As It Happens

This architect is the first Black laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Prize

He built beautiful schools and health care facilities across Africa, calling it a service to humanity, and now Diébédo Francis Kéré is the first Black architect to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize.

Diébédo Francis Kéré has designed naturally cooling schools and health-care centres across Africa

Diébédo Francis Kéré has become the first Black person and the first African to win the Pritzker Prize, considered the Pulitzer of architecture. (Kéré Architecture)

Story Transcript

When Diébédo Francis Kéré got a call from the Pritzker Prize jury awarding him with architecture's highest honour, he was so overwhelmed that he lost his voice.

In the past, laureates of the prestigious prize were known for their high-profile buildings, art centres, expo plazas and skyscrapers. But Kéré, who is the first African and first Black laureate, is now internationally recognized for his schools, health-care clinics and homes.

"I came from a place where all of these were urgently needed," Kéré told As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay.

"I had to leave my home village when I was seven to attend school ... and so for this reason, instinctively, I wanted to start with the school building, allowing kids from that community to stay home and learn A, B, C."

Children pose in front of Kéré colourful Gando Primary School in the province of Boulgou, Burkina Faso, (Erik-Jan Owerkerk/Pritzker Prize)

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

"I sat with more than 100 other kids and there was no light, while the sunlight was so abundant, and I wanted to one day make things better," he said. "That is how I started to think about how you can 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 into architecture at the Technical University of Berlin for better prospects at bringing his skills back home.

He designed a primary 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 outside the Burkina Institute of Technology, designed by Kéré, in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. (Francis Kéré/Pritzker Prize)

Kéré based Gando Primary School off of the hot and crowded classrooms he once sat in. He involved the whole village in the process of gathering stones and water, which he used to make earth bricks for the foundation. Then he made a perforated metal canopy and hung it from above, like a flying roof, so that cool air could come into the building from the side windows and hot air could be released through the holes in the ceiling.

"The first school that I built is, like, to shape what I was missing in my childhood," he said. "You know, it can be very hot and we'd walk without shoes to the school. And it [the school] was a box made out of cement, you know, with little ventilation.'

"What I did was to create to heal myself from that experience. Creating beauty and comfort and, let me say luxury, for other kids."

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

Kéré says he was also inspired by other architects and companies as he received invitations for paid conferences and commissions, such as a summer pavilion in London's Kensington Gardens that transformed rain water into circular waterfall, as well as an installation at the 2019 Coachella music festival showcasing colourful, ventilated cones that resembled the baobab trees found in Madagascar, Australia and mainland Africa.

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

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

"I see it's giving hope," he said. "Now I can say to many, many other young people: Believe in yourself. Try to use your skills to serve.'

"It doesn't matter where you are. The Pritzker jury will find you. No matter the colour of your skin, you have to believe in yourself and work hard.'

"Yes, I am the first one from the continent, from Africa, to win it. It's a great honour, but it's showing 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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