Diébédo Francis Kéré, a Burkinabè-German architect known for ingenious, climate-resilient structures, has become the first African to receive the Pritzker Prize, widely recognized as architecture’s most prestigious honor. The award comes with a $100,000 cash prize, a medal, and entry to a coterie of elite star architects including Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, B. V. Doshi, and the late Zaha Hadid.
Pritzker’s nine-member jury lauded the 56-year old Kéré for erecting buildings “that have presence without pretense and an impact shaped by grace.”
Born in the village of Gando in the southern plains of Burkina Faso, Kéré traces his understanding of architecture’s purpose to his elementary-school classrooms. “Good architecture in Burkina Faso is a classroom where you can sit, have light that is filtered, entering the way that you want to use it across a blackboard or on a desk,”Kéré explains. “How can we take away the heat coming from the sun but use the light to our benefit—creating climate conditions to give basic comfort allows for true teaching, learning and excitement.”
Kéré left Burkina Faso in the mid-1980s to study carpentry in Germany, and later earned a scholarship to Technische Universität Berlin. While abroad, his focus remained on Africa. His first completed major project was in his home village—a single-story schoolhouse with a clever ventilation system designed for Burkina Faso’s harsh seasons. The Aga Khan Foundation recognized Gando Primary School (pdf) in 2004 and catapulted Kéré’s international career.
Kéré has designed several schools, health centers, assembly halls, and other public buildings throughout Africa. His buildings in Benin, Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique, and Sudan are often built in close partnership with local builders who would use indigenous, low-tech construction methods and locally available materials.
Kéré later established an architectural office in Berlin and has since worked on projects in Asia, Europe, and the US.
In the March 15 Pritzker announcement, Kéré emphasized that good design should be available to all—regardless of one’s economic standing. “I am hoping to change the paradigm, “wrote Kéré. “It is not because you are rich that you should waste material. It is not because you are poor that you should not try to create quality. Everyone deserves quality, everyone deserves luxury, and everyone deserves comfort. We are interlinked and concerns in climate, democracy and scarcity are concerns for us all.”