The following is an excerpt of a conversation that took place in Madrid, on the occasion of the Museo ICO exhibition, between Francis Kéré and the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo, whose work expresses a sensitivity much akin to the African’s.
Anupama Kundoo: There is something I never asked you before. You and I have done things that point to a certain grouping or commonality. But one of the differences between us is this: I studied architecture in India and I started working there with the education I had received. I come from a very populated area in Bombay but I moved to a rural zone, where, out of necessity, I explored low-tech ways of building, respecting the resources the locals have. Later I went to Germany, taught with the head of the department, and decided to do my PhD. You, in contrast, studied in Germany, so there has to be a German influence on the African imprint you carry inside. I see your underlying emotions and roots clearly, also in the way you try to help the community you came from. I know the Burkina part, but what would you say is the German part?
Francis Kéré: Education-wise for sure I am a German-trained architect, but I came to Berlin just to do vocational training. I came to Germany as a carpenter, and I was to be trained so that I could go back to become a development activist. But Burkina is very dry. There is no wood and carpentry is until now very primitive. Because there is no wood, there is no furniture made of wood, no one can afford quality. So I wanted to learn more, and being already in Germany, I started to think of how I could study architecture. This was 1989, just before the Wall collapsed. I was 18. I did what in Germany they call Abitur, a high school degree, and that took me five years, going to night school every day.
AK: That’s very impressive. I imagine also your struggle in a different system.
FK: Oh yes. Books and books, but also the personal struggle. In Burkina, my family was expecting me to return with bags full of German money – which I didn’t have – or with presents, but what I wanted was to gain more knowledge. In fact I started working while at school and many of my teachers wondered why I was fighting like that, working during the day, at school at night, always with Africa on my mind. Later, when I was already at architecture school, I started this project to build a school in my own country. You have to know that this school was the first project to support me financially. This is how things started.
AK: But was it your intention to go back?
FK: My intention was always to go home. I was just using Germany as a platform from which to raise money and collect ideas. I didn’t want to do any work in Europe, I just wanted to return to Burkina.
AK: It’s interesting because when we met and were colleagues in the department at the university of Berlin, we didn’t know how our futures would unfold, so I didn’t think about your mixed identity. I have similar issues because I have children who are half-Indian, half-Spanish, and yours are half-German, half-Burkinabe. So in both our cases, the next generation is mixed, and we each have to think about our own identity. I’m just kind of putting some landmarks in our parallel journeys. I grew up in a really busy and crowded megacity, Bombay. I studied in a very regular way, in fact I finished architecture very quickly and set up an office immediately. By 1990 I had already moved out of Bombay. It was not very common in the Indian world for a woman to go off on her own and all the rest of it, like going on a motorbike, whatever. So I did things which looked bold to people there, but I never cared much about social opinions because I was very free-spirited. I felt that no matter what I did, no matter how small the thing, such as smoke a cigarette, I would be criticized just the same, so it really didn’t matter what I did. I knew what I was doing for self-development, I wanted to serve society, and everything would follow, I didn’t have to be in a hurry to be popular, I would be free from that trap.
FK: I started building while still a student. I didn’t have to wait. By the time I graduated, I was already an architect.
AK: I remember you as a very simple Francis in the pre-Aga Khan period. How did the award affect you? I mean to get so much attention is something like a test, no? And also a challenge because along with all the recognition comes something you have to carry. How do you feel about this?
FK: If I look back, I think it was for me very important to win the Aga Khan. Some people may say that prizes bring nothing, but that’s not true in my case. It created an awareness, people began to know of my work. That’s how, for example, I know Luis Fernández-Galiano, curator of this exhibition. But later it became a responsibility, because all these great people would tell me that if I kept pushing, I would be the first person in history to really deal with people. But I just stayed focused and said to myself: okay, what are they telling me? What they tell me is nice to know, but what’s important is that something in my work may be of interest, so just keep going, don’t wait, don’t stop. I kept going, I kept pushing. So the Aga Khan was important because it was a push.
AK: When did you decide to live in Germany instead of going back?
FK: No, I never decided. I still go back and forth. I stay in Ouagadougou, at the place of a brother of mine where my mother is living. He takes care of my mother because my father passed away. In the village it’s not easy to feed old people if the family situation is not traditional. By tradition I would have had to stay home and have a lot of kids, and take care of my mother in lieu of my father. I have brothers and sisters but they have their own families to care for. And the food situation is not all that good and of course I don’t want my mother to suffer. In Ouagadougou I see her for half an hour, very intense, then I am in Burkina already. Upon arrival, that is what I need. Then I go for the project. And every night I am back.
AK: My case is quite similar. Few people know this, but while I was working, my mother was paralyzed and she was not well. This went on for many years and that’s why my own children, my own family, came much later. In our societies we are at some point the nurturers of our parents. It was very natural. So for many years I had that commitment, and I did not travel much. I was fully dedicated to my mother, who needed to be moved around in a wheelchair. I brought my parents to stay with me, so for years I had everything revolving around them. Let me tell you something about my house, the Wall House, which became so well-known – in fact the MoMA has acquired the drawings and models. Well, I have a photograph of a horse that used to come. It was the highlight of my mother’s day. A horse could actually enter the house and go to her bedside because I had made the space so open, to animals and everything.
FK: I love that story. I was wondering, are you still bringing students to India? And how are you financing your projects?
AK: That’s a really good question. Actually my projects were not often funded like yours. I’m doing many social projects, but I’m not the only one responsible for financing them, whereas I think you bear a lot of that responsibility yourself. If the funds come together, we do it. I like to take students with me. In fact there is a demand. Students are always demanding, they love to go to India, and they benefit… What kind of projects are you doing right now?
FK: We’re working on many, including in the USA. We also have a sort of African pavilion in Edmonton, Canada. And some potentially good projects might be coming in from Munich, including a Waldorf school. And two potentially major projects – one for the university, and another one I can’t say because we have to wait for elections. It’s for the Kunstareal…