Interview with 2022 Pritker Prize laureate Diébédo Francis Kéré

Building a Modest Utopia

Ulf Meyer
23. March 2022
Lycée Schorge Secondary School in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, 2016 (Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré)

Ulf Meyer: Congratulations on winning the “lifetime achievement award” for architecture, the Pritzker Architecture Prize. How does that feel?
Francis Kéré: Surprising. Unbelievable. There is pressure in my head, now that I realize what it means…

So, what does it mean?
It is a big relief, because it means that I took the right direction, that my work makes sense. It has meaning and importance. It tells me to go on!

Did you have concerns?
Well, this work is not easy. You run and run… But now it feels as if it was “right.” Reborn! I was speechless. I never expected it. When I got the call, all emotions started.

Yet, you had won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture already in 2004, and that is a very prestigious award as well.
Without it, people would not have recognized my work. It was the foundation.

Gando Primary School in Gando, Burkina Faso, 2001, recipient of the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture (Photo courtesy of Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk)

Now, you are building, big, urban, political projects.
Yes, the scale changes everything. But I worked on big projects in competitions before. 

Small can be beautiful. Is there danger of losing some of the charm?
I have some parameters to make sure the quality persists from a school to a parliament. At the Serpentine Pavilion I showed that I can give character to a material to achieve quality and innovation. So, I am curious to see how the Benin project will turn out. We will use pigmented concrete and work with the climate and ecological considerations and aim for a low-maintenance building. Like Le Corbusier we use brise-soleil to cool buildings, protect them, and keep them cool. The building should look like the “biggest tree” in a biotope, embedded in the landscape. I am looking forward to my own surprises.

You work in different African countries with very different climates. Benin and Mali are much drier then Burkina Faso, for example.
Yes, the amount of rain differs, but concepts can be transferred. Even within one country the climate differs. Benin even has two rainy seasons and has seawater.

Serpentine Pavilion in London, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan)

Soon, you will have the government as a client. It will feel more abstract. They can be as bureaucratic in African nations as in Germany. You will have to deal with committees.
Yes, the bureaucracy is a cheap copy of the West. The governments delegate the details to committees. And we will have to deal with big construction companies.But having won the “Nobel Prize” will give me more authority. 

Is it no longer practical to be based in Berlin?
It is still practical. We have a great team in Africa with engineers and construction managers. I have to go back and forth and attend the meetings. I am now seen as being on a higher level. I used to slap the workers’ shoulders on the construction site. My role is now more representative. 

You also work for a German client in Senegal, the Goethe Institute. Does that feel different?
Yes, the decisions are done differently. But the foundation stone was laid with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Are you itching to get a project in Germany, the United States, or Asia, or are you happy to work in Africa?
The sky is the limit. I am happy that I can do the whole scope of our profession. I want to work on projects in which I can add an esprit nouveau to work with the climate. If a client wants to just have lots of residences built cheaply, I am not the right architect. But I am working on a chalet in Switzerland. I want to satisfy my clients. I remain open for all projects.

Benin National Assembly in Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin, in progress (Visualization courtesy of Kéré Architecture)

Please explain the difference between your architecture office and your architecture foundation.
When I still was a student at TU Berlin, I started a foundation to collect money for building a school in my home village. I was lucky and it worked! There is no capital money that earns interest; it is more of a club to collect funds. Then in 2005 I got other commissions and thus registered as a licensed architect. The foundation is simply dealing with the school in my village. Now we are building a health center. The school grew to 2,000 students!

Is it rude to just call you “Francis”?
Even a newspaper journalist from Burkina Faso asked me for the meaning of “Diébédo.” As long as I know that you are referring to me, you can use any name.

The Pritzker Prize changed in the last years. Recently, the jury looked more at social meaning of architecture.
I am happy when our architectural work is combined with social issues. I used my knowledge to improve conditions in my home country. My Professor at TU, Peter Herrle, can testify that I did not want to graduate; I wanted to escape to Burkina Faso and stay there but Peter insisted. Now I am very happy to see that my work is seen in context with “social architects.” This seemed out of my reach, but it worked with good luck!

May I ask an indecent question? Will you just enjoy the Pritzker Prize money or will you use it to build something?
It is a lot of money, but not enough to share with everybody who helped me along the way. It is true that people, even my employees, did not get paid and even used to pay for my lunch! Of course, we will use some money to celebrate here in Berlin and in Burkina Faso. There are 5,000 inhabitants living in my village! The rest will go to my foundation to fix up my projects. In Burkina Faso many people now to travel to see my buildings like pilgrims!

Léo Doctors’ Housing in Léo, Burkina Faso, 2019 (Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré)

Did you ever meet David Adjaye?
Like Zaha Hadid they developed their work in a climate where they had to pioneer their roles. Chapeau! I thought David would get the Pritzker Prize.

He may still get it. 
My work is different but I admire David’s work. He also becomes more active in Africa.

It would be a waste if you did not get a project in Berlin one day.
No worries, I am not yet 60 and quite busy with my African projects. I will participate in paid competitions. I think of myself as a “material opportunist” — I make the most of what is there. It does not have to be rammed earth. David says I should not be limited to social aspects. I was lucky that things worked out fine so far and I am hoping that it may continue.

Do you have a favorite architect?
Renzo Piano called me to say (in best French): “You combine architecture and art in the way they should be combined — and add ethics and poetry to architecture and only few people can do that.” Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, and Jacques Herzog also called me.

But my favorite architect is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His Haus Lemke in Berlin is so elegant and simple, I did a documentation about it when I was a student.

Mr. Kéré, thank you very much for this interview.

Burkina Institute of Technology in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, 2020 (Phase I) (Photo courtesy of Francis Kéré)

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