On March 15th it was announced that the 2022 Pritzker Prize laureate is Diébédo Francis Kéré. While I am pleased to see that he is the first African to receive this prestigious award, what makes me most pleased is something beyond that.
I didn’t know that much about his firm, but I was aware of some of his work. He gave the Keynote address at the Fellows Convocation of the RAIC in 2018 in St. John New Brunswick and I learned something about him there. Beyond that, one can see from the images on the Pritzker site that his work is modest in scale and is community-based. His first project was the Gando Primary School, in his old hometown of Gando, Burkina Faso. There was no school there when he was growing up. Now there is.
What I see in his list of projects are schools, health clinics, and other public buildings. I see someone who views architecture as something more than the provision of a service to commercial clients or the marketplace. Another example is the Startup Lions Campus in Kenya.
“The project responds to the pressing challenge of youth unemployment faced in the region by offering high-level training and access to international job opportunities, allowing young entrepreneurs to thrive professionally without having to leave their place of origin.”
This says something about what motivates him as an architect. His work is much more than a ‘project for a client’. It speaks to his view of the value of his skills to a community, how those skills contribute to a community. This does not mean a sacrifice of aesthetics to the demands of a committee or a community. I think that’s obvious from the images on the website chosen by the Pritzker jury.
Hearing the announcement, my first thought was not that Kéré was the first African laureate (something worth examining from the perspective of architecture’s underlying Eurocentrism). Rather it was what this might mean to the possible direction of the Pritzker Prize itself and architectural prizes in general.
The Pritzker Prize presents itself as a kind of ‘Nobel Prize’ for architecture. As such, and somewhat like the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is for a body of work rather than a single work (like the Pulitzer Prize for fiction).
The Pritzker website states the purpose of the award is:
To honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.
I must say, if my reading of the jury’s choice in awarding Kéré with this prize, there is something in his work I haven’t really seen much (if at all) in any of the major architectural awards. And, more than the fact that he’s the first African recipient of the Pritzker, I see in Kéré’s work a much greater focus on community and community need. In that regard, it’s important that his first project was a small primary school (2001) in his hometown of Gando, Burkina Faso.
When he was a child, he travelled nearly 40 kilometers to the next village in order to attend a school with poor lighting and ventilation. The experience of trying to learn in this oppressive environment affected him so much that when he began to study architecture in Europe, he decided to reinvest his knowledge towards building a new school in his home village. With the support of his community and funds raised through his foundation, Schulbausteine fuer Gando (Bricks for Gando,) Francis began construction of the Primary School, his very first building. (“Gando Primary School / Kéré Architecture”)
A lovely and very modest project that brought his skills back to his own hometown and his experience as a schoolchild. It received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004.
I see a couple of distinctions here between other Pritzker laureates and Kéré. Part of that is what motivates the work. Part of it is how we understand the criteria for ‘prize-winning’ architecture.
Just from the Gando Primary School alone (though there are other examples, like the Centre for the Songtaaba Women’s Association in Gando and the Gando Library), I see motivation coming directly out of his own experience in his community – a recognition of community needs (a primary school) and a personal motivation to get it built. And further, to get it built by the community and with (mostly) local materials.
When I look at the work of other Pritzker laureates, I see a more traditional approach to the process and motivation for the work. More often, the clients are governments or corporations – clients with enough resources to allow for significant, often historical contributions to the aesthetics of architecture.
This brings me to the second point of distinction I see. I go back to the purpose of the Pritzker award, stated above, “consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”
The ‘art’ of architecture.
Of the Vitruvian trinity – ‘firmness, commodity and delight’ – great majority of the prominent architecture prizes are focused on delight or the ‘art’ of architecture. I completely understand that pull towards the aesthetic aspect of architecture and its role in the long evolving history of architecture. We look at the photographic images of all those Pritzker Prize laureates and make quick judgments from those photographs about the laureate’s body of work and how it expands our understanding of that changing history of ‘delight’.
But, even as an architecture student, I couldn’t help but notice that most of these architectural photographs show the building without people. If there are people in them, they are dwarfed by the architecture itself. We are meant to be looking at the building as an object of ‘delight’. We don’t want to be distracted by people in the frame. People are messy and fail to contribute to the building as ‘object’. Unfortunately, in the larger scheme of things, this leads the lay public to understand architecture as a superficial contribution – we make buildings ‘pretty’. While we know there is much more to architecture than that, it is the focus of most of the prizes we award each other for our work.
I see something more in Kéré’s work. It arises out of his own community and expands from that solid foundation. The work is not simply an object in space but a representation of the needs of a community – his community. That includes the materials available in his community and the skills they bring to the production of that needed building. This is not to ignore the aesthetic component and there is nuance in Kéré’s work that makes that clear. That component, though it may well be the focus of the photographs and our architectural judgment of them, arises more out of a community than it does the long history of architecture.
This is what I appreciate about Kéré’s award. It is not only that he is the first black man and the first African to have this award (what took so long?) but that there is an underlying expansion of our understanding of the value of architecture to a community.
I am reminded of the work of Hasan Fathy, who, in his work in New Gourna in the 1940s in Egypt (described in detail in his book Architecture for the Poor) led to the development of ‘appropriate technology’ and renewal of interest in local materials and methods. His work arose out of and augmented a community. It was a book, along with Turner’s Freedom to Build, I kept close by throughout my time at architecture school.
It is also useful to note that there are only two architects who have won the Right Livelihood Award – Hasan Fathy (1980 laureate) and John F.C. Turner (1988 laureate). It would seem to me that, when we consider awards for architecture, our criteria could be broader that it currently seems to be. There is already, I would imagine, an environmental component considered by the Jury. Could we include how a project, or, in the case of the Pritzker, a career meets the SDGs? How about using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a set of criteria a building or career should address to be eligible for an architecture award? Article 1 of the UDHR states:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Francis Kéré’s work says a great deal to me about dignity. I give him the last word:
“I was lucky to grow up in a community where the survival of the entire community depends on the support of each member. If you came from a community like mine, and you remember [while you were a student] all the women collecting their last penny to give to you to support your education. This is energy that people have put in you, and you should use it to grow and to create things that will push other kids to do the same thing. That is what I’m doing.” (“Pritzker Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré on why his childhood is keeping him motivated”, Archinect, 22MAR22)