Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

September 2019


On the architecture of Diébédo Francis Kéré


Architecture, Art, Articles, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kéré Architecture

IT’S BEEN NEARLY TWO DECADES since Diébédo Francis Kéré designed his first piece of architecture: a clay-brick primary school in his home village of Gando, Burkina Faso, constructed by residents. This past spring, the Berlin-based architect produced a soaring suite of temporary pavilions at Coachella, the desert music festival that attracts influencers and their followers with a gravitational force.

Comparing these buildings, one notes that oppositions quickly stack up: third world versus first, local versus global, necessity versus luxury. The distance between these projects—geographic, temporal, economic—raises questions old and new about architecture’s ability to authentically operate as a modest response to a set of distinct requirements, particularly while functioning under the experience economy’s demands, with its effervescent cocktail of spectacle and capital.

Kéré conceived the first edifice as a permanent, much-needed piece of civic infrastructure in a village facing severe scarcity. Landlocked in West Africa, Burkina Faso is one of the continent’s poorest countries; natural and political crises come in waves: military coups, droughts, and, more recently, terrorist attacks and ethnic violence in the north of the country near the border with Mali.

Minimal resources set the terms for the Gando complex—a suite of buildings ultimately encompassing a six-thousand-square-foot schoolhouse and library—which established Kéré’s architectural vocabulary and global profile. The schoolhouse is almost classical in form: Three rectangular classrooms sit atop a stone-and-compressed-dirt plinth. A large tin roof, independently supported by metal trusses and concrete beams, floats above the enclosed spaces, creating a series of shaded courtyards and porches and protecting the unfired-brick walls from rain. Kéré often plays rigid geometry against mundane materials, betting on slight schisms between the two for atmospheric effect: the texture of the bricks, the shadows cast by the louvered windows.

On first glance, the recent Coachella installation could not be more different from the schoolhouse in Gando. Under the Southern California–desert sun, the structure—called Sarbalé Ke, which means House of Celebration in Moore, a language spoken in Burkina Faso—is a riot of color, an Afrofuturist micro-urbanism on an expanse of irrigated green. Created as a folly for the thousands of festivalgoers who made the pilgrimage to catch a set by Janelle Monáe, Kéré’s installation is just one of several wildly attention-seeking art and architectural “experiences” scattered across the Empire Polo Fields, where the festival takes place. Works by Kéré, architectural practice Office Kovacs, and artist Peggy Noland, among others, are all designed to rise high above the crowd for maximum photogenic appeal and brand recognition.

Yet the flamboyance resolves into simple stagecraft. Sarbalé Ke, like the Gando building, also deploys basic geometries and simple materials: steel, plywood, paint. Twelve tall and taller steel-and-plywood cones (the tallest is just over sixty feet) are patterned in a triangular textile of orange, pink, turquoise, red, and blue that is reminiscent of the hues and geometries of Ankara fabric. Kéré’s piece also serves a decidedly modest purpose. Taking inspiration from the baobab tree, under which Gando villagers gather to stay safe from the sun, Sarbalé Ke supplied festival-goers with a scarce yet necessary resource: shade. On a warm afternoon in April, crowds took shelter under the skirts of Kéré’s constructions. The light was tinted orange from the paint, its color reflecting off the swirling dust, and looking up into the tallest towers, one discovered a Fibonacci-like spiral spreading out from the oculus. At night, lit from within by colored LED spotlights, Kéré’s architecture glowed and flickered. People formed intimate clusters at the base of Sarbalé Ke, villageresque in their millennial homogeneity.

KÉRÉ FREQUENTLY DISCUSSES his projects in relation to basic needs (shelter, shade, ventilation) and constraints (budget, construction feasibility, availability of labor and materials) rather than to aesthetics. “When you work with scarcity you force yourself to be disciplined,” he says. “Most of the time I try to see what is available on-site—what can be used—and use it in a different way.”

“You don’t want to design an object,” he continues. That term, object, in recent years has become shorthand for buildings that flagrantly celebrate formal gymnastics. Such designs, often computational in their imaginings and cutting-edge technological in their execution, are frictionless, contemptuous of context, floating in a bubble of client-driven appreciation of virtuosity.

The practice of operating under limitations is at the core of most architectural practice, even when it risks conflating stodgy solutionism with design; Kéré’s interpretation of the constraints he faces rarely seems belabored. It’s as if the architecture was a simple, foregone conclusion once the parameters were in place. This is as true of his work in Africa as in California, where he interpreted the Coachella commission as a brief for shelter. “How can I design so that tens of thousands of people feel comfortable?” he asks, flattening distinctions between users and focusing on a shared condition.

The sentiment is hugely generous, but it elicits some queasiness, as it draws an equivalency of need between villagers and festivalgoers, between third-world realities and first-world frivolities. As Kéré’s work has spread from Africa around the globe, the ability for his architecture to be neutral, to solve problems, has been challenged by these new arenas: festivals, art fairs, museums, and sculpture parks, which are driven more by audience, curator, or client wants, and less by their needs.

The eldest son of a village chief and an increasingly well-known figure in the art and design worlds, Kéré himself slips between local and global geographies. Berlin acts as the pivot for his two identities: architect and fund-raiser. He is the principal of Kéré Architecture and the chairman of the Kéré Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established in 1998, while still a university student, to “give back” (his phrase) to his family and community in Burkina Faso; his firm provides pro bono design for the foundation.

For many high-profile architects, a professional biography begins with architectural training and a couple early awards or commissions; Kéré’s started when he was seven. He often relates the story of his father’s sending him off to a school in the city, since Gando had none. Kéré’s education benefited his father; it meant that Kéré could help out with correspondence. But his time in the city also entailed a major sacrifice. Because Kéré was at school, his father had one fewer field hand, thus enduring a serious privation in a place reliant on subsistence agriculture. Architecture entered the frame later, when Kéré, already in Germany for an apprenticeship in development aid, enrolled at Berlin’s Technische Universität. There, while still getting his degree, he raised $50,000 from friends and classmates to fund his first project.

It is not unique for cultural producers—artists, architects, musicians—to seek to empower their own local communities, to spend their capital and energy where it really makes a difference: at home. Increasingly, this practice is about ideology as much as it is about philanthropy. For black artists like South Central Los Angeles-based Lauren Halsey and the late Nipsey Hussle, reinvestment is part of a larger movement within communities of color to keep capital local as a buffer against disenfranchisement. In Gando, this empowerment is multifaceted, designed to foster education and local economic gain. The primary school and library laid the groundwork for literacy. In the construction of the buildings themselves, participants develop on-site skills, such as clay- brick-making (as well as new applications for bricks), that could be used in the service of future building projects.

As a discipline, architecture has a waxing and waning relationship with socially minded design, alternating in recent decades between periods of begrudging acceptance of the types of buildings that put emphasis on serving a community over aesthetics and periods of pure architectural expression. In 2010, curators Andres Lepik and Margot Weller at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, included Kéré’s Gando Primary School in the exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement,” along with eleven international designers, many representing the Global South, such as Elemental from Chile, Venezuela’s Urban-Think Tank, and Noero Wolff Architects from South Africa. The show marked Kéré’s rise and was emblematic, at the time, of a growing awareness of participatory design premised on local activism, constructed interventions, and/or social engagement. The point: Architecture could give meaning to, and better the lives of, publics often excluded from the discipline’s inward-facing debates.

The design cohort showcased by MOMA frequently initiates projects, or partners with community groups or NGOs as clients, to work in disenfranchised neighborhoods, informal cities, or rural villages. As the show’s title implied, the constructions are modest in size, scope, and budget but leveraged for maximum impact. Coming as it did on the heels of a global recession, the exhibition was a corrective to glittering monuments made by starchitects. Shown in photographs and models, Kéré’s humbly elegant buildings suggested that architecture didn’t have to be fancy or, for that matter, flimsy, like the images of half-built or abandoned Sunbelt tract homes that dominated the evening news during the subprime mortgage collapse. Design could give a damn, to crib the title of a popular book at the time.

IN 2017, HANS ULRICH OBRIST, in his role as Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director, commissioned Kéré to design the Serpentine Pavilion. The resulting 3,550-square-foot structure also riffs on the baobab tree: A large steel canopy hovers over a ring of curved indigo-blue walls made out of prefabricated wood blocks, which, like the Coachella pavilion, create patterns reminiscent of African craft. The scheme also repeats motifs and structural attitudes familiar from Kéré’s earlier architecture. Trussed steel canopies appear as undulating waves above rudimentary brick walls in his Dano Secondary School in Burkina Faso (2007) and as a refined, floating plane levitating over the Centre for Earth Architecture in Mali (2010). In each case, there’s pragmatism to these oversize structural gestures, which serve the elemental need for shelter, whether in the form of a school building or a cultural folly.

All sorts of Londoners—parents and children, architects, poets, chefs—convened under the awning during a particularly wet British summer. Rain fell through the circular hole in its center, the place where a tree trunk would be. The pavilion hosted an event series called “Radical Kitchen: Recipes for Building Community and Creating Change,” inspired by the architect’s tales of villager debates and festivities under the baobabs in Gando. And community activists and organizers met for conversation over plates of food prepared by Mazí Mas, a pop-up restaurant run by migrant women. (At the end of the 2017 season, donors gifted the pavilion to Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in the hopes of finding it a new home in Malaysia. As of press time, it had yet to be reinstalled.)

While discussing Kéré, Obrist has brought up Martinican cultural theorist and poet Édouard Glissant. The architect, Obrist suggests, embodies an approach to architecture and society that follows Glissant’s concept of mondialité. The term, taken from the writer’s 1990 book, Poétique de la relation (Poetics of Relation), is often rendered in English as “worldliness” or “worldmentality” and refers to an alternative to the homogenizing, colonizing forces of neoliberal capital. Mondialité, in other words, is not about warm, fuzzy inclusivity, but a way to retain cultural difference while circumnavigating centuries of dualisms—self/other, West/non-West—and their accompanying territorial boundaries. “The Western nation is first of all an ‘opposite,’ for colonized peoples’ identity will be primarily ‘opposed to’—that is, a limitation from the beginning,” as Glissant wrote in Poetics of Relation. “Decolonization will have done its real work when it goes beyond this limit.”

As a figure, Kéré straddles contemporary oppositional spaces between global and local, and between Africa and Europe (and, increasingly, the Americas), with ambassadorial ease. And while his recent pavilion and temporary architectures, such as the shelter at Coachella, strive for similar dexterity, they occasionally fall flat without the specificity of “real” context. For example, at Design Miami in December 2018, Kéré presented Tugunora, the title a portmanteau of the Greek agora and tuguna, a Burkinabe word for the place where village elders discuss community affairs. The piece, created to host the fair’s conversation series, was not a conventional theater, consisting instead of stacked plywood risers and movable upholstered cubes. Adaptable and nonhierarchical, it contained little to distinguish center from periphery, audience from speaker. (Obrist, who sat on a panel in the space, noted that the close proximity between the audience and the speakers onstage fostered dialogue between them.) Yet Tugunora lacked specificity. Located in a nondescript art-fair room and made from quotidian industrialized materials, it was, indeed, largely indistinguishable from any number of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art-world precedents that strove to destabilize spatial hierarchies and engage participation. While Kéré’s architecture falls under the rubric of socially minded design, it shouldn’t be confused with social practice.

The success of Kéré’s work has come with the hazard of his rising global celebrity and the disassociation from the local that can bring. Commissioned by the spa developer and “wellness” company Therme Group (which recently snapped up Mexican architect Frida Escobedo’s 2018 Serpentine Pavilion for its collection), Tugunora and its programmed events are also just another pit stop on the art market’s annual grand tour. If there’s a community at play, it’s the nomadic and international cultural elite. Mondialité melts away.

THIS PAST JULY, the architect completed Xylem, a 2,100—square-foot wooden pavilion at Tippet Rise Art Center. Of all his international works to date, this pavilion best exemplifies the pull between local and global, hinting at a Glissantian possibility of productively blurring distinctions between the two without erasing either.

Located on twelve thousand acres of rolling hills with views of the snowcapped Beartooth Mountains, Tippet Rise opened in 2016 in Fishtail, Montana, a small, unincorporated community (the population is under five hundred) halfway between Billings and Bozeman. It’s a working sheep-and-cattle ranch that is also home to large-scale art and architecture installations, including sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Alexander Calder and three roughcast concrete structures by Spanish architects Ensamble Studio. The Crow Reservation lies just east, and the assigned lands of multiple indigenous tribes—the Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho, Siksikaitsitapi, and Northern Cheyenne—are a half day’s drive away. This unlikely spot for art, music, and architecture—a Marfa on the Great Plains—sits at a crossroads of audiences: ranchers, native peoples, and tourists (recreational and cultural).

Cathy and Peter Halstead’s patronage of Kéré is twofold: They commissioned Xylem, a new shelter for visitors nestled in a stand of cottonwood and aspen trees, and through the Sidney E. Frank Foundation (they are trustees), they gave his practice a $500,000 grant to complete the Naaba Belem Goumma Secondary School in Gando, a project named for the architect’s father. The Kéré Foundation has had the school in the pipeline since 2010; it will open this January and serve one thousand students.

Kéré conceived Xylem as a meditation on the Montana landscape, its petrified forests and cycles of wildfire, as combined with the sacred wooden architectures of the Dogon in Mali. He reinterpreted these African precedents, which feature thick bundles of sticks piled horizontally, layer after layer, over robust tree stumps or standing stones, as a sixty-foot-diameter canopy made of vertical logs. A steel structure, circular in plan and honeycombed for support, holds these bundles of ponderosa and lodgepole pine aloft over a seating area for visitors. It’s similar in design, but at a larger scale, to a pavilion Kéré conceived in 2015 for the exhibition “Africa: Architecture, Culture and Identity,” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark.

If an architect’s work is about “making place,” that task becomes ever more difficult as the homogenizing forces of neoliberalism smooth out the differences between places, shaping experiences into images that glide seamlessly through networks. Architecture, moreover, is so often an expression of a singular, fixed identity that communicates the power of an institution, city, or nation. Glissant’s idea of a relational identity, however, discards universal claims and embraces, among other things, the contradictory experiences among cultures. “It is not just an anonymous pavilion, it is a community,” says Kéré of the construction crews from across Montana (Absarokee, Bozeman, Billings) and Powell, Wyoming, who worked on the Tippet Rise project.

As Kéré’s work is increasingly exhibited in art-and-culture contexts (art fairs, biennials, festivals), it responds less to the immediate constraints of scarcity and need. Instead, his designs create welcome wrinkles in our assumptions about place, substituting the consumption of experience with something more elemental and less expected: care.