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Pritzker winner Diébédo Francis Kéré makes buildings to serve West African community


I'm Michel Martin. The Pritzker Architecture Prize is the most prestigious award in the field, and for the first time ever, that prize has gone to a Black architect and an architect from Africa. His name is Diebedo Francis Kere, and he has been celebrated since his student days for his innovative use of traditional, sustainable techniques and materials as well as his practical yet beautiful designs. Diebedo Francis Kere is in Berlin, Germany, right now. Mr. Kere, welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

DIEBEDO FRANCIS KERE: Thank you so much for inviting me to talk to your audience.

MARTIN: So congratulations on the award. And, you know, I have to ask, is this something that you dreamed of as a student?

KERE: No. No. I never, you know, saw myself connected to this big thing, you know, this big thing, which is a Pritzker award. No. I was just using my skills to create comfortable spaces and beautiful schools and housing for my people. No, I never dreamed to see this work connected with Pritzker. No, no, never.

MARTIN: Your personal story is remarkable and so moving. And you told the story. For those who are interested, they can see you tell your story in a TED Talk. You were born in a small village in Burkina Faso, which is, as you have noted, considered one of the poorest countries in Africa. You had to leave home when you were just a child because there was no school there and your parents wanted you to learn to have an education. So you had to go far away to study in an uncomfortable, crowded classroom that was often overheated. Do you remember when the spark was lit within you to say, I could do better than this?

KERE: Yeah. It was this experience, sitting with more than hundred other kids. So - and it was so hot - let's say over 100 degree Fahrenheit, you know, over 100 degree. And then with - in the darkness, while outside, you had this sunlight, you know? And I was saying, if I become adult one day, I will make things better, you know? Just create comfortable classrooms, you know, and spaces and beautiful architecture. Yeah. And so we are.

MARTIN: You know, forgive me for asking this. It would have been easy to stay in Berlin, where you had your training. Why do you think you didn't?

KERE: I know I just - I was lucky to grow in a community where the survival of the entire community depend on the support of each member. And then, as you can imagine, when I was a kid, I had to leave the village and to go abroad to have education. I had the dream to create a school and for the kids in the village, which will enable them to stay by their community, by their friends, their families, brothers and sister, and be able to attend education, you know? That why I couldn't just stay in Berlin and enjoy every great thing that is here. Yeah, I'm still enjoying it, but I'm enjoying now double because I have used the opportunity, even in a rich country like Germany, to push a poor country forward.

MARTIN: One of the things that your work has been noted for is the way you use traditional techniques and materials. In fact, there's the story of how you had to persuade the sort of folks in the village to use clay, which is a traditional building material there. And they kind of - you said that they were skeptical at first. They're like, why did you - we send you this far away if you're just going to come back and do the same thing? But it's exquisite. It's absolutely exquisite. And I'm just wondering if others, having seen what you're able to do with traditional materials, do you think will be inspired to take those techniques elsewhere? Have you seen a way to get people to think differently about that?

KERE: Yeah. No, it's being in the village, you're thinking about big buildings, glass and whatever, far away. And so in Burkina, that is it. The focus is the Western. But in my case, it's like you just have, you know, a tradition, which is strong, you know, which has skills, which has some great things that I relate to the - strongly related to the, you know, to the environment, to the ecology and to - but people don't see it as that it has a value, you know? And when we started, it cost me a lot of energy to really convince. But already with a couple of years ago, people start to see that what I'm doing was the good solution. Now there is a tsunami in Africa. I'm telling you, it is so - if I'm thinking about it, I will be emotional. It is because suddenly people are talking about, what do we have? Our resources - we should use it. Yeah.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you're working on - what are you working on right now? Can you tell us?

KERE: Oh, on many, many other projects. First, a project of my heart is to complete a high school, a big high school that will be capable of hosting 2,000 kids in my village. So I want it to be completed soon. I'm working hard on it. I'm financing it through my foundation and the support. While it's slow, I still need resources. And then I'm planning a health care center. You know, we have already more than 1,000 kids in the village, so you need health care facilities. That what we're working on. But I'm also working on the Catred (ph) building in Senegal, the very first building commissioned by the German Goethe Institute.

MARTIN: When do you sleep?

KERE: Yeah. That is the big question. That what my family was always saying. You have to rest. You have to sit. I said, yeah, but it's - I sit. Who will do the work? I enjoy what I do. You know, if you came from a community like mine and you remember while you were a student that at - you know, at holidays time, when you go to visit, you will see almost all women collecting their last penny to give it to you to support your education, hey, you cannot just come and say you want to rest. This is energy that people has put in you, and you should use it to grow and to create things that will push other kids to do the same thing. That what I'm doing.

MARTIN: Oh, that's lovely. Thank you so much. That's Diebedo Francis Kere. He is the first African, the first Black person to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Diebedo Francis Kere, congratulations once again. Thank you for your beautiful work, and thank you so much for talking with us today.

KERE: Thank you so much. Thank you to the Pritzker family to have put so - such a big spotlight to my work and to Africa. You know, Africa is winning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALPINE SONG, "LOVERS 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 20, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of the headline misspelled Pritzker.