After his studies Diébédo Francis Kéré founded his own office Kéré Architecture in Berlin.
Questions to
Diébédo Francis Kéré

Jun 7, 2013

Diébédo Francis Kéré is a representative figure for building with mud in a way like no other. Born in Burkina Faso in 1965, he was just a young man when he went to Berlin to study Architecture at the Technical University there. Kéré has already received countless awards for his commitment to helping developing countries; in 2004 he was honored with the Aga Khan Award for his primary school project in the village of Gando and in 2012 with the Global Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction. The Berlin-based architect recently made a name for himself with the design for the opera house conceived by the late theater director Christoph Schlingensief, who died in 2010. Özlem Özdemir spoke to Kéré about building with mud, knowledge transfer in his homeland and the responsibility to preserve one’s own culture.

Özlem Özdemir: Mr. Kéré, you were the first child in your village to go to school. This was followed by an apprenticeship to become a carpenter, after which you went to Berlin to study Architecture. How did that all come about?

Diébédo Francis Kéré: A year after completing my vocational training I heard that the German Development Service was looking for fellows. And so I applied, my application was accepted, and was awarded a place to study in Berlin. After finishing a two-year advanced training course, I was supposed to go back to Burkina Faso. But I come from a very large family and the expectations at home are great, much greater than someone here could ever imagine. So I decided to stay and see if I could find a more stable traineeship. It was a life full of hope, full of struggles, full of uncertainty. You never knew if you were even going to survive it.

You found renown thanks to your final university project, a school for your home village of Gando.

Kéré: The school project wasn’t actually my final project. I developed the project after my second year at the university, after completing my foundation course. I concentrated on studying old techniques. I travelled around Berlin and the surrounding area visiting old brickworks and pits where they extracted the mud or clay to make the bricks and ceramics.
After graduating I felt like I had gained enough knowledge, not on architecture in general, but enough to help my homeland; that was the point when I actually wanted to go.

The village didn’t take you seriously when you started building the primary school in Gando, is that right?

Kéré: Yes, they said: “Man, Francis, have you completely lost your mind? You know that a mud hut can’t withstand a rainy season; an ordinary little hut barely survives a rainy season. And now you’ve come here and want to building something big, something that’s normally made of concrete or cement, using mud?!” They were extremely skeptical. But we did it!

Did your architecture change the village?

Kéré: My work is now known across the land. Of course, the people of Gando are very proud of what we achieved together. When guests come they are now shown around the construction sites with pride and confidence. And as for the pupils themselves: the school is considered one of the best in the whole country. Some of the teachers say that it is down to the buildings, to the climate in the rooms, to the architecture as a whole because the children really do feel comfortable there, which supplies inspiration and awakens their creativity.

Your work is based on the principle that most buildings are the fruit of a collaboration. Is this a necessity or is it based on traditional ideas?

Kéré: Both. One man or woman alone could never manage the workload that comes with constructing a building. We still have a barter economy in the village. You help me build my hut and I’ll give you two chickens, and cook beans for the helpers. Such a form of collaboration forms the very basis of my culture. That is one thing, but I also wanted to keep the cost of the build low. Today I see how very important it is that the community builds its own school. That way the school isn’t some kind of foreign body despite being very modern in appearance.

You once said something very poignant: “We will use whatever is there to build.”

Kéré: For me, this is self-evident. Expensive things should only be used when there is no other option, when they are necessary for the supporting structure. But otherwise this is the simplest way to build: You take what is most readily available and use it to construct a building. It is precisely this idea that led me to use mud.

For your new project the “Collège de Gando”, a high school for around 1,000 students, you used mud to create prefabricated components. What prompted you to do this?

Kéré: I am constantly trying to be innovative in my solutions. When building the first school I refined the mud bricks by mixing in up to eight percent cement. When it came to the second school I was suddenly presented with a fait accompli. So I said, let’s do it “tout-venant”, that means extracting the mud directly from the pit and the sand directly from the riverbed, mixing it with shingle and cement and then pouring it like cement. And this approach in fact reduces the amount of work. Several tests were carried out. That is always of great importance in my work – the people had to see that it actually works and then (Kéré claps his hands, editor’s note) they did it themselves and it worked then too. Then I left, and they stayed and just got on with the work on their own. That is the way things work with my buildings!

How important is knowledge transfer to you? Or to put it more precisely, how aware are you if this transfer?

Kéré: In the beginning all I had was the will in my heart. I saw it as my duty to commit myself to the needs of the community. But now I see that when while working I unconsciously transfer the knowledge I have gained in Germany to those in Gando. After all we have now trained a lot of people in construction techniques and this is now their bread and butter, working on other construction sites in Burkina Faso and neighboring countries. I taught the farmers how to lay mud bricks, how to prepare the mud, until we reached a point where we are now close to being able to make concrete walls using mud. But I did it unconsciously; I never planed to do something of this nature.

The relationship between your country’s geographic climate and the room climate in your buildings forms a central aspect of your work. The teaching buildings are even described as “Gando’s fridges”.

Kéré: (laughs) Indeed. The most important thing for a classroom is of course that the interior climate has a positive influence on the learning and teaching that takes place there. Children can’t learn in a room where it’s over 40 degrees. I sat in a room like that when I was a child, it was like an incubator. So I try to improve on this room climate in my own buildings. I have installed openings, a double-roofing system that allows for a natural ventilation flow. After all, using fossil-fueled energy to cool rooms just wasn’t an option in a country like Burkina Faso, one that is counted among the poorest on earth.

This special roof that continually pops up in your work, how did you come up with the idea?

Kéré: Well I wanted to create a large roof that would protect the mud walls against erosion and rain but simultaneously against overheating through solar radiation. The roof membrane is very thin and heats up very quickly. And the air becomes stuck in the roof space. But since the air has heated up so much and the roof is slanted, it escapes through the openings in the roof such that the inflowing air then cools the rooms. You have to visit one of the schools, and then you’ll find yourself asking: “Man, where did you put the AC unit?” You also have to make sure that they have lamella windows so that fresh air can flow in. Simple!

Looking at several of your buildings, another architect who also works on a very hot continent came to mind: Glenn Murcutt.

Kéré: Glenn Murcutt is my greatest role model! I know him and I really admire his work. The first book I ever bought by a living architect was by Glenn Murcutt. I love his work. Of course, critics say that he is too expensive. But I find his buildings clearly legible. They have a certain clarity in their form, very simple, uncomplicated.

Lots of countries have their own tradition of building with mud and nonetheless it is not sufficiently represented in contemporary architecture. How could building with mud be made a more attractive option?

Kéré: It’s certainly not easy, because there’s a dictate in global architect that governs the materials and forms used. We are all obligated to do that which works best in the given region and not to simply pander to current trends. It is down to each and every one of us to think about, why do I have to build like that in New York? Of course there are functional buildings that don’t work any other way, that just wouldn’t be able to fulfill their function if they were built with mud, e.g. airports or high rises. We have to act and create exemplary mud buildings; this way it will come back into fashion in countries that have a tradition in mud buildings and people will want to build with mud again.

How can you convince people of this?

Kéré: You know, if there is an elite and this elite group begins to hop around on one foot and we copy them; well, then this elite must also be aware of what they’re doing. In most cases we’re not in a position to implement these global trends in the proper way.That is certainly the case in Burkina Faso, we are building high rises yet we don’t really know how to work with cement. I also know that in some countries such as Egypt buildings are collapsing because they are simply building one story on top of another. If we all begin to ask ourselves where is this globalization of architecture leading? There is only one possible answer: It is creating a wasteland. It is killing cultures, our own cultures. And if a nation has a tradition of building with mud then that’s a part of their culture. If this is lost, then we will have also lost ourselves. That is something everyone should be clear on.

Mr Kéré, thank you very much for the interview.

The works of Diébédo Francis Kéré are exposed from 8 June to 1 September 2013 in
THINK GLOBAL, BUILD SOCIAL! Bauen für eine bessere Welt
Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt on the Main

After his studies Diébédo Francis Kéré founded his own office Kéré Architecture in Berlin.0
After his studies Diébédo Francis Kéré founded his own office Kéré Architecture in Berlin.1
After his studies Diébédo Francis Kéré founded his own office Kéré Architecture in Berlin.2
After his studies Diébédo Francis Kéré founded his own office Kéré Architecture in Berlin.3
After his studies Diébédo Francis Kéré founded his own office Kéré Architecture in Berlin.4