Clay-bound utopia

Gando is the experimental architectural workshop of Diébédo Francis Kéré, who was born here and returns each year to share with his people the ideas that he learns elsewhere. His African buildings interpret this knowledge in order to advance his home community, whose culture is profoundly rooted in the local landscape.


Architecture / Jeanette Kunsmann

This article was originally published in Domus 962 October 2012

It's been more than ten years since Diébédo Francis Kéré built his first school in Burkina Faso. In 1998 the architect planned a climate friendly clay school building in his home village of Gando, 200 kilometres west of the capital of Ouagadougou. It was finally built in 2001 with the help of villagers and the foundation Schulbausteine für Gando ("School Building Blocks for Gando"), which he established specifically for this purpose.

Until then many had looked down on his work with condescension. But the clay building was still standing after the first rainy season and further buildings followed — a school extension, residential buildings for teachers and an infirmary, and soon the library and women's centre will be completed too. The award-winning architect is currently constructing his largest clay building to date, in the form of a high school for more than 1,200 students, which will be made of wall panels prefabricated from clay and concrete. The village of Gando is his building site, and in his architecture, Kéré combines what he has seen in Europe with what he finds in Africa.

Kéré's biography reads like something straight from the movies. As a boy, the now successful architect lived with a foster family in the provincial capital of Tenkodogo, where he went to school during the week. His weekends, meanwhile, were spent mending rain-damaged clay houses. "I obtained building materials for the houses of my foster family," he remembers. "I got gravel, sand and clay in particular, because after every rainy season the buildings needed to be repaired. During this work, I decided I wanted to build better houses one day."

Kéré travelled to Germany with a scholarship in the early 1990s. After his first stop in Munich, he caught up on his high school exams at an evening school in Berlin. Going on to study architecture in 1995 at Berlin's Technical University, while still a student he set up the Schulbausteine für Gando association in 1998. The first school he completed three years later in Gando won him the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Islamic equivalent of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

"My goal was to collect knowledge in Germany for my fellow countrymen. When I implemented my first construction project in Burkina Faso alongside my university designs, nobody in Berlin believed me," Kéré says. "In 2000 I started collecting money for the project's realisation. One year later the building was finished. Many don't know that I only graduated in 2004."

Top and above: The Gando campus library acts as a hinge between the elementary school and its extension. The effect of fragmented light is achieved by inserting handmade bottomless terracotta pots into the roof slab. The latter is then protected by a second roofing in translucent polycarbonate

After his decision to not return to Burkina Faso, Kéré's architecture studio in Berlin became his control centre. "This is where I have access to information, communication and technology, and it is also how I maintain a presence as an architect in Europe." For Kéré it is important to be able to teach the people in his home country something that they can use themselves — he does not want to simply drop prefabricated architecture from Europe into Africa. "That would have been the wrong approach. I found ideas in Europe, but then I had to find my own way," Kéré says. "At that time in Germany there was only Gernot Minke from Kassel who dealt with clay; he was known as the "king of clay". But since his construction method doesn't work for my region, I conducted my own studies. I drove through Brandenburg to research how they produced bricks there. They gave me lots of ideas and tips at a brickworks in Blindow, near Potsdam. There I not only learnt how to make bricks, but also dry, fire, store, transport and process them."

Back in Africa, for his first school building he developed a central concept that would run through his entire portfolio. Rather than working against the climate, Kéré works with it. He creates natural ventilation by moving the wind through the building: air blows in through tall openings in the façade, while small openings in the ceiling allow the hotter air to escape outside. The result is a continuous exchange of air that makes spending time in the classrooms a pleasant experience.

A chain of people help to build the outer walls of the high school designed by Kéré for the village of Gando in Burkina Faso. The project will provide 12 classrooms divided over 5 pavilions, plus an auditorium and a number of service buildings

The success of the first school building paved the way for the subsequent projects. Originally designed for a maximum of 120 students, after just two years the school in Gando was welcoming more than 300 lively children learning and playing on its grounds. Kéré promptly set to work on an extension. Today there are 540 children attending the elementary school and a further 300 at the high school which is currently in the first phase of construction, many of whom come from outside the area. First of all, however, there was an urgent need to build accommodation for the teachers so they could live on the school grounds. "Most of them wanted to live in the town because they had electricity, running water and a better food supply there. But a big problem with this situation was that all the teachers were always late for school," explains the architect.

Kéré adopted a different formal vocabulary for the teachers' housing, as residential buildings require a different aesthetic from public buildings such as schools. "We experimented with barrel roofs on these houses, and we're curious to see whether the locals will accept them, and, ideally, reproduce them. They're popularly known as "the Gando fridges". Today none of the teachers live in the town. They are happy in the village."

Rather than working against the climate, Kéré works with it. He creates natural ventilation by moving the wind through the building

The Burkina-born architect had always built his earlier projects with bricks made from local clay. But for this high school he has changed his construction method: he treats clay here as concrete cast on the spot. He then adds gravel, cement, sand and lime, cast in reusable metal forms

Francis Kéré has integrated a new design element into the clay construction for the library, which is an essential addition as very few students can afford their own books. He used bottomless round clay pots of different sizes and incorporated them into the roof. Fresh air and indirect light enter the rooms through the pots in the ceiling, creating kaleidoscopic patterns of light that move across the floor and the walls. A second roof made of translucent corrugated polycarbonate is laid above the first in order to protect the building from the extreme direct sunlight and, during the rainy season, from water damage. "The building is a place for reading, a space where we store books," Kéré explains, "and it acts as a link between the first two school buildings."

In addition to the schools and teachers' residential buildings, new wells and a first-aid station have also been built in the village in recent years. These structures will now be crowned with a very special oasis: in 2014 the village will receive a high school — in a country where the illiteracy rate is above 70 per cent. The first wall elements are currently wrapped in black plastic sheeting so as to protect the clay from rain before the roof is installed.

A view of the secondary school, currently under construction

Based on the structure of homesteads in the surrounding area, an exterior freestanding wall offers protection from the open landscape. Since the desert sand blows in from the northeast, the school compound, like all the other rural homesteads in Burkina Faso, is oriented towards the west. The ensemble consists of 12 classrooms, a round building for the assembly hall, a residential building for teachers and a utility building. The plans include islands between the classrooms where students can meet to learn and play, and small niches designed as places of retreat, while shade is provided by lamellae made of eucalyptus branches arranged in the shape of a fan. "This shaped landscape protects the buildings from wind and dust. Underneath the ground, air is brought in via ducts to cool the rooms," Kéré explains with pride.

The new high-school building exhibits some crucial differences compared to Kéré's previous buildings. For example, this time the architect is building in clay-like concrete. "We're not laying bricks anymore; we're just casting," Kéré declares. "The clay doesn't have to be sieved anymore either. We add gravel, cement, sand and lime to the clay that comes out of the pit. This makes it more compact and saves working steps thanks to a simple process. In the end we didn't even have to indicate the wall thicknesses on the plans, because the local people knew better what had to be done."

The building that started the Gando campus is an elementary school (not shown). Completed in 2001, it immediately needed to be enlarged; above: the new extension. This construction has a double roof: a barrelvaulted brick slab and a metal overhang, whose ramified structure suggests that of a tree

Another significant difference in the new building is its ventilation system. The fresh air drawn inside via underground ducts first passes through grass and small shrubs planted in front of the duct's ground opening, thus filtering out the savannah dust. "The outside air is extremely hot in Burkina Faso, around 45 degrees Celsius. In the ground the air is cooled to around 35 degrees, which is a significant relief for the local people," Kéré explains. This natural air-conditioning system also makes use of groundwater, which is pumped up by a wind turbine and flows through the channels dug into the landscape around the buildings. In this way, the water primarily used for irrigation also helps to cool and ventilate the building as it evaporates upon contact with the air in the ducts. The temperature of the air is thus lowered by a few degrees with this ancient form of natural air conditioning known as "evaporative cooling".

In addition, clay jugs have been installed in the banks of earth. These can either be filled with collected rainwater or, during the dry season, with water from deep wells. Thanks to small holes in the jugs and the porosity of the material, water is released drop by drop and finds its way into the air channels. "The clay jugs sweat on their own, as it were," Kéré explains. "The water cools down in the jugs and trickles into the ground. The coolness resulting from the evaporation can then be channelled into the rooms." It could be considered as an African counterpart to Western underfloor heating.

A view of the interior of the Gando campus library

Planting the grounds with greenery is also an important part of the project, with the aim of counteracting the savannah's desertification caused by excessive logging. With the help of the irrigation system, the school campus is to become a green oasis where plants and mango trees grow. "Thanks to the drip technology the plants don't need watering every day; the containers merely have to be topped up once a week. A wind pump has been planned to pump water from the well, which is 50 metres deep, and channel it to the cooling pipes." The system is also easy to manage. "The people of Gando aren't forced to wait for specialists if there is a problem with the system. This is often a problem in well-intended development projects. Nobody is able to service the installed system, let alone repair it," says the architect. "Our system runs on its own. It's sustainable!"

In Gando, Kéré has also built six cottages with barrel roofs to accommodate the teaching staff and their families. Standing in a crescent on the south boundary of the school premises, their walls are 40 cm thick and composed of earth blocks erected on stone foundations

In his village of Gando, Francis Kéré is not building a perfect world, but a better world. The fear of failure is big, because in Africa one is quickly ridiculed. "I have a big responsibility. If I fail here, nobody from my culture will ever do anything so big for this community again. I can't just try something, say it works and then go away again, as many Europeans do."

The remote village of Gando has changed a lot in the past ten years. The elementary school has become the region's educational and examination centre. Football tournaments, championships and other events are held in the village. Kéré is currently building a further project set away from the schools: a women's centre. Here the intention is for women to meet and talk while learning to read and write. The office of the local women's cooperative will also be housed in this clay building. The architect is particularly proud of this project: "It's going to be a palace," he says. "This is my favourite project because it's for the women!"Jeanette Kunsmann, architecture journalist