We met with Diébédo Francis Kéréat the Vitra Campus of Weil am Rhein, Germany: here he has done the prototype of an innovative retail store, but he wanted to talk about Africa. He was born there (at Gando, a village of 2500 people in the savanna of Burkina Faso) and he returns there, whenever he can, to share what he has learned in Europe, where he is a successful designer, with his people.

Why have you decided to concentrate your efforts above all on the African continent and in social projects?

Africa needs us much more than Europe does. And then it is my country, the place I was born. In my village there was nothing, no schools, no health care, no community center. Thanks to a scholarship I was able to study in Europe, in Berlin, and to become an architect. But from the start I thought I would devote much of my professional activity to building those missing infrastructures in the places of my childhood. While still a student, I founded a non-profit association, “Schulbausteine feur Gando” (Bricks for Gando, ed.), to raise funds for my village. The objective, then and now, is to improve the quality of life of my people. To build useful things, but also things of beauty and quality: which after all is the sole, simple reason for the existence of my profession.

Do you think that architecture has to rediscover its ‘humanity’ ?

Today it is hard to define architecture as being on a human scale because often it is just an end in itself, too exclusive, also due to costs. Being at the service of people does not mean producing luxury buildings for living, it means responding to the needs of the people who live in them. In any case, let’s look at the facts. In the world there are people who have higher standards of living and others who live with much less: the most important thing is to find the right balance, without ever forgetting that you can make a useful work of architecture anywhere, capable of approaching and solving future problems of construction…

Problems like those connected with the environment?

Certainly. When we think about the future, actually we are thinking about how to have a life of quality. This is our objective. And to achieve it, in my view – but it should be the view of everyone – the central point is to respect the environment, to take care of it, which for us designers means concentrating on where you are building, and how you do it. In other words, we should not only talk about sustainability in an abstract way, but modify our way of living, designing, constructing buildings in a concrete way, because the resources of the planet are shrinking and we have to make thriftier use of them. Everywhere: in the more fortunate countries from an economic standpoint, and in the poorer countries, because we all share the same destiny. A holistic approach is required on the part of architecture, involving every aspect: starting with man to arrive at the environment, the study of the place, its climate conditions, its natural and cultural resources…

Which means, in concrete terms?

When I go to visit a site for a new project the first thing I do is to observe the context: the goal is to discover what nature can offer – regarding materials, for example – and then to study the climate, to analyze the potential of local communities – the level of crafts and labor, just to mention two important aspects. It is all a question of resources. I could never go to Africa, take the clay and bring it to Berlin to build a house, and then say that it is a sustainable project. Of course clay is a natural, ecological material, but it is perfect in Africa: here, in Berlin, you need to find something else. For me, this is a responsible way of making architecture

You design in Europe and Africa. What is the difference?

In Africa, where everything is needed and there is little economic support, you learn not to waste anything, and to make do with what you have. It is not impossible to apply the same approach in Europe, but of course it has to be adapted to the context. For example, in the project I did on the Vitra Campus in Germany, I used raw lamellar wood, a ‘humble’ natural material that was easy to find in the vicinity, making it sustainable. You cannot think that just because the client is Vitra, you should necessarily use costly materials! You can still achieve amazing results thanks to sophisticated technologies, excellent workmanship and constructive solutions of high quality. Another important lesson comes from Africa: to learn to share work.

In the projects I have done in my village, I have involved all the inhabitants: a collaborative process has emerged that makes the community proud, emotionally involved, so as to ensure the success of the project itself.

In conclusion: when you work in Africa you have the sensation of being useful to the community, and it is a wonderful satisfaction that fills you with energy. When you return to the West, you know you have great economic and technological resources, and this too gives you lots of energy. They are two different worlds, unfortunately still very distant, but they share one very important strategic objective: to improve the lives of people.

photos by Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk, Kéré Architecture – text by Laura Ragazzola