Around 14 years ago I was involved in helping to organise a lecture by a little-known architect at the time from Burkina Faso. I was keen on this, as developing architecture was not particularly followed much less appreciated in the UK. Apart from the DPU at UCL there was little experimentation into this genre of developing indigenous architecture, in the UK architectural circle.
The Architect that was invited was Francis Kere who was a charismatic and incredibly charming speaker who made a mesmerising first impression. He spoke about people and communities and how the projects he had designed had been built by the local community and to get them made he had to learn from techniques from local craftsman and then work out how to develop their methods with some new ideas. This meant he had to physically craft and build, as did his troupe of German helpers. Because there would be little distinction between designing, crafting and building, the local community did not see a distinction between the design and the build, it was all part of one holistic composition. Years later if the younger people in his village were asked what they wanted to be they would say ‘we want to be a Francis’ meaning whether it was designing, carpentry, weaving or building it made little difference it was part of a whole because people didn’t have a title or a better way of describing the change in looking at their local buildings. This was immersive architecture, with a fully engaged community.
What Francis has done is utilise his German education to re-engineer traditional mud brick and corrugated metal buildings to create a new lexicon. Redefining chunky, clunky materials, into finely crafted, elegantly ventilated habitats all of which are environmentally on point, sustainable, maintainable, and economical. Meanwhile the large overhanging cantilevers and elegant lattice structures that lift the roof are the refinements that meshes Western and African materiality and design languages.
The Pritzker Award to Francis Kere is a real turning point in Architecture unlike those gone before. It is a recognition to a ‘different kind’ of dialogue and innovation in design, away from the perceived glossy opulence of western architecture. As Alejandro Aravena the head of the judging panel for Pritzker said his ‘body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place.’ No doubt there is the huge impact that his win makes to the discourse on race and culture in architecture which in itself is a positive evolution.
However the real reason why this is a great choice of recipient is that it will give immeasurable hope and create fantastical dreams for generations of youngsters, considering architecture as a job. It celebrates indigenous vernacular architecture as fed through the filter of evolutionary design. A process can be seen where ‘local’ can be a thing of beauty, with cultural heritage and architectural innovation. Most importantly children saying‘I want to be a Francis’, is the epitome of an architect connecting and giving hope, not just through his buildings but through his engagement as a human being a relatable human architect, connecting to the audience and community he serves. That is the celebration and why he so richly deserves this award and something we can learn in the west.