reflected. "One baobab is solitary—it's like a single note. With many trees, you have a rhythm. You need repetition, but also different notes. The space in between the trees is so great. It's architecture."

Kéré clad the three park pavilions with local stone slabs. In this way he curbed costs and reinforced ties with local material traditions.

The "in-between" space of the baobabs is a concept carried into Kéré's Gando Primary School, and again mirrored in his aspirations at the National Park of Mali. For the urban park, the Aga Khan Foundation commissioned Kéré to design the entrance pavilions, a restaurant and a sports complex. In partnership with Mali's government, the foundation converted the remains of a French colonial-era botanical garden into an immense park for strolling, relaxation and exercise. The rational stone walls of the sports complex also form the "in-between" space, an enclave where people can interact, take refuge and retreat from the bustle of urban Bamako.

Kéré has the delicate task of fusing design with national identity, vision and reality.

The entrance to the sports centre. Kéré’s architecture is expressed in buildings with a two-fold spirit: the compact base is topped with a seemingly light metal roof, with air flowing in between these two elements to provide natural ventilation.

Kéré asserts: "For me, the outside space was the most important— the space in the middle of the park. For the sports centre, it is a special area that is open but also closed. The walls give intimacy to the space where you do the sport."

Kéré designed the entrance pavilions, the restaurant and sports complex with a similar pattern. A base clad with vertical bands of stone is then capped with a steel-truss roof. The roof functions as a shading device and directs rainwater, while also allowing natural ventilation in all spaces except the restaurant, where the client insisted on installing air conditioning.

Francis Kéré points to a Dogon construction, wedged into the rocky clefts of the Bandiagara cliffs.

Kéré's aim was not simply to recast the vernacular, nor impersonate the modern aesthetic through building with local materials. Instead, his project is marked by the search for a tectonic rationalism. Kéré creates an architecture of lightness by doubling the number of members in each truss in order to make finer, more delicate parts. The steel-truss roof appears to float away from the base, a tectonic trait of Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "They were using local stone for the pavement, and I suggested using it for the walls," explains Kéré talking about the facades. "But they said it wasn't possible. Usually they cut the stone in a natural way. Instead I told them to make it rational, not decorative. So in the end they cut stones in different sizes to make a kind of repetition." The horizontal bands of stone create patterns that contrast with the upward force of the roofs.

The Mopti visitors’ centre was built after the restoration of the Komoguel Mosque in 2006.

Kéré notes that Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn were the architects who had the greatest influence on his development, which explains his mediation between technology (innovation) and tradition (the vernacular). This balanced approach is difficult in Africa, where projects tend to carry either a primitive aesthetic or a high-tech curtain wall to mirror the Western notion of progress.

The Mopti visitors’ centre.

In contrast to Kéré's complete control over the building process in the Gando Primary School, the park buildings followed a different design path. The fabrication of the truss roof was the most problematic aspect. Although Kéré produced a prototype in Burkina Faso to demonstrate the feasibility of making the roof on site, the Aga Khan had it fabricated in Turkey since local engineers could not be found. Kéré wishes to bring technical prowess to Mali that can be achieved by the local people, yet such incremental advancement is at odds with the client's aspirations to produce a powerful symbol of progress.

The interior walls and vaults were built with compressed earth bricks.

Kéré stands apart in a world where architecture is sometimes viewed as an interchangeable product, and the architect as producer. In early discussions regarding the design of the Mopti project, Roberto Fabbro of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture asked Kéré to come up with a building similar to Gando. Kéré answered, "I am not a supermarket." He is instead a process-based architect, applying a different tactic in response to each new condition.

He built the centre, as in Gando, with bricks stabilised by earth and five per cent concrete, and built a similar truss roof. For the interior, meanwhile, his design features innovative shallow vaulting between the steel members.

The Mopti visitors’ centre.

Kéré lies between various worlds—one morning he wakes up in developed, globalised Germany, the next day he can be in Burkina Faso, and then in Mali, with clients who wish to design for the future. As an architect, Kéré has the delicate task of fusing design with national identity, vision and reality.
Caroline James,

The Mopti visitors’ centre.

Design Architects: Kéré Architecture

Project Team: Isabelle McKinnon, Claudia Buhmann, Olivier Gondouin, Emanuela Smiglak, Ines Bergdolt
Structural engineering: Birad Sarl, SAMKO
Construction supervision: Kéré Architecture, AKTC (Roberto Fabbro, Senda Ben Jaafar, Souleymane Diallo, Manuel Mora Sánchez)
Landscape design: Planning Partners, SA

Client: AKTC
Built area: 3,000 m2
Cost: €1.7 Million
Construction time: 11/2009–09/2010

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