Gando Village, Burkina Faso

The village of Gando is more than a three-hour drive from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, on occasionally unpaved roads that thread through a landscape of scorched orange dust and isolated trees buffeted by sub-Saharan winds. It's an unlikely place to launch a global design practice, but architect Diébédo Francis Kéré couldn't imagine doing this anywhere else. “In the beginning, I built in Gando because I had a duty to my family,” says Kéré, who grew up in the remote agricultural community of 6,000 people, left to go to study in Germany, and today runs a seven-person office in Berlin. “Now people everywhere know me through this work, so I am getting something back from it.”

His first project for his home village was a clay-brick primary school, which caught the attention of the humanitarian design world—winning the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004—in part because it was built by local people from materials made mostly on-site. “Francis is a great example of someone who works with a community, bringing knowledge, adapting it to the local means, and exchanging it—not just doing charity architecture,” says Andres Lepik, current Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and incoming chair of architectural history and curatorial practice at the Technical University of Munich. Lepik featured Kéré's work in the 2010 exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement at New York's Museum of Modern Art. “He also designs beautiful projects, which is important because you're not only providing for a need but creating something of cultural value as well.”

Kéré's three new projects under construction in Gando are funded largely through his foundation and, like the primary school, they employ local labor and materials to create public buildings that arise from the community they serve. “When people make things themselves, they protect them,” says Kéré. The building process also teaches people skills that can be used to maintain the structure and be applied to other projects. With the new projects—a women's center, a library, and a secondary school—Kéré is experimenting. He is rethinking Gando's native materials, finding new ways to mitigate the region's harsh climate, and developing techniques for building much faster.

The 3,900-square-foot Women's Association Center, a cooperative, will provide classrooms, a kitchen, latrines, a meeting room, and a collective storage area for 300 women in the agricultural community. Located next to Kéré's family compound, the building will curve in plan around an old-growth neem tree, a traditional gathering place because of the shade it casts. Benches set into the curving wall allow a group to watch a presenter standing in front of the tree's trunk.

The building's timber frame supports a sweeping roof that references European Modernism, but is made from corrugated iron, a common material in Burkina Faso. Hand-formed earth walls rise to meet it. Clay pots embedded into the walls allow the women who use the center to store surplus grain, which they can later sell. “The pots are made by village women,” Kéré says. “And the idea was to help them run a good business using elements that are familiar.”

Kéré's experiments with using pots as built-in storage led him to devise another use for the nontraditional building material. Adjacent to his primary school, he is currently constructing a 1,600-square-foot library. The oval-shaped, clay-brick building has a concrete ceiling that villagers poured around a cluster of specially made pots with open bases. A rectangular iron roof raised several feet above the ceiling on an open steel rebar structure will extend beyond the oval to shade outdoor reading areas. As the sun heats the metal roof, hot air inside the library will be drawn up through the pots perforating the ceiling, creating a stack effect to cool the interior.

A facade of eucalyptus louvers will enclose the exterior spaces, further shading them from the sun. Eucalyptus grows like a weed in Burkina Faso and is normally used only for firewood, but Kéré has introduced it into his projects as a renewable building material.

Construction of the library was slated to be completed by the end of 2011, but in June of last year, Kéré's father, the head of a family group that extends to hundreds of people in the village, died. As the oldest son of 13 children, Kéré had many ceremonial obligations to perform, which led to several construction delays since the building schedule must work around the agriculture calendar. With work needing to finish before the next rainy season—you can't build with clay in a downpour—and funding for the Women's Center from the German government contingent on an April completion date, Kéré sped up construction on all three projects.

Instead of forming bricks from clay and drying them for a full month, Kéré worked with villagers to develop a process for casting clay like concrete. The method allows two people to pour a mixture of clay, gravel, sand, and cement into iron formwork. The mix sets in one day, and the forms can then be reused. He is putting the system to the test with the new secondary school where the walls will be cast in six-foot sections using two modular forms—one solid, one with space for a window. He expects to complete the walls in less than two months.

The building is the first in a 42,000-square-foot complex that follows the traditional layout of a family compound in Gando, a ring of structures closed to the dusty winds from the east and open to western breezes. His ambitious plans have more than just the backing of his supporters abroad. “When his father died, Francis inherited a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of power,” says Lepik. “He can say, 'We are going to build this,' and command 30 to 40 people.” Even as he works on projects from an exhibition space in Switzerland to an industrial waterfront rehab in China with his Berlin-based practice, Kéré has become leader in his hometown.