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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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 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