Since its creation in 1979, the annual Pritzker Architecture Prize—the highest tribute bestowed on living practitioners of the building art, likened to the Nobel Prize in other disciplines—has undergone a number of identity changes. None has been consistent or permanent, and none has diminished its prestige or, perhaps more importantly to the winners, its monetary benefits. Those (apart from the $100,000 check that has accompanied it from the beginning) come from the guarantee of commissions that the accolade brings them for the remainder of their careers, not least because the short lists for several major construction projects have been limited to Pritzker recipients. For example, the 2003 competition held by the United Nations Development Corporation for a new office tower south of the UN’s landmark Secretariat building in New York City was thus circumscribed, and the job went to Fumihiko Maki, the 1993 Pritzker laureate. This restriction may betray a want of imagination among uninformed or insecure clients, but the financial risks involved in large-scale construction are so worrisome that recourse to architects with the Pritzker’s imprimatur is an understandable precaution.
At first it seemed destined to be a lifetime achievement award. The initial honoree was Philip Johnson, who turned seventy-three in 1979 and was thought to best exemplify the Olympian stature the prize intended to affirm. In retrospect, if it were instituted today, the choice of this inveterate shape-shifter, who was of undeniable historical importance because of his early advocacy of modern architecture but whose work was always extremely derivative (and leaving aside his having been an ardent fascist), would be less certain. Johnson was immediately followed by the far more deserving Luis Barragán, the reclusive seventy-eight-year-old Mexican Minimalist whose monumental yet intimate architecture, previously known only to specialists, had been the subject of a revelatory Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1976.
Next in line were a number of younger architects whose selection indicated a desire for the Pritzker to be more in touch with current developments, such as Richard Meier, who was designated in 1984, shortly before he turned fifty, and then won the coveted commission for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. But from time to time several long-overlooked old masters have been retrieved from architectural history and given one final victory lap: the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer in 1988, the Danish Jørn Utzon in 2003, the German Frei Otto in 2015, the Indian Balkrishna Doshi in 2018, and the Japanese Arata Isozaki in 2019, all of whom were in their eighties or nineties at the time. Niemeyer and Doshi further enhanced the geographic diversity of an award that has been heavily skewed toward Europe (twenty-three winners thus far), followed by the US (eight) and Japan (seven).
The only continent (apart from Antarctica) that had not yet been represented was Africa, an omission remedied with the surprising announcement in March of this year’s laureate, the fifty-seven-year-old Francis Kéré, who is also the first Black architect to win the Pritzker. He was born in Burkina Faso, the landlocked West African nation of some 21 million inhabitants that is bounded on the east by Niger, on the south by Benin, Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, and on the west and north by Mali. Slightly larger than Colorado, it was colonized by France in the last decade of the nineteenth century, gained its independence in 1960, and was known as Upper Volta until 1984, when after a military coup it was renamed Burkina Faso, which translates roughly as “country of incorruptible people.” Not since the emergence around the turn of the millennium of Kéré’s one-year-younger contemporary the Ghanaian-British David Adjaye, whose major works include the National Museum of African American History and Culture of 2009–2016 in Washington, D.C., has an African master builder burst onto the world stage.
The Pritzker’s periodic shifts in emphasis have reflected the changing composition of its jury, which now comprises a chair and eight members (a mix of former prizewinners, other architects, educators, curators, critics, and architecture buffs such as US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer), whose terms are staggered to encourage both continuity and change. The present chair is the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who received the accolade in 2016, four years before he was chosen to head the jury, when the announcement praised “his commitment to society, resulting in works and activism that respond to social, humanitarian, and economic needs.” The same could be said of Kéré, who might thus have been just the kind of candidate Aravena favored for the Pritzker, and I reacted to the news of Kéré’s recognition with unalloyed joy. The Pritzker Prize medallion and honorarium will be presented to him at a ceremony on May 27 at the London School of Economics’ Marshall Building of 2016–2022, designed by the Dublin-based firm Grafton Architects, whose principals, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, are the 2020 laureates.
I first met Kéré eighteen years ago, at the very outset of his building career, when he was among the winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It was inaugurated, two years before the Pritzker, by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Nizari Ismaili Shia community, to encourage better architecture throughout the Islamic world. Kéré was singled out for his first executed work, the Gando Primary School of 2001 in the village of his birth. This low-cost project’s material modesty, combined with its functional logic, attentiveness to environmental conditions, and a beauty both specific to its place and yet geographically transcendent, instantly convinced me of his uncommon talent.
My wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter, and I traveled to India for the Aga Khan Award festivities at which Kéré was to be honored. The proceedings began in New Delhi, after which the honorees and dozens of guests were to fly to Agra for the culminating events, but due to a heavy fog our flight was delayed for several hours. As we milled around the airport’s VIP departure lounge, we introduced ourselves to Kéré, who in his presentation of his award-winning project had touched us deeply with his eloquence, sincerity, and unabashed commitment to social issues, a concern all too rare in architecture today. He apologized for his English—which was flawless—and explained that because he had been living in Berlin for almost twenty years he was much more fluent in German. Thereupon Rosemarie, who was born near Stuttgart, seamlessly switched to her Muttersprache and the two chatted away for the rest of our wait.
Ever since that memorable encounter I’ve monitored Kéré’s development with close interest. I’ve also feared that my initial enthusiasm might wane, as can happen when promising young architects get off to a fast start and then produce more and more work that suffers from the myriad financial constraints, bureaucratic obstacles, and circumstantial disappointments—to say nothing of the temptations and corruptions of fame and fortune—that even the most idealistic practitioners of this constantly compromised art form must face. But Kéré’s relatively small yet wholly original and remarkably cohesive body of work—fewer than forty buildings executed thus far, a number sure to increase rapidly now—instills a feeling of enormous optimism about the uplifting new direction he opens in the building art for his people in particular and the world at large.
Diébédo Francis Kéré was born in 1965 in Gando, a small community in the southeast of what was still called Upper Volta, the oldest son of the village chief. As the first-born male, Diébédo—who now goes by his middle name—was expected to learn how to read and write in order to handle his father’s correspondence. Because there was no school in Gando, at age seven he was sent to live with an uncle in the nearby city of Tenkodogo where he could be given a basic education. The boy turned out to be talented, and after he finished his primary schooling he learned the useful trade of carpentry.
He showed such aptitude that in 1985 he was given a scholarship to study wood craftsmanship in West Germany by the government-sponsored Carl Duisberg Society. That nonprofit organization was founded in 1949 and specialized in outreach programs for young people from developing nations, part of the country’s postwar effort to make amends for its recent past. (It was named after a chemist and industrialist who was CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which during the Weimar Republic merged with several other firms to become IG Farben. Duisberg died in 1935, after which Farben became infamous for its production of Zyklon B, a gas used in the Nazi extermination camps during the Holocaust.) Kéré’s vocational training in Germany inspired him to remain there after its reunification and study architecture, which he saw as the best way he could serve the people of his homeland.
In 1995 he won a scholarship to the Technical University in Berlin. In a 2020 interview with the online magazine Pin-Up, Kéré recalled, “When you study in Berlin, you will face the great Mies van der Rohe” (whose most conspicuous work in the German capital, his Neue Nationalgalerie of 1961–1968, reopened last August after a six-year renovation by the British architect David Chipperfield). “I really like the art of rationalism he applied—so efficient, so simple, very clear to understand.” Another formative influence was Louis Kahn, whose work in the Third World, especially his Indian Institute of Management of 1962–1974 in Ahmedabad, Kéré visited and found to be “an eyeopener. Kahn’s adaptation to the place, the use of brick, the simplicity—but then the complexity, at the same time.”
Although late-phase Mies schemes such as the Neue Nationalgalerie—a steel-girdered, glass-walled Minimalist box perched atop a broader travertine podium—might seem the antithesis of the humble, environmentally responsive architecture Kéré aimed to create in Burkina Faso, that old master’s emphasis on structural integrity and elimination of the unnecessary spoke directly to him. During the 1920s, even as Mies envisioned structures unprecedented in their extensive use of plate glass, he also created a remarkable series of houses in Germany that deployed brick in such a modern way that decades later Kéré understood its applicability to Burkina Faso, where he would use locally fabricated brick, assembled with a Miesian attention to exacting detail and clean craftsmanship, to make his breakthrough works.
During his architectural studies in Berlin, Kéré started a charitable foundation called Schulbausteine für Gando (school-building blocks for Gando) to raise money for a school of his own design in his home village. He has said:
Good architecture in Burkina Faso is a classroom where you can sit, have light that is filtered, entering the way that you want to use it, across a blackboard or on a desk. How can we take away the heat coming from the sun, but use the light to our benefit? Creating climate conditions to give basic comfort allows for true teaching, learning and excitement. I considered my work a private task, a duty to this community.
In his plans for the Gando Primary School, Kéré specified low-tech components and fabrication methods that would allow untrained locals to be enlisted in its construction. However, he saw no reason not to aim for an innovative design unlike anything its builders had ever seen before. For example, the single-story structure’s outer walls are made of hybrid bricks he devised with a small percentage of concrete added to the usual clay for extra durability. To increase indoor air circulation in that hot, arid climate, he lifted the curving roof up above the walls on a dense network of angled supports made from common rebar—the steel reinforcement bars embedded in poured concrete to give it more strength—which Gando residents were taught to weld into the required angular groupings.
The school served as Kéré’s diploma project at the Technical University and led to commissions for other educational institutions in Burkina Faso, including two extensions, a library, and teachers’ housing for the Gando Primary School; the Dano Secondary School of 2006–2007; and the Lycée Schorge Secondary School of 2014–2016 in Koudougou. The latter is a beautifully proportioned composition of nine tall minimalist modules topped by ventilating towers clad in a local red stone and conjoined in a horseshoe arrangement around an inner courtyard, with the outer perimeter of the grouping wrapped in a tall, semitransparent screen of slightly angled eucalyptus rods.
The Lycée Schorge’s configuration of small individual pavilions enclosing a central plaza works well in West Africa, where a semi-enclosed open-air space with peripheries shaded from the relentless sunlight can provide a sense of protection desirable for social welfare facilities in a part of the world where too few of them exist. Kéré went on to use similar layouts for two projects in the Burkinabé town of Léo: the Surgical Clinic and Health Center of 2014 and the Léo Doctors’ Housing of 2019, which added on-site residences for the medical staff. The ensemble is among Kéré’s strongest compositions—an arc of cubic, self-contained dwelling units made from a double wall of concrete block and compressed-earth blocks (CEB) that increase thermal mass to keep the interiors cool. The modules were given a coating of tinted plaster to stabilize the CEB, in a color much like the iron-rich red earth of the surrounding terrain, which makes the architecture seem more like a natural emanation of the landscape rather than a man-made imposition.
Other African countries have picked up on Kéré’s feel for place and appropriateness, and his built works elsewhere on the continent have been excellent without exception. These include a visitors’ center for the National Park of Mali in Bamako, completed in 2010; the Benga Riverside School of 2017–2018 in Tete, Mozambique; and, most recently, the Startup Lions Campus of 2019–2021 in Turkana County, Kenya. His sole completed commission in the US to date is his Xylem of 2019, an intriguingly conceived and crafted shelter at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana, a privately sponsored cultural venue that features a number of outdoor sculptures and structures by artists such as Alexander Calder and Mark di Suvero.
Kéré’s contribution is a freestanding circular gazebo made from pine logs harvested from surrounding forests in a “natural pruning” to promote the health of the remaining trees. The structure’s name refers to the pattern created by its roof, which is sixty feet in diameter and assembled from slices of pine log that when viewed from above recall xylems, the circular bundles of vascular tissue that conduct water upward through the stems of growing plants. There is a fitting symmetry in Kéré having fulfilled this commission, because the construction of his Naaba Belem Goumma Secondary School in Gando, begun in 2011, is being underwritten by the Tippet Rise Fund of the Sydney F. Frank Foundation, established by the art center’s founders, Peter and Cathy Frank Halstead.
Because most of Kéré’s completed buildings are far from the well-trodden pathways of mass tourism, few people have seen them apart from their users, local residents, or architecture aficionados who’ve traveled great distances expressly to visit them. Happily, among the latter is Iwan Baan, the Dutch architectural photographer who is renowned for his uncanny ability to capture a building’s setting with extraordinary fidelity while at the same time making pictures that are fully descriptive of its materials, massing, and details. His incisive depictions of Kéré’s work are among the best we have, and the exceptional affinity the two artists share led to their collaboration on Momentum of Light, a poetic visual essay on the traditional architecture of Burkina Faso and, by extension, the influence it has exerted on the artistic development of its foremost contemporary master builder. Baan’s highly atmospheric pictures of the country’s hand-formed mud structures, some of which are painted or incised with powerful graphic patterns, convey an almost palpable impression of his presence on the scene, as do Kéré’s reminiscences of the effect such structures had on defining his own architecture:
The quality of light lies in the interplay of dark and bright. Having only one or the other means losing some of the intricate beauty their communion can provide, making space and the experience within as rich as can be. Never yield the power of light solely to a switch.
In the immediate aftermath of the Third World’s emergence from colonial rule during the second half of the twentieth century, several recently independent nations turned to Western architects to design new governmental centers, most famously Le Corbusier’s new state capital of Chandigarh for the Indian state of Punjab (1951–1964) and Louis Kahn’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, the national capitol building in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962–1983). In due course it became more common for native-born architects to get the commissions for such defining expressions of liberated nationhood, as exemplified by Sri Lanka’s New Parliament Complex in Kotte (1979–1982) by Geoffrey Bawa, and Charles Correa’s Vidhan Bhavan, the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly building in Bhopal, India (1980–1996). Both those schemes draw on regional forms quite different from Le Corbusier’s and Kahn’s more sculpturally abstract Modernist approaches at Chandigarh and Dhaka, which nonetheless rank among their designers’ finest late works.
Kéré has gotten two such governmental commissions thus far. In 2015 he was asked to design a new National Assembly building for Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou to replace the one that was burned down a year earlier during an uprising that ousted Blaise Compaoré, the country’s chief of state for nearly three decades, who wanted to make himself president for life.1 The architect’s unconventional project reflects his determination to “think of how to design a [new parliament building] that responds to Burkina Faso and the needs of the people.”
To avoid making it seem like an unapproachable seat of power, he devised a six-story, ziggurat-like structure with gently gradated and intermittently landscaped slopes that will allow its exterior to be used in much the same way as Snøhetta’s Norwegian National Opera and Ballet of 2002–2008 in Oslo, one of the most popular public spaces created in postmillennial Europe.
The success of Snøhetta’s scheme derives largely from the sloping roof that melds into the plazas that surround the building and serves as a veritable grandstand where locals and tourists delight in seeing and being seen. Whether or not climatic conditions will allow Kéré’s equivalent in Ouagadougou to be used in quite the same way remains to be seen—its realization has been delayed. But the public access that the foremost Burkinabé architect builds into his country’s new parliament building could not speak more distinctly of the democratic and participatory values he hopes his architecture will foster there.
Farther along is his Benin National Assembly of 2019–2023 in Porto-Novo, the capital city of the country formerly called Dahomey, just to the south of Burkina Faso. Kéré’s scheme was inspired by the West African tradition of the palaver tree—normally some huge, broadly canopied tree such as a baobab, in the cooling shade of which tribal representatives would meet to discuss issues of mutual importance. “Palaver,” which is related to the Portuguese palavra (word), in American usage means “idle jabber” and in British has a more pejorative sense of bothersome complications. But in the eighteenth century it denoted negotiations between indigenous people and traders, and in Africa today it signifies parliamentary cooperation.
This 376,000-square-foot building is sited in a public park planted with Benin’s native flora and evokes the protective profile of a gigantic baobab. A four-story, square, flat-roofed office superstructure is lifted on thin peripheral columns and shades a deep wraparound arcade centered with a hollow concrete “tree trunk” surrounded by upwardly flaring supports, all of which reinforce the arboreal imagery without descending into mimetic kitsch. On the ground floor is the parliament’s assembly hall, a lofty ovoid space of admirable simplicity, with curved structural beams that also vaguely suggest sheltering tree branches. The chamber’s pale earth tones and lack of showy nationalistic iconography convey both immense dignity and calm self-assurance.
In 2010, I was asked by Vanity Fair magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter, to participate in a poll of architectural experts to determine “the most important piece of architecture since 1980.” I immediately regarded this as a tiresome journalistic stunt that would reduce a serious issue to a cartoonish popularity contest. Furthermore, mindful of the unanimous critical acclaim that greeted Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain when it opened in 1997 and catapulted its architect to dizzying heights of international fame, the survey’s result seemed as preordained as that of a presidential election in Putin’s Russia.
Nonetheless, I responded with a letter naming Kéré’s Gando Primary School. I explained that “important” can have a wide variety of meanings, but that in my opinion establishing the first school in a desperately poor Third World village, and with a superlative example of innovative sustainable building design at that, seemed a far more important accomplishment than almost anything else I could think of in contemporary architecture. Needless to say, Gehry swept the Vanity Fair competition, with twenty-eight of the fifty-two ballots cast for his Spanish masterpiece. (Renzo Piano’s High Tech–Minimalist Menil Collection in Houston came in second, with ten votes.) I was the sole participant to cite Kéré, which I felt was likely regarded by the magazine staff as a write-in protest. In fact, a tally of all the respondents listed my choice as “(none).”
Since 2017, Kéré has served as chair of architecture at Munich’s Technical University, though his professional office remains in Berlin. (The TU Architecture Museum’s excellent 2016–2017 exhibition of the first fifteen years of his building career was accompanied by an equally fine catalog, Francis Kéré: Radically Simple.2) He holds dual citizenship in Germany and Burkina Faso and divides his time as much as possible between his native and adoptive countries, while also having accepted several of the visiting professorships at prestigious schools—in his case Harvard, Yale, and Germany’s Bauhaus University in Weimar—that come as further proof of rising stardom on the international architectural scene.
But his emotional and moral attachment to his humble roots remains strong, and although one has seen other gifted architects morph from self-effacing aspirants into egomaniacal divas, it seems to me improbable that his head will be turned by the tidal wave of adulation that the Pritzker Prize inevitably unleashes. How judiciously he picks and chooses among the many offers that will now come his way—including such typical Pritzker-winner bait as condos in New York’s Chelsea and Miami’s Brickell districts, boutiques for LVMH luxury brands, and wineries for tech billionaires—will indicate how well Francis Kéré can handle the double-edged sword that is architectural fame in our money-worshiping, celebrity-besotted modern world.