“If you visit an African village, please, don’t say that its picturesque, because you would never choose to live there,” says Diébèbo Francis Kéré, a young internationally recognized African architect from Burkina Faso and a central protagonist at the 12th edition of the Biennale di Architettura di Venezia (Venice Architecture Biennial).
His work is symbolic of a new kind of development in Africa that involves the local population. It creates new solutions taking into account the scarcity of available resources and of the extreme climate of the region. “In my country, Burkina Faso, if you manage to build a wall that is still standing after the wet season people are happy.”
“As a child I had to leave my family and my village to go study, because in Gando, the village where I was born, there weren’t any schools or teachers. Every time I came home the women of the village would take me aside and give me the little loose change that they had.” Francis, the eldest son of the villages chief, didn’t understand why the elder women took so kindly to him until his mother explained that the entire community was supporting his studies.
Thanks to a scholarship he was able to study architecture in Berlin. In 1998, before he even graduated, he founded the Schulbausteine für Gando association, with the objective to collect funds in order to build a school in his village. “I had one thing on my mind: to find a way to give back to my community, to make what I had learned available to them, in a country where 80 per cent of the population is illiterate.”
“When I arrived in Gando and I announced that a school would be built (completed in 2001) everyone was very happy. But it wasn’t easy to convince them to use sun dried raw mud bricks: they only believed me after the first wet season. The use of these ‘blocks’ reduced energy costs.”
“The African tradition gave me a respect for nature and taught me to strive to use the minimum possible to obtain the maximum possible. What you would call sustainability,” explains Kéré.
Architecture needs simple solutions
“I love architecture but I believe that there is a need for simple solutions, within everyone’s reach. We need to learn how to turn back time and give architecture back to who lives it, my big points of reference are the big architects that know how to work immersed in a social context, with the community, never suggesting anything too difficult. This idea of working with the people, knowing how to win over their trust , for me, derives from the African tradition.”
Along the same line of thought, in Gando, Francis had to find new solutions to train his work force. He couldn’t arrive with books and designs, no one would have understood him. He involved everyone: men, women, the elderly and the kids.
Building is a social event
“Let’s be clear, this is not the exploitation of minors… building is a social event, it becomes a big party where we beat the earth floor to the rhythm of music while dancing. We couldn’t exclude the children from all of this,” he says.
The walls and the roof of the school are made from raw mud bricks, hanging over is a second roof of sheet metal that is supported by an iron network. By doing this we can tap into the natural ventilation of the building and, thanks to the regenerative energy of the sun, it increases the difference between the internal and external temperature. “Allowing for air to flow through, even if it’s warm, is the only way we have to deal with the heat.”
After the first school, others followed, since October 2010 more than 900 Burkinabé children are attending. Besides public service buildings, Kéré is developing a social housing model in Ougadougou, the country’s capital. He has also worked in Mali, building a structure inside a public park in the capital city of Bamako, again involving the community.
When asked if Europe could also learn something from him, he smiles, almost with an air of embarrassment, “maybe yes, if one day we understand that the use of local materials and the involvement of the local population is the best way for us to confront climate change and the scarcity of natural resources. And maybe also Europe could also learn that there are better solutions than those that today considered conventional.
By Elisa Cozzarini for Afronline