Creative Africa: The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting the first retrospective museum exhibition in the United States to focus on Francis Kéré, a Berlin-based architect and native of Burkina Faso who integrates Western design and engineering practice with local craft skills and construction traditions to create innovative and sustainable buildings around the world. The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community explores his innovative work, ranging from school projects, health centers, and residential structures in Western Africa to a Camper collaboration with the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. It examines the origins and breadth of his practice and features a site-specific installation commissioned specially for the exhibition.
Kéré holds a unique position in the field of architecture. His practice exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to the physical and cultural environments in which his buildings are placed, as well as to the sustainability and social impact of construction. He draws on local building traditions, inviting broad participation while making pragmatic use of vernacular materials and modern engineering methods to shape space in beautiful and thought-provoking ways. In 2001, while still an architecture student, Kéré completed the construction of a primary school in his home village of Gando in Burkina Faso that set the course for his future work. Raising funds for construction through a nonprofit organization he founded, Kéré maximized the site’s locally available resources—clay, wood, and community participation—to reduce construction costs and ecological impact. The project received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, becoming a catalyst for further development in Gando and generating long-lasting educational and economic benefits for the community. The project has been frequently cited as a compelling example of successful context and community-oriented architecture.
In the Perelman Building’s Skylit Atrium, visitors encounter a diaphanous “colorscape” of paracord, suspended from above to form a complex of masses and voids that must be negotiated and shared. This porous architectural form evokes the regular grid of William Penn’s Philadelphia as well as the more organic organization of Kéré’s home village and seeks to integrate the two. It draws attention to ways in which the two communities have created public and private space. An audio installation, interwoven with the physical forms, plays sounds collected from both Burkina Faso and Philadelphia. The fabrication of this installation has drawn upon the participation of museum staff, Wednesday Night visitors, and others from around Philadelphia, with many hands helping to string more than 160,000 linear feet of brightly colored cord on the aluminum frames that form the installation’s understructure. The colorscape offers a point of sensory engagement between community and architecture, evoking spaces of both intimate and urban scales. It also suggests architecture’s elemental functions, answering the need for shelter, beauty, and social participation in both its creation and its daily use.
In the Collab Gallery, the exhibition surveys the range of Kéré’s past, present, and upcoming projects in Burkina Faso, Germany, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, and Switzerland. It also includes installations for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London. The Camper installation reflects Kéré’s thinking for a commercial design context. One, based on his Royal Academy project, invites visitors to embellish a wall built from a honeycomb polycore plastic, enabling it to grow through community participation.
Materiality is a chief theme of the exhibition, which explores how Kéré looks to the properties of raw materials to inform the design and construction of his buildings. Many of his technical innovations result from the extreme climatic range of Western Africa, where periods of heavy rain alternate with hot and dry conditions. Kéré makes inventive use of an invasive species, eucalyptus (which provides little shade and leaches moisture from the soil) as a sustainable source of timber for shading screens and secondary facades, and easily worked steel rebar and metal sheeting for expansive sheltering roofs. The exhibition highlights Kéré’s use of clay, readily available and less expensive than concrete, which has been in use as a building material for centuries. For the Gando School Library, Kéré placed sections of large pots made by local women into the ceiling to provide natural ventilation and lighting. In the gallery, red clay pots are suspended from the ceiling to evoke the novel system Kéré employed in the Gando library; these were created for the exhibition by several Philadelphia-based artists. Bricks are also presented as an essential architectural form in his work; cast from clay or cut from locally extracted laterite stone, bricks form modular systems for building and create a thermal mass to maintain comfortably cool interior spaces.
Kéré and his team also utilize scraps of steel rebar and plywood left over from construction to produce chairs and desks for schools. Philadelphia fabricators have replicated a number of chairs of Kéré’s design; these are in use as seating in the exhibition gallery and are available for sale, with proceeds to benefit Kéré’s ongoing work in Gando.
Several media interventions are included. The viewer may look upward in the gallery to observe the different canopy conditions of Kéré’s buildings, and gaze downward to see shifting patterns of shadow created by his architecture on the ground. The canopy signals the importance of trees as elemental sources of shade, shelter, and gathering space. The videos provide a crucial sense of atmosphere that distinguishes Kéré’s close attention to local circumstances in his architecture.
Kéré has said of his practice: “My work cannot be realized without community. In order to gain the trust of the community you must understand local culture. Not only does the actual construction rely on community participation, the everyday activities of the community affect the way that my buildings are designed and used.”
About Francis Kéré
The first-born son of the head of his rural home village in Burkina Faso, Francis Kéré was the only child allowed to attend school in a large city, which eventually enabled him to study architecture in Europe. After graduating, he decided to reinvest his knowledge back into his native village of Gando by building a new school that would change the future trajectory of the community. Harnessing the success of the Gando initiative, Kéré founded his Berlin office in 2005 and has gone on to produce acclaimed works in Burkina Faso, elsewhere in Western Africa, and more recently in Europe and North America. His work has earned acclaim through awards including the 2014 Schelling Architecture Foundation Award, the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, the BSI Swiss Architectural Award, the Marcus Prize, and the Global Holcim Gold Award.
Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, The J. Mahlon Buck, Jr. Family Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts after 1700, and Colin Fanning, Curatorial Fellow, European Decorative Arts after 1700
The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community is one of five exhibitions in the Perelman Building this season, accompanied by related programs that feature a broad spectrum of the arts from across the African continent. They feature historical works of art as well as contemporary fashion, photography, design, and architecture. Each calls attention to the continuities and differences between African art forms over the centuries.
The related exhibitions are:
Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art, a major exhibition drawn from the collection of the Penn Museum (May 14–December 4, 2016).
Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage, exploring the celebrated company’s most enduring designs, examines the process of creating a new textile, and showcases a selection of contemporary fashions by African and European makers as well as Vlisco’s in-house design team (through January 22, 2017).
Threads of Tradition, focusing on traditional patterns in West and Central African textiles and the techniques used to create them, including strip weaving, resist dyeing, piecing, appliqué, and embroidery (through January 2017).
Three Photographers/Six Cities presents an in-depth look at three photographers who create powerful pictures of six African cities: Cairo, Egypt; Nairobi, Kenya; Lagos, Nigeria; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Bamako and Tombouctou (Timbuktu), Mali. From Akinbode Akinbiyi’s observation of urban centers and Seydou Camara’s examination of Islamic manuscripts to Ananias Léki Dago’s pictures of offbeat locales, the images offer unique perspectives on contemporary African experience (through September 25, 2016).
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