4 projects to understand the dual identity of Francis Kéré

A selection of the most pioneering and incremental projects of the Burkinabe architect, mediator between two worlds as Africa and Europe and winner of the Pritzker Prize 2022.

This article was originally published on Domus 1069, June 2022.

Francis Kéré laid the foundations for his exceptional career in 2001 with the primary school building in Gando, the village where he was born in Burkina Faso. The project, which he developed during his studies at the Technische Universität in Berlin, garnered international attention as soon as it was completed, being immediately published and then winning the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004. In line with this first pioneering work, Kéré continued to focus on the design of numerous other buildings dedicated to education, health and culture, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The scale of his projects grew gradually, but in recent years they have managed to attain new dimensions with increasing momentum, not only in the size of the buildings themselves, but above all the significance they have acquired beyond their regional confines. At the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice, Kéré presented a project for a new National Assembly building in Ouagadougou: a pyramidal structure rising in the middle of a large public space and overlooking the capital of Burkina Faso. The aim of the proposal was to enable citizens to gather in front of the parliament and gain access to it via a large complex of open steps and terraced gardens. It is no coincidence that the design evokes the publicly accessible dome designed by Norman Foster surmounting the Reichstag in Berlin. In Ouagadougou, too, the purpose was to convey a strong signal of democracy


The idea for the architectural project emerged following the uprising that erupted in Burkina Faso in 2014. During the violent rioting, the building that housed the National Assembly at the time was set on fire, causing serious damage. Kéré’s design was intended to replace the old building and become the symbol of a new democratic renaissance. And above all, with its open structure, it was to mark a radical departure from the architectural heritage of the colonial period that is still clearly evident in Burkina Faso, particularly in its institutional and representative buildings. Subsequent political developments in Burkina Faso have meant that the project for the new National Assembly building in Ouagadougou has remained as yet unbuilt. However, along with his other concept for the Memorial Thomas Sankara (2017), it clearly indicates Kéré’s readiness as an architect to undertake a role of responsibility for his country’s reconstruction by creating symbols of a new identity, especially in the capital.

In the neighbouring nation of Benin, he has succeeded in producing an analogous project. In 2018 he won the competition to design the new parliament building in the capital Porto-Novo, now under construction. It will be the first such building on the continent to be designed and built by an African architect. In Porto-Novo, Kéré drew inspiration from the palaver tree, reproposing the ancient tradition of rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, which today as in the past gather in the shade of a majestic tree to make consensual communal decisions. The new institutional building thereby acquires an important function: to give the country a new sense of self-awareness.

Kéré’s success in Africa and increasingly on other continents, too, is closely bound up with his dual cultural identity. Born and raised in Burkina Faso, he still has a strong bond with the social fabric and traditions of his native country. But he also has close ties to Europe thanks to his schooling and university studies in Germany. In 2005 he went on to establish his architectural practice in Berlin, and since 2017 he has held a chair at the Technische Universität in Munich.


This twofold identity gives Kéré the capacity to mediate between these two worlds through his projects. Right from the construction of the primary school in Gando, Kéré set about transferring the widespread awareness in Europe of the need for sustainable architecture by applying it to the local conditions of life in the savannah, to which he is still deeply tied. For example, despite the initial scepticism of his native African community, as a building material he chose local clay, the cheapest and most environmentally friendly material available on site. Thanks to the success of the project, Kéré proceeded shortly afterwards to expand the structure with the addition of further classrooms, followed by accommodation for teachers.

Today the village of Gando has come to host an educational campus of interregional significance. From here another key principle of his work emerges: incremental design, allowing for the architectural extension of a functional component. Examples of this type of organic architectural expansion include the Opera Village initiated by Christoph Schlingensief in Laongo (with construction beginning in 2010) with two school buildings and spaces used as workshops as well as 16 other completed buildings, followed by the adjoining Centre for Health and Social Welfare (2014), and the Surgical Clinic and Health Centre in Léo (2014). The educational campus in Koudougou, where work began in 2014 with the construction of the Lycée Schorge Secondary School, was expanded in 2020 by incorporating the Burkina Institute of Technology. All these projects have a common denominator: they are educational, cultural or health complexes directly serving communities in a country where such provision is direly inadequate.


In designing these facilities, some of them very complex, Kéré Architecture has developed a special strategic expertise. This involves a cheaper and more sustainable architectural model that makes a purposeful and intelligent use of local building materials such as clay and laterite brick as well as local building workers, while also remaining highly ambitious in terms of structures and design. By organising his projects in this way, Kéré seeks to ensure that the funds raised for their construction are returned to the local economy, while also inserting the activities and management of schools and hospitals into the state system. With the construction of similar facilities such as the more recent Startup Lions Campus in Turkana (2021), the SKF-RTL Children Learning Centre in the village of Nyang’oma Kogelo (2020), both in Kenya, and the Kamwokya Community Playground in Kampala, Uganda, to be completed in 2022, Kéré Architecture shows that projects built in Burkina Faso and other sub-Saharan regions can be successfully adopted in other parts of Africa.

The prominence gained by his projects in sub-Saharan Africa has made Kéré an example for a new generation of architects in Africa that includes Mariam Kamara in Niger, among others. With the ongoing construction of the Goethe-Institut in Dakar, Senegal, Kéré Architecture has taken a further step forward. The worldwide branches of this German cultural association are mainly financed by the Federal Foreign Office and serve as a platform for the study of the German language and the promotion of international cultural exchange, rather than the dissemination of German culture per se. The institute’s Dakar building is the first Goethe-Institut to be purpose-built, and in this case also designed by an African architect.

Many African states have long been searching for ways to overcome the trauma and consequences of colonialism and counter the trends of a new economic colonisation. In this sense, Kéré’s contribution to Dakar is very important. A cultural dialogue is given expression right from its architectural manifestation, demonstrating that it is possible to conceive a new postcolonial architecture through dialogue. Apart from designing and erecting buildings, in recent years Kéré has become increasingly well known around the world for the design of pavilions, exhibitions and museum installations.


At the presentation of the “Restoring Family Links” section of the permanent exhibition titled “The Humanitarian Adventure” at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, in 2012 Kéré Architecture showed that it was already exploring ways of representing complex social issues in spatial structures. In 2014, the interactive Sensing Spaces installation at the Royal Academy of Arts in London was notable for its strongly dynamic and chromatic qualities, capable of creating a powerful sculptural effect. It was developed further in 2016 for his Colorscape installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition “Francis Kéré. Radically Simple” (2016- 2017), at the Architekturmuseum in the Pinakothek der Moderne of the Technical University of Munich, offered the first overview of Kéré’s early creative period.

It was also the first attempt to present a retrospective of his work in which the architecture of the exhibition spaces was designed by the architect himself. And the Serpentine Pavilion in 2017 was an example of how Kéré has translated the metaphor of the palaver tree as an African community gathering place into a European context.

The award of the Pritzker Prize to Francis Kéré in 2022 is a historic event. The fact that this honour has been bestowed for the first time on an architect born in Africa and active there for over two decades, producing social and sustainable work, is proof of the exceptional architectural evolution underway on the African continent in search of a postcolonial identity. At the same time, the award is recognition of Kéré’s distinctive approach, based on his dual cultural identity, in developing new design strategies, effective not only in sub-Saharan countries but also in other regions.

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