An In-Depth Look at Pritzker Prize Winner Diébédo Francis Kéré's Radical Approach
Ambling through the grounds of Berlin’s defunct Tempelhof airport late last summer, the architect Diébédo Francis Kéré looked out across the sweeping landscape. “Here you have so much space, so much freedom,” he says. “It’s public, it’s open.” Kéré, who lives and works in the German capital, has lately become an internationally recognized star among contemporary architects. Recently announced as this year’s Pritzker Prize laureate— widely seen as the field’s highest honor—he will receive the award on May 27 at a ceremony in London. Best known for his innovative, off-grid structures in his home country, Burkina Faso, he has yet to build in Berlin despite 20 years in practice. But the city is where he has raised a family, where he became an architect, where he goes for runs on Tempelhof’s grounds. Planes haven’t taken off from the airport since 2008, but little has changed since its rebirth as a park south of Kreuzberg. The gargantuan terminal building—a stark remnant of the Nazi era—is still there, as are the airport’s twin runways, parallel strips of tarmac nearly two miles long, cutting east and west across acres of wild grass. This was the base of operations for American military aircraft during the famed Berlin Airlift, the Cold War campaign that ferried millions of tons of food and fuel into blockaded West Berlin.
Germany was still divided when Kéré arrived there in 1985, from his village in Burkina Faso. Twenty years old, he had received a scholarship from the Munich-based Carl Duisberg Gesellschaft to undertake language training and an apprenticeship in carpentry. As the plane lifted off from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, Kéré saw his country from above for the first time. “Your perception of the world from the top is very different,” he said. “You could see the manmade, the roads and the buildings, like I had never seen before.”
Kéré was born about a hundred miles east of Ouagadougou, in Gando; at the time, the country was known as the Republic of Upper Volta. His father was a community leader in the village, and wanted Kéré to learn to read and write once he turned 7. The nearest school, though, was 10 miles away in Tenkodogo — a walk that took several hours, sometimes in blistering heat. Eventually he began to live with a local family, working to earn his keep. “I had to carry water, early in the morning, before school,” Kéré recalls. “Later, I carried construction materials—sand, gravel, mud—to fix my guest family’s house, or to sell.”
When his scholarship expired in 1988, Kéré made the decision to stay in Germany. But without the Abitur—the German equivalent of a high school diploma—it would be impossible to secure residency or enroll at the university. He took night classes while working as a carpenter by day. “At that time I started to grow ideas to support my people,” he remembered. The degree took him five years to complete. In 1993, after a long absence, Kéré returned home and explained to his concerned family: He would study architecture.
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