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The Architecture Of Radical Simplicity

A new monograph collects the brilliant, community-focused work of African architect Francis Kéré.

In 2004, Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré built a school in his native Burkina Faso. He had learned that the school in his village was on the verge of collapsing, so he decided to raise the money and reverse-engineer the building techniques he’d been taught to create a structure that would withstand the African climate. It was his first project out of architecture school in Germany.

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“I was trained in carpentry for a country where there is no wood,” he told Fast Company‘s Linda Tischler in 2011. “We’re in the Sahara. We have few trees.”

The resulting building was made of a new kind of cement-fortified clay brick and had a soaring roof that was designed to naturally cool the interior. It won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that year. For Kéré, it was the beginning of an illustrious career in socially aware, community-based design. He has been widely lauded for his dedication to local architecture through the use of native materials and labor, empowering the people who will benefit from his buildings rather than altruistic foreigners.

His work has now been collected in a new volume called Radically Simple, published by Hatje Cantz, to go alongside an exhibition of Kéré’s work at the Architekturmuseum at the Technical University in Munich, Germany. The book’s photographs take you from his first school in Burkina Faso to more educational facilities in the country to Operndorf Afrika, a center for theater and music education that Kéré designed in collaboration with the German theater director Christoph Schlingensief.

“He is one of the first architects to realize that African knowledge in building is as essential as Western knowledge,” writes the architecture scholar and the exhibition curator Ayça Beygo in Radically Simple. “The blend of local skills, community effort, economic solidarity, and European input is the essence of his hybrid architectural language and global imagination, and has helped to give him his innovative identity.”

While Kéré has grown in prominence, his focus has remained on building in Burkina Faso, elsewhere in Africa, and in Germany, the place of his education and his current practice. Unlike world-famous, media-savvy architects like Norman Foster, Bjarke Ingels, and Renzo Piano, who’ve used their renown to take on bigger and more ostentatious projects globally, Kéré’s work stays remarkably rooted in his own biography and identity.

Still, it’s no less ambitious. Kéré recently completed a concept for rebuilding the parliament in Burkina Faso’s capital city of Ouagadougou (it burned down in an uprising in 2014).

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The proposed parliament building is to be built into a hill, with a terraced layout surrounding an atrium. It was designed to mimic the traditional decision-making places in rural villages, a distinctive nod to Burkina Faso’s history while looking toward its future. Forget the dreams of starchitects–Francis Kéré’s work is a grounded, socially aware antithesis.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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