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More from our current issue mono.kultur #46: architect Francis Kéré on architecture, pragmatism and aesthetics.

More than clay and bricks, it is the use of light, colour, and air that is so successful and striking in your work. You’ve spoken before about a formative experience being the time you spent in a classroom that lacked these three things. Were you thinking at the time, ‘I could do this better?’ How did you translate that experience into your own architecture?

I wasn’t so much thinking, ‘I could do this building better’ – I was hoping for the chance to just improve something. Can you imagine sitting in a classroom with more than 50 other kids? When it’s more than 40°C outside? It was so uncomfortable. But that’s the kind of situation where the idea of one day making a difference can begin to grow, as you look at all the sunlight outside and wonder why it’s so dark inside. This marked my childhood, and that thought – ‘One day, if you have the chance: make it better’ – that stayed with me.

There’s an elegance and sensitivity to your buildings that is often assumed to be somehow absent from buildings in remote or undeveloped areas, as if you can only have the function.

Again, I always want to convince. I want the buildings to work but at the same time I want them to be innovative. You could do something that is well ventilated, but pay no attention to how it looks. However, I realised after some of the first buildings were completed that people were amazed by them – by their appearance, their qualities, by the architecture. In creating something that works with the climate, we came up with the elevated roofs that define the school in Gando, also visually. Similarly, the use of bricks introduces a regular form, which in Africa gives a building a higher value. When I realised how impressed people were by these aspects, I thought, ‘Keep doing it like that.’ I realised that beauty is moving people, that elegance and aesthetics really have the power to touch and inspire.

Later, when we were building the teachers’ housing in Gando, I met an old lady who had arrived in the village on her way to a funeral. Despite this, she sat down, and was looking at the arched roofs of the structures. Then I noticed she was talking to herself, addressing the person who was to be buried, saying, ‘Your time is finished, but if you could see the things people are doing here, you would wish you had lived longer so you could have seen it. I will take my time to watch this. Whether I arrive late or early, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to miss this.’ That was such a powerful energy.

Image: Lycée Schorge, Burkina Faso
Original photography by Iwan Baan