Wednesday 3rd February, people in Helsinki had the chance to see a very unique architecture lecture. Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, originally from Burkina Faso, gave a heartwarming presentation of his projects that go far beyond the common limits of architecture. Following his motto, “help to self-help”, Kéré’s approach is all about humanity: building to fulfill a need, with simple, local materials and techniques – and most importantly, for and with local people.
Kéré has been nominated the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for a project for his home village in Burkina Faso, the Gando Primary School. The history of the project represents well his work ethics. As the first person in the Gando village with access to higher education, Kéré became determined to use his skills and knowledge to improve the poor education situation in his home country. While still a student in Berlin, he not only designed a school for Gando but also found ways to raise funding for materials and mobilized the men, women and children of the village in a joint effort to construct the building. His project had an educational purpose beyond the actual school: Kéré used simple building techniques in order to teach local people the knowledge they need for building their own houses as well. Kéré’s story was about developing mutual trust in the community and communicating in a right way; strengthening people’s pride in the local culture.
Quoting the statement of the Aga Khan Award jury: “The result is a structure of grace, warmth and sophistication, in sympathy with the local climate and culture. The practical and the poetic are fused. The primary school in Gando inspires pride and instills hope in its community, laying the foundations for the advancement of a people.”
Having traveled a long journey from his home village with extremely limited living conditions, to the Western society and education, Kéré has retained a most humble attitude. His insights are important to understand for anyone dealing with different cultures – particularly in situations concerning development aid and reconstruction of catastrophe areas, such as Haiti at the present. Kéré’s message for those dealing with development aid was clear: the most crucial challenge is to give people education and tools to learn. Sending not more than gifts provokes passive reactions – people will sit and wait for another gift. The motto, “help to self-help”, is best understood with Kéré’s example: “Don’t give people a readymade house – they won’t take care of it. Give them materials and knowledge how to build – they will build with responsibility and pride, and use their learnt skills to build again when needed. “
The active initiatives and self-originated projects represented by Diébédo Francis Kéré differ distinctly from the common Western architectural procedures that usually start from predetermined assignments. But it is clear, that the self-initiated approach has potential to be applied in many different contexts and situations. Thus, Kéré’s example gives a lot of inspiration also for us urban dream managers.