Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré believes beauty is for everyone—even people who come from places without electricity, schools, and clean drinking water. Kéré knows. He grew up in a just such a place: a village called Gando in Burkina Faso, West Africa. This spring, he earned the famous Pritzker Architecture Prize, which comes with a shiny bronze medallion and $100,000. The Pritzker has never gone to a native African before now.
Kéré’s extraordinary designs for schools, health facilities, civic buildings, and housing incorporate natural and durable materials suited to the locations where he builds.
Example: After he trained as an architect in Germany, Kéré returned to Gando to build a school. Instead of hauling expensive materials from a distance, he gathered clay, a ubiquitous substance in his old village.
Villagers feared that rain would damage a clay building. But Kéré convinced them to give it a try. They helped him compact and polish, combining some clay with cement to form bricks. These bricks keep cooler air inside the building while heat escapes near a ceiling that sits just below an elevated roof. The school has ventilation with no air conditioning required, and cheery round holes dotting the roof allow light in. The holes are made from another Gando staple—clay pots. Now 700 kids in Gando attend this beautiful school, where even years of rain have not worn away the clay.
“I started where I was born,” Kéré says. “I had a duty to my people and it was important for me to use materials that are abundant and build with approaches that cause little burden to the environment.”
Most of Kéré’s built works are in Africa, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Mozambique, Togo, and Sudan. He has also designed installations in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
In Mark 12:31, Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. How do you keep His command? How does an architect?
Architects love their neighbors by being part scientist, part artist, and part people-studier. Poorly designed spaces (think: low ceilings with little airflow and light) tend to stress people out. But people who work in well-designed spaces (think open spaces with good airflow and light) focus better and take less sick leave.
In areas of scarcity, architects use materials that last and won’t need much repair. And like Kéré, some teach locals how to build what they have designed. These architects leave behind not only buildings but people with priceless new skills.
Why? There are many ways to love our neighbors. Creating beautiful, functional spaces for them to live, work, learn, and heal is an act of love we might sometimes overlook.