Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Full Interview with award-winning architect Francis Kere

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Francis Kéré’s motto is “help to self-help”. He is convinced that only those who take part in the development processes will be able to appreciate their results, to continue, and to save them. He is also convinced that sustainable architecture is the future for Africa.

Born in a remote village outside Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, Kéré has come a long way. He founded an architectural practice in Berlin, has become a sought-after international lecturer and has won a series of awards including the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture. And for some Africans he has become a hero of sorts, not merely “making it” in Europe, but actually choosing to invest in African people.

How did you discover your love for architecture? Is it something you felt drawn to from a young age or is it more associated with your move to Berlin and your studies there?

I moved to Berlin on a scholarship in order to complete a higher vocational education and training as a woodworker, and my studies were to focus particularly on development activism in relation to carpentering. Burkina Faso, however, doesn’t produce any wood and thus it was, so to say, a job without a future. I also knew ever since I was little that I wanted to build. I used to work long hours along my uncle in renovation when I was as young as 8 or 9. He was a constructor who used to work with clay and the buildings he built had to be renovated every single year. It was truly hard work, especially because of the heavy stones that we had to carry. So I swore I would find a way to do it differently when I grew up. To do it better.

In our first correspondence you mentioned you were working in Burkina Faso. Can you give us some details of what projects you are currently developing there?

I am currently working there on a library for our primary school in Gando, which will practically constitute an extension to the existing building. Besides, we are also working on a gymnasium for the village. Since we have been facing a very high volume of interested students, the government agreed to send gymnasium teachers to Gando, and those teachers arrived and have been teaching in the village since October of last year. Imagine the pressure for the project to complete! We are also developing an opera village in Laongo, the “Remdoogo”. This is an absurd but also highly interesting work, because it is a “plastic” social creation. It was designed by a truly great German artist, Christoph Schlingensief, who sadly passed away last year.

In fact I want to know more about Remdoogo. Naturally one is inclined to think: “An opera? In Burkina Faso? Why on earth?”.
Before anything, I need to say how important it was for me to work next to Christoph Schliingensief, because he was a truly and utterly incredible artist. Admittedly when I first heard about the project I myself encountered it with great skepticism. And I know it is the kind of project that will provoke a lot of negative reactions. But Africa is much more than a poor continent. It is much more than the hungry, poverty-stricken, unjust and underdeveloped piece of land that many African-experts make it out to be. And Christoph wanted to combat exactly that, he wanted to paint an alternative picture of Africa and chose this provocative way to do so. I was surprised to find out that it was 100% his idea actually. 
How did he mean for it to be utilized?
It was never meant to be an opera in the European sense, Christoph never envisaged a Wagner to be played on it’s stage. He wanted African performance to be staged there, in fact he wanted much more than an opera. He envisioned a multi-functional space that would embrace various forms of creative expression. As you may know from the initial opera it has developed into an opera village including a film school, a theatre school and a recording studio. Currently we are working on the school buildings which include auditoriums, teacher residencies, bureaus and a canteen. We we also work on the healthcare facilities before we proceed with works on the actual opera building. 
Are there currently in the country the kind of professionals who will cater for the needs and requirements of such a space?
This is a question directed more towards Christoph than myself. However, Burkina Faso is a major center for African film production. Think for example of FESPACO, the biannual Pan-African Film & Television festival which is No.1 in Africa or the theatrical production of Ouagadougou. In recent years a major music festival has been developed as well. So I believe that the required specialists are indeed available. The infrastructure in this field is indeed available. How Africans will use it to their own benefit is another question.
There is an ongoing discussion about the Chinese influence on African architecture and the increased use of cement. Do you think this is related to practical reasons such as the ease of importing or more relevant to the lack of knowledge on how to utilize local resources?
Well, the Chinese have an impressive amount of specialized professionals who aim at working abroad, which is of course part of Chinese politics. And Africa is an obvious target. In the past Europe used to be the prototype for development in Africa, today it is China. Africans travel to China to buy cheap building material and they observe how the Chinese construct their buildings. Furthermore, the Chinese are frequently on-site in Africa, supporting locals in their construction work. Europeans don’t operate this way, they invest much more time and thought in determining whether Africans need this kind of relationship. But in this they forget how impatient Africans are. Africans want speed and efficiency, they want to see results fast. This “gap” has come to be filled by the Chinese, allowing them to win influence over Africans. This in return causes a chain reaction of Chinese-inspired structures, since humans tend to imitate what is to be found in their surroundings. However, when talking about the use of cement, one has to remember that it was already used by Africans way before the Chinese arrived. There are in fact quite some cement factories on the continent. But the reason why Africans prefer cement over sustainable materials is that they regard cement as innovative. For them cement is an innovation, it is modern. Buildings constructed with cement simply have a much longer life span.
But is this actually the case? Can’t soil be processed in a way as to create materials equally strong and efficient?
One can use soil and clay in innovative ways, but Africans lack the know-how. If this kind of methods (sustainable methods) where to become widespread it would in fact be the best solution for Africa from a financial perspective and a cultural perspective as well. The processing of clay as to become equally strong with cement requires specialized knowledge that my people lack.
What kind of “specialised knowledge” exactly would be required? Could the know-how be achieved through short courses and practical workshops or is a full theoretical base - provided through university level education - a pre-requisite?
Provided that someone has a background in building and construction, focusing on the transmission of this specialized knowledge is relatively easy. One can retrain builders, in fact it is what I have been doing for the past decade and successfully so. But so much more has yet to be done. The problem with organizing workshops in Africa, is the lack of financial resources. One needs an infrastructure for this kind of seminars and the main reason why a lot of efforts fail, are the scarce resources and the lack of governmental support. I hope that I can effect some substantial change in this field. I believe I have built a solid basis that will allow me to spread my knowledge through workshops and lectures. Thus, to return to your question, while builders with higher education knowledge are not required, individuals like myself, who have the luxury of looking beyond their own needs, are a necessity. 
Has it become easier for you to convince local governments and officials of your projects and plans or is every project in a different African region a start from scratch?
Preoccupations against sustainable architecture are still strong. Many people regard building with clay as non-innovative. Soil or clay is still regarded as the “poor people’s” material and this of course is a major problem. In my own work I use clay in a way that produces a solid and long-lasting result but governments are still hard to convince. Therefore local governments have to express interest in a project firsthand. As you can imagine I neither have the time nor the energy to run from official to official in an effort to “proselytize” them. People have to recognize the upsides themselves and pressure officials for an expansion of such projects. Constructing buildings in the most appealing way possible in order to increase demand is thus a necessity. But at the same time one can’t just wait for governments to be “forced” into sustainability either. This is where private institutions come into play, institutions that will support and promote this kind of work. Unfortunately, though, I haven’t seen any of them yet! I wonder where those major foundations with their recognizable names are, Bill Gates foundations etc. Why won’t they come and say “Let’s work with this young man because his concepts are so good”. I suspect that there exists, and don’t get me wrong, a certain kind of discrimination within the field.
What kind of discrimination are you referring to?
People will approach me every other day and ask me to work with them, people who are interested in the methods I use. Every second request is a charitable one. You have no idea how often I get the “Well, we are a small organization and we cannot afford to pay for your work”. But how am I to sustain my work and myself if I never get paid for what I do? I can’t pretend to be a world savior if I can’t even sustain my own office. I wish I were Mother Tereza but I simply am not. I don’t have her strength, her unselfishness or her grandeur. Instead I have a small office in Berlin that needs to survive. The reason I started this work was in order to transmit my knowledge to my people, but somehow I have to be compensated for it in order to keep going.
But there are arguably so many organizations active in Africa who deal with substantial amounts of funding. Are you implying that it is not in their best interests to support work that aims at African self-sufficiency and independence?
From my own observations, I would confidently say that this is indeed true. Maybe it is my personal subjective conviction, I don’t really know. But the impression this situation leaves you with is that nobody is interested in trusting Africans with their own development. The inclination is for dependency to be perpetuated. Perhaps this is related to the fact that organizations which “make a living” out of development projects in Africa, fear that once Africa grows stronger they themselves will grow redundant. But I certainly doubt the deeper motives of those organizations. They claim to wanting to help, but how can they ever help when they repeatedly avoid teaching people to help themselves?
Certainly if one considers for how long help-institutions and organizations have been active in Africa and what has come out of that activity, one has to wonder “where does all the money go?”.
Exactly. Where does all the money go? In my ten years on all my projects combined I have not spent more than 200.000 euros. Yet every single one of them has proven award winning and has been praised internationally. Where you to visit any of them, you would be impressed by their functionality. And still, no big organization has ever approached me to work with me. I have no idea what they’re waiting for.
Don’t you get the impression that this kind of international praise promotes your work in a way that can subsequently lead to substantial funding of future projects?
I think the fact that all my prizes are hidden in drawers in my office implies a lot about the reality of the situation! Certainly prizes such as the Aga Khan Award do reveal a recognition of one’s work by the architectural community and they are an honor. But funding has not become any easier due to them. Maybe I am a bad person, I honestly can’t tell (laughs).
What keeps you going then?
I know that change will come. And I don’t really sit with my hands crossed waiting for it to come either. Maybe that’s my problem! I keep fighting, knowing that one day an institution will be found that will support my work whole-heartedly. Someone who will recognize that sustainability is exactly what Africa needs, someone who will be familiar with the conditions in Africa and the challenges, possibly being African themselves. Who will be devoted to the African people in the same way that I am devoted to them. But as I said, I don’t wait passively for them. I see my people change through me and wanting to effect change as a result and I love it. Sometimes I think you can have a greater impact with scarce resources when your heart is set on something, rather than with millions of dollars. Where are those millions? I don’t see them anywhere in Africa.
How long have you been active on the continent?
I started working in Africa as an architect in ’98 when I had to found an association in order to finance the construction of my first school in Gando, while I was still a student in Germany. At that time I was asked why I wanted to proceed by myself, when it was the “government’s business” to provide this kind of structure. Of course this revealed how unassuming people where about the situation in Africa, about how few resources governments there have and how they choose to employ them. So I decided to set up my own organization. My architectural bureau, however, wasn’t established until 2006, two years after I obtained my title as an architect.
Over the course of this 13 years, have you observed an increased tendency towards sustainable architecture or does it remain an outsider in relation to more commercial work?
There is certainly a tendency, but unfortunately up until now, it hasn’t been much more than that: an inclination. There is a lot of inquiry about this kind of work but we still have a very long way to go from inquiry to continuous production. But I think that if more and more people like me invest into this kind of effort the time will eventually come. As long as architects are lucky enough to build their own community and develop a group of dedicated workers who are interested in this form of construction, there’s a great chance that sustainability will establish itself as a reality rather than merely a fashion. As long as the natural surroundings and the climate of a given African region are taken into account while building, there is no need for anyone to spend crazy sums on air-conditioning. One day Africans will realize that.
But you are still a kind of “underdog” in the architectural community if I am not mistaken. And by underdog I mean someone who, while having gained widespread recognition in Europe and the rest of the world, is dedicated to a continuity of Africa-based projects. I understand that while there are many architects who will do the odd project in Africa, barely any invest in the continent as much as you do.
I have noticed that while there is a great interest expressed by architects from abroad to partake in projects in Africa, it rarely goes beyond that one project. I understand that many of them don’t have - and I will say this hesitantly - the courage required. And that’s really ok. Others don’t have the luck that I have and the opportunity to keep coming back. But most of them I think do these projects because they want their “African experience” and they are not obliged to any community. I have an obligation towards my own community and that community doesn’t know or care about the name that I have built in Europe. They want and they need me to work with them and for them. And it is my mission to do so. I love working with them, I really do. It is incomprehensible how much energy, love and respect you can draw from being and working around them. I think with time more and more estranged Africans will recognize the beauty of contributing to their own communities and will proceed with works on the continent. As soon as they recognize what they themselves can gain - and I am talking about love here - as part of a community, they will attempt to converse their European knowledge into something of value for their African counterparts.
I remember someone asking you some years ago whether you would like to return to Burkina Faso and settle there. You answered that for the time being this would be impossible since there are no universities for architecture in Burkina Faso at which you could teach. Do you still feel the same way?
Actually, in the whole of Francophone Africa there is currently only one higher level architecture school, which is located in Togo. It is a small African school, with thousands of African problems.
Do you think progress is gradually made towards a direction that will allow for more such schools to be established?
I think it will take a while before any such progress can be achieved. Architectural schools are very expensive, because architectural equipment is very expensive in itself and arguably, African countries don’t have this amount of financial resources. Additionally, competent experts are required to run such places and they too are scarce on the continent. Architecture is an interdisciplinary subject which asks for scholars from a variety of fields to teach simultaneously and barely any African nation can afford this for the time being. Of course there is the private sector as well, for example two years ago a small private architecture school was established in Mali. But I don’t really have enough information to talk about it.
Is there an African dream project which you would love to develop but which is impossible to utilise at the moment?
The lack of information people in resource poor settings are facing is extreme. It took a really long time for people in Africa to discover my work, whereas Europeans where immediately informed about the progress of it. Thus what I believe is essential through my projects is to develop the kind of structure that will allow for a more immediate flow of information. A structure that will allow me to spread my knowledge throughout Africa. I dream of building a research centre where Europeans and Africans will communicate and exchange experience and knowledge. Where Europeans will come and teach my own folk how to put Western university level knowledge into practice.
But does Africa really need this European input in order to develop? For more than a hundred years this exchange you mention has been taking place. To what result?
I know. But I am talking about a two way process, about the kind of relationship where Africans will teach Europeans as well. A lot of Europeans actually come to Africa with a true desire to help, but their know-how comes and goes with them. They aren’t able to “touch” Africans as much as they could and I want to find a way to change that. What I am aiming at in the immediate future, however, is to find a way to support the people I have been working with in Gando, in spreading the knowledge they have acquired throughout Burkina Faso and Africa. That’s my priority right now.
http://www.kere-architecture.com/