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Pritzker Prize 2022 winner Francis Kere is a masterful manipulator of geometry

Gando Primary School, Kere’s first building, is a low oblong structure of vaulted brickwork, supporting a floating roof — a double layer that protects the interior classrooms from the oppressive heat but also allows for continual air circulation. 

The Pritzker Architecture Prize for 2022, the profession’s highest honour, has been awarded to Francis Kere, a West-African architect who, in 20 years of a Berlin-based practice, has created a lyrical portfolio of imaginative buildings. “Through buildings that demonstrate beauty, modesty, boldness, and invention, and by the integrity of his architecture, Kere gracefully upholds the mission of this prize,” says the official statement of the Pritzker Prize committee.

In a world glutted with design sameness and mediocrity, it is rare to find architectural work so exceptional and thoughtful it clearly stands the tests of time and culture; to find that it has been recognised and rewarded for these qualities is itself surprising. Kere’s work defies the normally easy categorisation of architecture, and falls somewhere between cultural relic, social catalyst, and contemporary art. In the first mesmerising glance is visible its West African roots, a buoyant modernism, and a risk-taking intelligence that tests its certain place in an uncertain time.

Other than schools and medical facilities, his work in Africa includes two parliament buildings — the National Assembly of Burkina Faso and Benin National Assembly — as well as the Startup Lions Campus in Kenya, an information technology campus, and the Burkina Institute of Technology, among other projects.

Francis Kere.

Francis Kere.

“I grew up in a community where there was no kindergarten, but where the community was your family,” he says. “Everyone took care of you and the entire village was your playground. My days were filled with securing food and water, but also simply being together, talking together, building houses together.”

Set in his own village, his very first building, the Gando Primary School, ensured it did not remind him of the dark dank structures in which he spent much of his childhood. The school is a low oblong structure of vaulted brickwork, supporting a floating roof — a double layer that protects the interior classrooms from the oppressive heat but also allows for continual air circulation. The school’s simple layout masks a complex artistry of engineering that creates thermal comfort in extreme weather conditions. Kere is a masterful manipulator of geometry and mixing diverse materials — part and parcel of a training he received in carpentry, furniture making and roof construction in his early years in Germany.

Felt humanism

Much of his work consequently reflects a genuine and felt humanism, the efforts of a man in close touch with his culture and environment, the very currency of invention and discovery.

Nothing suggests these qualities more succinctly than his design response at the Serpentine Pavilion. London’s pastoral green and deadpan English garden setting was fittingly embellished with African colour and texture, in a building that stood its cultural ground and gave a keynote signal firmly rooted in the aspirational state of architecture.

The pavilion’s design is inspired by African public traditions of meeting and ‘communing under a sacred tree’. A circular wall of indigo modules detaches from a spreading umbrella-like structure and funnels rainwater to its centre. “I am hoping to push people to dream and undergo risk. It is not because you are rich that you should waste material; it is not because you are poor that you should not create quality. We are interlinked, and concerns in climate, democracy and scarcity are concerns for us all.”

 The Lycée Schorge Secondary School in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, uses a curtain of fast-growing wood as a natural screen against sunlight.

 The Lycée Schorge Secondary School in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, uses a curtain of fast-growing wood as a natural screen against sunlight.

Easy and fluent in a variety of local techniques, combining African wall patterns, modern roof planes and steel trellises, Kere’s buildings are bereft of any self-conscious style. They are modern, as well as traditional, products of local craft with clear allusions to Western engineering. Unlike the large anonymous practices of Foster & Rogers, Himmelblau and Koolhaas, Kere’s architecture does not suggest a multi-tasking assembly-line practice, but rather the slow evolution in a private history, cast carefully as pieces of art from a family kiln.

It is impossible to pinpoint why the buildings work so well. First and foremost is their contradictory composition of extreme delicacy and rugged strength. Then comes their relative incompleteness, as if they are meant to be open structures discovered in a rough landscape, and only complete with the presence of people. Even more engaging is the intermixing of unlikely tactility — smooth polished floors contrasted against rough brick walls, brightly coloured windows in monochrome surfaces.

No rigid formulas

Equally, the architecture succumbs to no rigid formulas. A structural system, an architectural grid, or a continual texture appear only to be quickly broken by the introduction of their opposite. The masonry base of the Surgical Clinic and Health Centre in Leo, Burkina Faso, is topped by a domino of steel roofs angled to ventilate and create larger shadows on the ground. The Lycée Schorge Secondary School in neighbouring Koudougou uses a curtain of fast-growing wood as a natural screen against sunlight. You move quickly from blinding shadow-less ground into soothing darkness. The eye is constantly surprised by paradoxical shifts and realignments.

The masonry base of the Surgical Clinic and Health Centre in Leo, Burkina Faso, is topped by a domino of steel roofs angled to ventilate and create larger shadows on the ground.

The masonry base of the Surgical Clinic and Health Centre in Leo, Burkina Faso, is topped by a domino of steel roofs angled to ventilate and create larger shadows on the ground.

Kere’s success lies in the eloquent exploration of sensory richness in austerity — something that perhaps Japanese architect Tadao Ando may have managed had he been born in Africa. The Women’s Association Centre, built in his own village, is a meeting centre for 300 women of the area. The enclosure is formed in a meeting pit curved around an old neem tree, shaded, and cooled by breeze. Clay pots for surplus grain built into the wall are themselves cooling devices. By placing great value in architecture as inheritance, the architect’s private history and childhood is absorbed into subconscious architectural thought.

Doubtless, Kere is acutely aware that creative work of any kind is imperfect, and like all great architecture, his African work rides the wave to the very edge of failure. The buildings look at once remote and ready to fall apart; the low oblong shapes of schools, assemblies, community centres and grain storage bins that appear across the open West African horizon are like slow fading monuments that erode rather than self-destruct. Even when they disappear from sight in the gloom of the evening light, they remain ignited and purposeful in memory.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.


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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 12:36:36 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/pritzker-prize-2022-winner-francis-kere-is-a-masterful-manipulator-of-geometry/article65259338.ece