By Nii B. Andrews.
In 2017, Francis Kéré was praised for being ‘an alchemist working with local materials and technology to design buildings of meaning and beauty’ by the American Academy of Arts and Letters when it awarded him the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in architecture.
Yesterday, April 13, Kéré became the 2021 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in architecture.
In the last 20 years, he has completed renowned projects across four continents.
They include the Burkina Faso National Assembly in Ouagadougou; the Léo surgical clinic & health centre (2014) in Léo, Burkina Faso; IT university in Burkina Faso; the Lycée Schorge secondary school (2016) in Koudougou, Burkina Faso; the Serpentine pavilion (2017) in London; and Xylem (2019), a gathering pavilion for the Tippet Rise art center in Fishtail, Montana.
For all these projects, Kéré has maintained a strong communal approach to design and an unwavering commitment to sustainable materials and modes of construction.
Kéré designed the Tippet Rise project in the Beartooth Mountains so visitors can experience a “rain of light” as sunlight filters through a structure of vertically stacked logs.
It is a gathering place for contemplation constructed from Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine, two types of local timber.
Kéré explains, “The logs of the canopy are assembled in circular bundles supported by a modular hexagonal structure in weathering steel, lying on top of seven steel columns.
The upper surface of the canopy is carved in order to create a rounded topography that blends in with the surrounding hills.
At the same time massive and light, the roof is inspired by the ‘toguna’, the traditional sacred space in every Dogon village, a wooden and straw shelter designed in order to protect from the sun but at the same time to allow the ventilation of the shaded space underneath.”
In designing a new National Assembly building for the Republic of Benin in Porto Novo, Kéré drew on a local West African tree for inspiration.
The architect was influenced by the palaver tree, and ‘the age-old West African tradition of meeting under a tree to make consensual decisions in the interest of a community.’
The aim was for the new architecture to read as a symbol for democracy and the country’s culture. As a result the structure is divided in two distinct sections – the trunk-like lower part and the upper ‘crown’, which alludes to a tree’s foliage.
Kéré came to prominence in 2004 when he built the Gando primary school as his diploma project; the same year he also founded kéré architecture – his design practice in Berlin where he trained.
It was his first-ever building, but it won him the prestigious Aga Khan Award for architecture, on account of its innovative construction techniques and expressive care in craftsmanship; it was built communally by the Gando community in his native Burkina Faso.
His professional output has been socially engaged and ecologically resilient and thus celebrated with many awards, including the Global Award for sustainable architecture (2009), the Marcus Prize (2011) and the Prince Claus Laureate award (2017).
Kéré explains, “Architecture is at the service of humanity. Building a building is a team effort. When I raised the school from my village, I implored all the inhabitants.
Architecture is also emotion: what you transmit is with what you build. And it must be realistic: I use the materials that I have at hand, mud, and water, wood.”