This architect is the first black winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize

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When Diébédo Francis Kéré was called up by the Pritzker Prize jury, which awarded him the highest honor of architecture, he was so overwhelmed that he lost his voice.

In the past, winners of the prestigious award were known for their high-profile buildings, art centers, exhibition spaces and skyscrapers. But Kéré, who is the first African and first black award recipient, is now internationally recognized for her schools, health clinics and homes.

“I came from a place where all of these were an urgent need,” Kéré said As it happens guest host Gillian Findlay.

“I had to leave my hometown when I was seven to go to school … and therefore I would instinctively start with the school building so that children from that community could stay home and learn A, B, C.”

Children pose in front of Kéré’s colorful Gando Primary School in Boulgou province, Burkina Faso, (Erik-Jan Owerkerk / Pritzker Prizes)

Kéré was born in 1965 in Gando, a remote village almost 200 kilometers away from the capital of Burkina Faso. He was the eldest son of the village chief and the first in his community to go to school.

“I was sitting with more than 100 other children and there was no light while the sunlight was so abundant and I wanted to one day make things better,” he said. “That’s how I started thinking about how to make schools that are really comfortable for the kids and the teachers, but also inspiring.”

He later won a scholarship to study woodwork in Germany, but switched to architecture at the Technical University of Berlin for better opportunities to bring his skills home.

He designed an elementary school for Gando as his final university project and raised the equivalent of $ 33,000 Cdn to build it in 2001. It won an Aga Khan Award in 2004.

Teenagers hang out outside the Burkina Institute of Technology, designed by Kéré, in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. (Francis Kéré / Pritzker Prize)

Kéré based Gando Primary School next to the warm and crowded classrooms he once sat in. He involved the whole village in the process to collect stones and water, which he used to make earth stones for the foundation. Then he made a perforated metal canopy and hung it up from above, like a flying roof, so that cool air could enter the building from the side windows, and hot air could be let out through the holes in the ceiling.

“The first school I built is like shaping what I was missing in my childhood,” he said. “You know it can be very hot and we would go to school without shoes. And that [the school] was a box made of cement, you know, with a little ventilation. ‘

“What I did was create to heal myself from that experience. To create beauty and comfort and, let me say luxury, for other children.”

Sarbalé Ke – which means ‘House of Celebration’ in the Bissa language of Burkina Faso – is an installation Kéré created for the Coachella Music and Arts Festival 2019. (Iwan Baan / Pritzker Awards)

Kéré says he was also inspired by other architects and companies when he received invitations to paid conferences and commissionssuch as a summer pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens that turned rainwater into circular waterfalls, as well as an installation at the Coachella Music Festival in 2019 showcasing colorful, ventilated cones similar to the baobab trees found in Madagascar, Australia and the African mainland.

Such commissions also supported his work to create naturally cooling architecture in Burkina Faso, from residential complexes to a surgical center and the National Assembly. He went on to design several buildings across the African continent, including in Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique and Sudan.

Mali National Park, designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré. (Francis Kéré / Pritzker Prize)

“I can see it gives hope,” he said. “Now I can say to many, many other young people: Believe in yourself. Try to use your abilities to earn.”

“It does not matter where you are. The Pritzker jury will find you. Whatever your skin color, believe in yourself and work hard.”

“Yes, I’m the first from the continent, from Africa, to win it. It’s a great honor, but it turns out at the same time Africa is coming. Africa is present.”

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Diébédo Francis Kéré produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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