The Pritzker Prize is awarded to an architect from West Africa

Growing up in a poor village in Burkina Faso, Francis Kéré did not play football with the other boys. He helped repair houses.

After earning a scholarship to a professional carpentry school in Germany and attending the school of architecture at the Technical University of Berlin, Kéré did not rush to join a prestigious company. As an architecture student, he had raised funds to build a primary school in his hometown, Gando, with the help of local residents building, drawing plans for them in the sand.

And even after gaining international acclaim at exhibitions like the Serpentine Pavilion in London and the Venice Biennale, Kéré continually directed his attention home.

It was this dedication to uplifting the community from which he hails that helped Kéré, 56, win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, which was announced on Tuesday.

“His buildings, for and with communities, are directly from those communities – in their unique workmanship, materials, programs and character,” the jury said in its citation. “They are tied to the ground they sit on and the people who sit there. They have an unassuming presence and an impact shaped by grace.

Kéré, in a telephone interview, said he was moved by the Pritzker’s recognition – he said he cried – and was surprised to have caught the jury’s attention.

“I still don’t believe it,” he says. “I pushed this work in architecture to bring good quality architecture to my people.”

This work has taken the form of schools, libraries, health care centers and public spaces – often in underserved areas where Kéré makes the most of limited resources and draws inspiration from West African traditions. Its projects have been concentrated in Africa, notably in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique and Sudan.

In the absence of air conditioning for his primary school in Gando (2001), Kéré used cement-reinforced bricks and a raised, overhanging roof to counter the extreme heat and poor lighting conditions.

This project increased the school’s student body to 700 students from 120 and led to the design of Kéré for teachers’ accommodation (2004), an extension (2008) and a library (2019). Last year, T Magazine named the elementary school one of the 25 most significant buildings built after World War II.

Similarly, Kéré used the cooling effects of quarry stone and stacked towers to minimize the air conditioning needs of Startup Lions Campus in Turkana, Kenya, an information and communications technology complex completed in 2021.

“Francis Kéré is a pioneer of architecture – sustainable for the earth and its inhabitants – in lands of extreme scarcity,” said Tom Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the award, in a statement. “He is both architect and servant, enhancing the lives and experiences of countless citizens in a sometimes forgotten part of the world.”

In terms of materials, Kéré works with what is available, be it wood, bricks or clay. “I’m going to push for simplicity, for modularity,” he said. “I try to be as efficient as possible, to build small things that can be easily put together and to create something holistic.”

“I love wood – it’s soothing,” he added. “All this material grounds you.”

Growing up in Burkina Faso, where his parents were farmers, Kéré said the warmth of the classrooms made him want to learn carpentry and one day be able to build better buildings.

While studying in Germany, Kéré delivered newspapers at night so he could send money home.

“I used my time to travel around Berlin to see how buildings were constructed in pre-industrial times,” Kéré said, “because that’s the technique that would help my people.”

While still a student, Kéré established the Kéré Foundation in 1998, a nonprofit organization that serves the people of Gando through project development, partnerships, and fundraising.

In 2005, he founded Kéré Architecture in Berlin. His firm, which now has 21 people, is currently based in Munich. Important works also include his Xylem Pavilion at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana (2019); Mali National Park (2010); and, in Burkina Faso, the Maison des Médecins Léo (2019) and Opéra Village (Phase I, 2010).

“He works in marginalized countries laden with constraints and adversity, where architecture and infrastructure are absent,” the Pritzker said in its press materials. “The expression of his works exceeds the value of a building itself.”​​

Kéré said he approaches every project from the perspective of his clients, trying to understand their goals and needs. “I start to say, ‘OK, what do I have to give? Why is this person coming to me? “Kéré said. “I take the time to listen. I listen to really see what made this person come to me when the world is full of architects.

Working in West Africa can present significant challenges. Burkina Faso’s National Assembly, for which Kéré designed a pyramid-shaped building with exhibition spaces and courtyards, has stalled due to political uncertainty.

Working in poor areas requires skills beyond design, Kéré said, namely patience. “You have power shortages, you have the internet that’s down all the time – you have to be passionate and believe in the project,” he said. “I make sure I don’t get frustrated, imagining doing architecture in a different way that isn’t very fast.”

Kéré’s projects are not only utilitarian; they can also have a whimsy and serenity. For California’s Coachella music festival in 2019, he wrapped 12 towers in colorful triangular screens.

For his Benga Riverside School in Mozambique (2018), he patterned the walls with small recurring voids, “allowing light and transparency to evoke feelings of trust in his students,” Price said.

The walls of his Health and Welfare Center (2014) feature a pattern of framed windows at varying heights, offering picturesque views of the landscape “for everyone”, the Pritzker jury said, “from a standing doctor to a seated visitor” to a lying patient.

Kéré’s strong affinity for his native land informs his practice – he references local symbols like the baobab or the palaver tree; a traditional blue boubou he wore as a child.

He not only wants the community to participate in the creation of the architecture, Kéré said, but to connect with it and feel transported.

“They get more than a building,” Kéré added. “They inspire each other.”

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