“A Wall Can Have a Very Long Life”
November 14, 2019
Francis Kéré has become one of the most distinguished contemporary architects due to his pioneering of a communal approach to design and his commitment to sustainable materials as well as modes of construction. Before Francis Kéré received a scholarship to train as an architect in Germany, he was a carpenter who worked in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso.
With senior critic Martin Finio, Francis is guiding an advanced studio located in Accra, Ghana, under the name New Tools. The studio is challenging students to rethink architecture as a social, ecological mediator within the limited environment of West Africa.
Sean Yang: In your projects, the local community is often responsible for constructing and maintaining the building: how does that affect the way the building is put together and then changes over time?
Francis Kéré: In my projects, the local community builds projects together, which makes the control of the quality of all the building elements difficult. If you think about all the products in a building, like a door handle, the builders in Germany might give you three types to choose from and each one is high quality. But in Burkina Faso, the samples are always bad, and after six months, the products will break.
What I’m doing now is to create a company with the people of Gando to create products, and now we have around two hundred employees.
Hamzah Ahmed: How do you take on that extra responsibility and risk in an entrepreneurial way? Does that deeper involvement with projects affect the decisions you make about designing lasting buildings?
FK: Normally I discuss with the client all the issues within the design process. The client will check everything that I design, including all the windows and their total cost. The client doesn’t normally care how you achieve high quality design. The risk I take, and the people I work with, is to ensure the building is done within the budget and that we maintain a very high design quality together.
HA: That’s interesting. The way you’re describing it sounds like you’re engaging with architecture as a product-based industry rather than a service-based one.
FK: In my place, that is the only way you can produce sustainable quality that lasts for the whole lifetime of a building.
The idea of the construction company started in 2010 when I began several projects with my community in Gando. I just raised enough money to start construction, and we began to create whatever we needed to. We didn’t hire anyone else in the building profession, because no one could do exactly what we wanted to do in Gando. How we wanted to use clay was new to the industry; the way I wanted to use laterite was new; the way I designed roof trusses made out of reinforcement bars was new. There was no engineer that was ready to sign off on the projects, so I had to take responsibility myself. From then on, people started to be interested in what I was doing.
Another project of mine was a governmental one, and I began designing policies. Learning from the German context, where I have an office, and applying its principles to Burkina Faso, I learned about the systems that control construction businesses. Policies affect everything from the transparent bidding process to cost estimation. Although the corporate structure of the industry is meant to be good for everyone, it also obliges you to do something or use something that you don’t want. But the first few projects were made with bad materials and were disappointing.
People kept trying to convince me to keep designing within the same structure. So I tried to make each designed element simpler to build: we prefabricated structural elements, windows, and even all the furniture of our projects. In the end, the roof structure for a primary school in Gando, which we designed very well, was built from shitty materials. So I was dissatisfied again.
Then I began saying to clients, either you let me build my own design with my people, or you look for someone else. I don’t care about the price, I don’t care about people saying an architect should not build on his own because of corruption or conflicts of interest. I am able to build my own design, I’m honest, I want to have quality, and that should be enough for the client. That’s how we started.
Now we’re starting a university project and also a large clinic in Kenya. And in Senegal, I have a project with the Goethe Institute that requires very high quality: we’re trying to expand our role in the building process and scale up the business. The whole purpose is to control the quality of the building.
SY: So in your case, do you separate your construction and architecture entity into two separate companies?
FK: Yes, in Germany, and other parts of the world, there are strict rules about the company structure, but in Burkina Faso, they operate almost as one company – the thinker and maker is one.
A building itself has a lot of handcraft that you need to control, and you often have a lot of things to be checked on-site, like the quality of the concrete or the structure. Whereas for a door, you need to know how to buy and manufacture things in advance. In both strategies, you have to be very careful, and you need knowledge and experience. Knowledge is not enough. Experience is often more useful. The fabricator also needs experience: if they don’t then you’re going to fail.
SY: So does that mean you’re also venturing beyond just designing these products and components for your buildings but also starting to generate
a company that’s selling them to other folks?
FK: Exactly, in Africa, this potential exists. This is what I’m working on.
Hojae Lee: Are you also looking to take more control over the projects in the
US that you’ve started to do?
FK: Yes it’s possible. Here it depends on the client. For example, we did this canopy for the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana (2019). The clients are artists and they cooperate well: they respect our profession, because artists are builders of their own. They know they don’t know much about our field, and we have to support them to be satisfied with the results. The project was a giant canopy out of wooden logs. It was very sophisticated. If you don’t control and work with the fabricator, you cannot produce work like this.. You also need a good client to be able to do that. Not someone who just says ‘Mr. Architect…stop!’ In Germany they would often say ‘schloss, schloss – no more negotiation.
But they want to support you to create something for them, they want you to be artists – or architects in this case – and to be happy. So with that kind of client, you are able to control the build quality. The process is part of the project. But for places where they say ‘I have x square meters and this is what I want’, you will not be able to control quality.
HA: Perhaps the next logical step if you’re going to take control of the design process, and the manufacturing, is to become a client yourself. Are you interested in that?
FK: I see it as a danger because the consideration of financial aspects may become heavier than the design. In my case, being a client was born out of necessity. I am from a country where you barely have professionals. You have artisans and craftsmen, and you have to envision how to get them into the whole construction process. Then you have builders, or what you would call entrepreneurs, who take these craftspeople and don’t pay them well. Because the profit, for them, is key. For me, it is all about quality. So if I work with an artisan directly, I can achieve higher quality and I will pay him well.
SY: Are you thinking about scaling-up the manufacturing side of your business? Mass manufacturing can create a lot of waste and is tied to vast consumption of resources.
FK: In Burkina Faso there is a large demand for these kinds of products. We designed a chair for a school, since we were not able to buy them from the market at a reasonable cost and quality. We sketched them on a construction site and built them by welding. They were so good that everyone who came to visit asked where we bought this furniture. So the manufacturing business really happened out of necessity because people were so interested in what we were doing.
I’m the designer and the maker. Sometimes I laugh because I need someone that can sell the thing that I’m doing.
HA: How are the products and the buildings maintained in Burkina Faso?
FK: In the place where I grew up, you maintain your own home. The government has a structure that is supposed to maintain the public realm, but really nobody properly maintains the infrastructure.
However, with my village, for example, most of the infrastructure I’m creating, people feel it is their own. They create the building and then they care care for it, and they have a team who work hard for its maintenance. You have to care for it. If you don’t care, it’s affecting the quality of the building, which is reducing the lifespan.
HL: Why are people so attached to the buildings in Gando?
FK: Because of the feeling ‘it is our building. We did it, it is ours.’ Because they participated in the making. That is a very strong link, and it’s the main reason why they maintain it.
SY: Do you think that it is possible to scale up this model to larger projects?
FK: That is a big question. The larger things become, the more complex they get: this requires more people to be involved. We can’t just tell people to behave in a way that is good for the building. Maintenance of large infrastructure, including buildings, is not easy. You have visible things that you can see, like cracks in a wall or dirt, and then take action. But to assess the underlying structure, you always need a professional to do that.
SY: So you feel that, as you scale up, you still are going to need that professionalism.
FK: Professionals need to assist each other. It is not easy to change everyone’s behavior, because there is already a structured network of beneficiaries in any project. In the US, for example, unions are a very powerful lobbying force, which is not easy to overcome. So these kinds of structures make things complicated. If other professionals decide that a building should be torn down in fifty years and then rebuilt, you are forced to do so as an architect.
HA: In Burkina Faso, let’s say, what is the lifespan of a building?
FK: Traditionally, a wall can have a very long life, as long as you regularly apply plaster. The Djinguereber Mosque (1327) in Timbuktu is older than the US: for its whole life, the community has come together to maintain its clay. They even have inserted wooden elements over the years to maintain the structure. The new materials they apply are not changing the character of the building, even though it lives longer. Nowadays people are using concrete, which is supposed to have a longer lifespan than plaster. But in Burkina Faso, it’s not done well and not done by the art of the material. This way you have new buildings that are not very durable, while a clay building can stand for more than seven hundred years.
SY: So which members of the community are responsible for redoing the plaster and painting those clay buildings?
FK: Every member who sees this building as their landmark. For example, with the mosque, it’s the people who pray there. It’s the community who’s really in charge because they have a way to work with each other. Each new layer of plaster will be made every two or three years.
SY: There’s something poignant about the way people look after their buildings as they age because then it becomes a cultural response.
FK: Cultural response, that’s the word. We’re doing an Opera Village complex (under construction) in Gando, that is a project of great national interest. We had a whole network of artists that were in charge of local activities, and the government was in charge of infrastructure. However, when the government changed, there was no more continuity of ambition. But the cultural identity of the project still remains: its spirit is passed from the older members of the community to the youngsters that grow with this responsibility. And the motivation is not to gain money, but to create a piece of performing arts culture.
Eventually, when you work with a group of professionals, it becomes about revenue. If it becomes more complex to renovate, they will tear down the building and make another one: it’s not a good way to do things. I think architects are constrained because we have a budget, and often the client doesn’t let you do something because of their own agenda. I think this often leads to buildings that are just not good enough.
HA: We’re rarely taught how to renovate buildings in architecture school, and that seems to be a huge part of the future of our profession. How can we cultivate a professional attitude towards taking care of buildings rather than replacing them?
FK: Dealing with the right people, the right clients, it is still possible to create new buildings that embrace all of these ideas: durability, quality, and economy. A building is like an organism and with time it changes; we have to care for it. The more time and smart ideas you invest into building, the less maintenance you will have and the longer buildings will live.
SY: When we over specify or design something that’s too novel, it naturally becomes so complicated that you need the professionals. In your projects, it seems like you share expertise with the people who construct your buildings, so that they also become professionals in their trade.
FK: Over-specification is good in some fields, but in other fields you see the weaknesses of it. Because of new methods of building, there are many layers of construction that no one can control, like facade systems that are too complicated for the client to operate and maintain. Sometimes even drilling a hole in the wall requires a professional. I think we should take more responsibility: we should always reinterpret the way we do things.
We also need to be resilient: the client will always hire the easiest architect, the one who always says ‘yes’. I recently read the former Google executive, Mo Gawdat’s, book Solve for Happy (2016), and I agree that there is always some sort of competition. He talks about the fact that Google can’t afford to say no to developing artificial intelligence, because a competitor might take the ideas further and succeed. If one architect says no then another one will take the job. To run away from personal responsibility is a big issue.
Design matters a lot. I’m convinced about that and I trust our profession. I mean look at me. Now you know where I come from, but when I started working twenty five years ago, nobody knew anything about my village. I tried to go back and use the most available materials to create something with character and durability, because I was against the standard boxes that have been built everywhere else. I tried to do things differently.
So I have a belief in our profession: if you build things right, they’re gonna stand the test of time.