Of What Use is your Architecture to your Local Community?
Lone Ranger in Social Responsibility
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in Africa. By 2011, more than 80% of the population was completely illiterate. It is in this country that Diebedo Francis Kere was born in 1965, in a small village called Gando. No schools existed in Gando. Luckily, Kere was the first son of the village chief, and thus the only child allowed to attend school so he could read and translate his father’s letters.
After finishing his education, he received a scholarship from the Carl Duisburg Society to do an apprenticeship in Germany as a supervisor in development aid. Afterwards, he went on to study architecture at the Technical University of Berlin, graduating in 2004.
While in school, he felt the need to give back to the community that had supported him, and to give the future generations an opportunity to follow in his footsteps. He decided to do so by building them a school. In Burkina Faso, schools are built with corrugated iron sheets for roofing. The classes are also overcrowded and it is very hot inside them. Francis Kere felt the need to do something to alter this situation in his community as a way of giving thanks to the society that made it possible for him to attain the education levels that he had.
As a 3rd year student in Germany, Mr. Kere decided that the time had come to embark on his school project. However, his biggest challenge was that he had no money. Moreover, no one was willing to give a huge sum of money to a third year student to carry out a non-profit project. On the other hand, Mr. Kere felt that he needed to do something immediately about the situation at home. He could not wait a few more years as he was advised.
In his desperation, he decided to create a foundation to raise funds for his project. He therefore started the SchulbausteinefürGando Foundation and managed to raise about 50,000 dollars. This was the entire budget for the project, including transport costs, purchase of materials, and labor. Thus, Francis Kere was able to realize his first project, a primary school in Gando, as a third year student. The project was completed in 2001.
The school had walls made of clay. He experimented with the idea of using 92% clay mixed with 8% cement for strengthening, which was a great success. It proved both cheap and effective. The clay was locally sourced. For the roof, he used corrugated iron and steel trusses since timber was obviously not durable because of termites.
To build the foundation, he involved the community by asking them to collect stones and rocks and bring them to the site. This saved money and made the people become part of the project. The people became one with their school and developed a sense of ownership and identity with it. The people of the community were also taught skills that they could apply elsewhere in other projects. The builders received training and certificates, which they could use to earn a living even after the project was complete.
The community was in the entire project. From building the foundation, to burning clay bricks for the walls, to raising the RC bars to support the roof because cranes were obviously not an option. These organizational circumstances for the project turned the building into more than just a school for the people of Gando.
The school has no maintenance costs. Over 10 years after it was built, it still looks as good as new.
Mr. Kere also initiated a project to teach the children other life skills such as agriculture, so that even those who do not proceed to higher education drop out, they can still sustain their lives.
In the construction process, Francis Kere used simple drawings and sections to explain his ideas to the illiterate builders. He often had to build models to show that the new techniques, such as arches, were just as effective as the old, if not more.
The Primary School in Gando is just one of Diebedo Francis Kere’s projects. It won numerous prizes such as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Global Award, the BSI Swiss Architectural Award, the Marcus Prize and most recently the Global Holcim Award Gold 2012. All his projects reflect his unique style and his need to integrate the community, since they are always the ones on whose lives the project has the biggest effect on.
His other projects include; The Secondary School in Dano, Burkina Faso, Opera Village in Laongo, Burkina Faso, ZhoushanHarbour Development in China, Taylor Barracks in Manheim, Germany, The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (MICR), Geneva, Switzerland, among others.
As Kenyan designers, we could surely learn a lot from the works and ideas of architects like Diebedo Francis Kere. We need to start thinking of our buildings as part of the community and the environments in which we place them, and to design them accordingly, so that they add to the wellbeing of the community rather than take away from it.