Burkina Faso-born architect Diebedo Francis Kere has become the first African to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s most prestigious honor.
Kere, 56, was recognized for his “pioneering” designs that are “sustainable to the earth and its inhabitants – in lands of extreme scarcity”, Tom Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation that sponsors the award, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Kere, a dual citizen of Burkina Faso and Germany, said he was the “happiest man on this planet” to become the 51st recipient of the illustrious prize. It was first awarded in 1979.
“I have a feeling of an overwhelming honor but also a sense of responsibility,” he told the AFP news agency during an interview in his office in Berlin.
Kere is renowned for building schools, health facilities, housing, civic buildings and public spaces across Africa – not only in his homeland but also in countries such as Benin, Mali and Sudan.
“He is equally architect and servant, improving upon the lives and experiences of countless citizens in a region of the world that is at times forgotten,” Pritzker said.
Kere won plaudits for his 2001 project for a primary school in Gando village, in Burkina Faso, where he was born.
Unlike traditional school buildings that used concrete, Kere’s innovative design combined local clay, fortified with cement, to form bricks that helped keep the interior cool. A sweeping raised tin roof also provided protection from heavy rain while helping air circulate.
Kere worked with the local community during the design and building phase, and the number of students at the school increased from 120 to 700, the Hyatt Foundation said in its release.
The success of the project led to an extension, a library, and teachers’ housing in later years.
Kere “empowers and transforms communities through the process of architecture”, designing buildings “where resources are fragile and fellowship is vital”, the statement added.
“Through his commitment to social justice and engagement, and intelligent use of local materials to connect and respond to the natural climate, he works in marginalized countries laden with constraints and adversity,” the prize organizers said.
In Burkina Faso, Kere’s accolade was hailed as a reminder that the country should be known internationally for more than conflict and violence.
Groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have killed more than 2,000 people and displaced at least 1.7 million in recent years.
“In the current pain of the security crisis, our country must remember that it is also the nation of exceptional men like Francis Kere,” said Ra-Sablga Seydou Ouedraogo, of the non-profit Free Africa.
Nebila Aristide Bazie, head of the Burkina Faso architects’ council, said the award “highlights the African architect and the people of Burkina Faso”.
In 2017, Kere became the first African architect to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park, a prestigious assignment awarded each year to a prominent architect.
He was also one of the architects behind Geneva’s International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, and has held solo museum shows in Munich and Philadelphia.
“I am totally convinced that everyone deserves quality,” he said in his office, where he celebrated his award with his team.
“I’m always thinking: How can I get the best for my clients, for those who can afford but also for those who can not afford?
“This is my way of doing things, or using my architecture to create structures to serve people, let’s say to serve humanity,” Kere added