Architect floors creatives

2011-03-11 10:09

There are two types of standing ovations.

The first is reserved for occasions like lifetime achievement award ceremonies, where the ovation, while generally heartfelt, has an air of duty and obligation about it.

The second type is spontaneous.

Much like a Mexican wave, an emotion washes over the audience, lifting everyone out of their seats with energetic clapping and a collective lump in the throat.

This is the wave of emotion that poured out to architect Francis Kéré, who received the first – and only – standing ovation at this year’s Design Indaba, which took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre between February 23 and 25.

For Kéré, who hails from Burkina Faso, the standing ovation was high praise indeed.

The audience was a tough one – local and international creative industry types, cynical students and a jaded media. Delegates came with high expectations. They wanted to be inspired and enthralled, and not every speaker hit that sweet spot.

There are times when the drawcard speakers disappoint (like Martha Stewart, who got viciously “twit-slapped” by the delegates last year) and a lesser known outsider proves to be the highlight. Kéré was undoubtedly this year’s highlight.

His presentation was simple and honest – no fancy video animation, no portfolio of award-winning projects, no smoke and mirrors.

He was humble, funny and kept jumping on and off the stage. But it was his story that provided the lumps in most throats and one electrifying goose bump moment.

On the surface, his story seems like a simple illustration of a son of Africa who made good: an architect from a small village in Burkina Faso, schooled in Germany, and now the recipient of global awards for sustainable architecture.

That was what the Design Indaba’s programme promised: an architect whose work “promotes sustainable architecture in Africa through adapting technology from the industrialised world, considering climatic conditions and using local materials”.

Truth be told, he sounded like one of the many “creative missionaries” you sometimes find on a Design Indaba programme. That was until he took to the stage and provided that rare “you had to be there” moment.

At the tender age of 17, Kéré was transplanted from his dusty rural village to Germany.

As the recipient of a scholarship, he went there to finish his high school degree and, ostensibly, to study carpentry. It was somewhat ironic because once he finished his studies, he realised that there wasn’t exactly a surplus of wood in Burkina Faso.

As a committed “developmental activist”, he switched to architecture, focusing on sustainability. While his stay in Germany lasted 22 years, his aim was always to reinvest his acquired knowledge back into his country of birth.

“I am like a bridge,” he tells me. “I live and work in Berlin and Europe, but bring technology home.”

And what a bridge he has turned out to be. His first project – one he kick-started as a student – was to build a primary school in his village.

He starts his Design Indaba presentation with this project, one that won him his first architectural award – the Aga Khan Award.

In his presentation, he shows images of rural Burkina Faso. It is the Africa favoured by the global media – dusty, sparsely populated villages without First World infrastructure, except that there is now a creeping sense of development accompanied by haphazard urban planning with building materials and design borrowed from other cultures.

He shows ugly concrete buildings that have pagoda-style roofs, evidence of China’s growing influence on the continent.

We see pictures of schools and classrooms that mirror our own neglected rural schools.

Kéré then shows, not only the school he built as a replacement, but the uphill battle he had with the community to convince them to build an ecofriendly alternative.

It started with the basic materials. Concrete seemed an easy and practical choice to all concerned.

But instead of introducing a foreign material into the village environment, Kéré persuaded the community to make bricks with the raw material they were surrounded with – clay.

He showed them how to make the individual bricks, but hit resistance when he suggested making the building’s roof supports out of these very bricks.

His design involved a curved, or vaulted, roof and he had to prove its strength by jumping up and down on it. It was only then that the villagers were convinced.

“The biggest challenge,” Kéré says, “is illiteracy.” He has to rely on drawings, scale models and, most importantly, practical ­demonstrations, but when the ­message hits home, the community embraces the process.

His design for the school is revolutionary compared with the original shack-like structure.

There are airflows under the vaulted roof to make the scorching temperatures more bearable, shaded areas to sit and meet (also favoured by the village goats), and hidden skylights just above the blackboard that use natural light to compensate for the lack of electricity.

Once the structure was built, the floor had to be levelled and flattened, and this is where the women of the village decided to contribute (and where the Design Indaba audience experienced the electrifying goose bump moment).

Without the means to lay a basic screed, the floor had to be beaten into place with wooden paddles.

This being Africa, the discordant beating slowly found a rhythm, and the women started hitting the floor in unison.

This rhythmic motion and sound soon needed a voice and, sure enough, the women broke out in song.

This was resourcefulness fused with ubuntu, African style.

Kéré showed a before and after slide of the floor, but I know that many would have missed the detail because by then there were more than a few misty eyes in the audience.

He went on to show a few more of his projects. By then, you just knew that this humble architect had floored not only the audience but the group of creative thought leaders from across the world.

Film director Karin Fong, who has produced title sequences for many Hollywood films, had the unenviable task of speaking after Kéré. She thanked Kéré for “reminding us all why we do what we do”.

Returning to design basics seemed to be the theme of the Design Indaba this year.

The global recession has seen a huge shift in many people’s value systems throughout the world, and that ripple effect can be seen unfolding in the design world.

“Design for social change” was a strong undercurrent running throughout the Design Indaba, and even Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo’s message to the delegates was: “Let’s collaborate to create a better future, by design.” 

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