the impact of design | spotlight on FRANCIS KERE
Architecture is a form of expression and it is to be experienced too. It draws your attention and engages you in an exploration of itself that leaves you in awe of its form and structure as well as the mind that created it. Architecture is the physical manifestation of design intent, it is a layered conversation of light, material and technique. Its beauty lies in its dynamism, the practicality of its existence, the brilliance of its expression and its ability to affect human psychology.
Design, in any of its expressions, is often perceived as a frivolous endeavour reserved for a few. This is unfortunately true of good design though it shouldn’t be because design is everywhere and we all experience it every single day. It is in the effectiveness of your city’s drainage system, the width of the sidewalk on your way home, how bright and comfortable your bathroom is or if your hospital has a ramp for your wheelchair. Unfortunately, we are all a lot more familiar with bad design, design that simply exists as a disingenuous sign of development or functionality without a care for the people who actually use it. Design must always be people-focused to be successful. Good design that positively impacts the human psyche is a thoughtful and creative management of constraints, monetary, climatic, geographical, spatial and otherwise that has the interests of the end-users at heart.
The ways in which bad design affects us are innumerable and far-reaching. On the urban scale, Lagos, for instance, suffers from chronic traffic congestion due in part to a lack of public transportation options and the physical infrastructure to support them. On an architectural scale, buildings tend to be so poorly ventilated that they essentially function as ovens particularly during the dry season. These and many more issues cause economic, health, ecological and other problems for the city and its people. Perhaps a stark illustration of the impact of design is in the difference in your reaction to the Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) in Lagos, Nigeria. Both airports had portions of them designed by the Netherlands Airports Consultants (NACO) with the design of the international terminal of the MMA apparently being inspired by that of the Schipol Airport. Despite the MMA being built after the Schipol Airport, at first glance one is a place in which people seem to enjoy being in while awaiting connecting flights and the other is a place you have to pass through hopefully very quickly.
To get a better glimpse of the positive impact of design, I would like to focus on the work of Francis Kere, a renowned Architect from Burkina Faso. My fascination with his work lies in the climatically responsive and definitely economical approach it embodies particularly in his work in his home country of Burkina Faso. In this article, I’d like to briefly reflect on three of his projects and why I think they’re examples of what architecture should be.
GANDO PRIMARY SCHOOL
Francis Kere is perhaps best known for the Gando Primary School project in his home town of Gando. It is a building that stands tall in its immediate surroundings and is a source of pride for its community. Completed in 2001, the school was built with locally available clay with a 10% mix of cement and formed into bricks. The clay bricks used for the walls play a huge role in making the school thermally comfortable for the children. To further enhance this, Kere also used clay for the perforated ceiling which allows the naturally rising hot air escape through it. Also, the locally used corrugated metal roofing sheets which unfortunately absorb heat was then detached from the building creating a void between it and the building further protecting the inside of the classroom from the heat outside. The noticeably deep roof overhangs also protect the clay walls below from the rains.
The primary school is a very modest building that is sincere in its use of materials and most importantly was built by the community. This is an example of how at its core, architecture should be about the people who use them and their specific needs. And in a world where we tend to move through space hurriedly, community-focused and built projects tend to have a different relationship with its users. It is a building where the children not only learn but play, it is inhabited and not transient space. It is a good thing when a united community is possessive of their civic buildings and this can only happen when they take ownership of it during the decision making and execution phase which is what I believe happened in this case and the building is much better for it.
The Gando Primary School project won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 and also went on to win the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2009. Francis Kere’s design approach on this project is a testament to the fact that intelligent, place and community-based projects are possible and can attain the highest levels of architectural integrity.
LYCEE SCHORGE SECONDARY SCHOOL
The Lycee Schorge Secondary School was completed in 2016 and located in Koudougou, the third most populated city in Burkina Faso. This school is yet another example of how architecture can be contemporary and innovative while using local materials and vernacular design approaches. The ring-like footprint of the school houses 9 modules arranged around a central courtyard that serves a play and assembly space for the school and community. Within these modules is a dentist office that caters to the students and community as well. The undulating white ceiling allows for easy ventilation of the classrooms especially in collaboration with the concrete wind catching towers and deep overhanging roof which is again partially detached from the building. The locally sourced laterite brick walls further lends its thermal mass qualities to the structure making it thermally comfortable for the students learning within. Perhaps the most striking of the school’s features is the surrounding eucalyptus wood screen that shields the school from the sun while also creating informal shaded spaces for the students as they await their classes.
This project is a reminder that good architecture isn’t always about building with sleek, mass-produced building materials requiring complex assembly protocols. Great architecture is also at its core is really about the innovative use of readily available building materials to create affordable, place and community-based design that prioritizes the specific needs of the end-users above all else.
SERPENTINE PAVILION 2017
Francis Kere’s 2017 Serpentine Pavilion installation is a beautifully designed structure made of prefabricated wood blocks arranged in triangular modules with tiny openings that hint at the events going on within the pavilion. The fragmented arrangement of the curved walls give form to the access paths that lead into the pavilion. The large overhanging steel supported and fully detached roof acts as a funnel when it rains and in the central gathering space, it also emphasizes the connection to the sky. Also, the combination of the clear membrane and wood slats that form the lattice structure of the roof allow for light to filter through the pavilion making it particularly lovely in the night time when lit up.
Though the bold blue wood block walls in combination with the detached roof reminds me of the South African headdress called the isicholo, Kere’s inspiration for the pavilion’s design was a great tree in his hometown where the community gathers to discuss their day. His intention was for the pavilion to embody the qualities of that great tree, fostering storytelling, togetherness and connection with nature.
There is quite a bit of symbolism in this pavilion both to Kere’s home town and culture as well as nature. His choice of blue for the curved walls is inspired by the festive significance of the colour in his hometown. Also, the void at the centre of the pavilion pulls you in after the blue of the walls attracts you, drawing you to make that connection with the sky. This is yet another example of the undeniable connection he makes between his architecture, nature and the people who inhabit the spaces he creates.
My key lessons from studying some of Francis Kere’s work is his firm grasp of how nature, be it the rain or the heat that comes with our abundance of sunlight in the tropics, should inform how we build. His work also demonstrates that affordable projects can with good craftsmanship be beautiful to experience, comfortable to inhabit and can be accessible to everyone. Also notable is his community involvement approach which encourages a sense of ownership that is sometimes a missing component in the realization of civic projects particularly in Nigeria where there’s also a very poor building maintenance culture. If architecture is really built with the input of the people who’ll use it, it stands a much better chance of being treasured and cared for by those same people.
Last but not least is how firmly grounded his buildings are in their immediate physical environment. As can be seen in the Gando Primary School and Lycee Schorge Secondary School, both buildings are representative of the natural landscape they’re a part of. They have an instantly visible sense of belonging to their surroundings because they are built with materials from that same environment. I believe the communities’ familiarity with the building materials also empowers them to maintain them, further contributing to the longevity of the structures.
Francis Kere puts it best, “Overall, one of the most important goals of the design is to serve as a catalyst for inspiration for the students, teaching staff, and surrounding community members. The architecture not only functions as a marker in the landscape, it is also a testament to how local materials, in combination with creativity and team-work, can be transformed into something significant with profound lasting effects.”
I had a great time researching these projects, what did you think of them? Also, did Kere’s installation at the Serpentine Pavilion remind you of the isicholo too? Let me know in the comments below.