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First Black winner of Pritzker Architecture Prize discusses his community-focused designs


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The biggest international prize in architecture, the Pritzker Prize, will be awarded tomorrow in London.

It is going to an architect known for his work on buildings that address social needs, particularly in African countries. This year's prize also makes history as Francis Kere becomes the first African and the first Black architect to earn the honor.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A primary school built in 2001, the first in the village of Gando in the West African nation of Burkina Faso.

Its very existence, plus its use of local materials, natural light and ventilation, have made it a game-changer for its community, for the field of architecture, and for its designer, Diebedo Francis Kere, who had to leave his home here at age 7 attend school in a nearby town.

Diebedo Francis Kere, Architect: Going to school is still a big, big dream for millions of young people in Africa.

This is still a big dream. And so, I was very, very lucky. And I felt privileged to be able to attend school education. What do you do if you are privileged like I am to be one of the very first from my community to attend school education?

So I went back trying to build a school for the other kids. So that was how I started my career.

Jeffrey Brown: That career, after a scholarship later allowed Kere to study in Germany, where he continues to work, has now won him the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor. But he's never forgotten the experience of sitting in dark, stifling classrooms as a child.

Diebedo Francis Kere: You had very tiny little openings, and you had no light inside the classroom, while outside you had the bright sun. So I wanted to create a school in my village to allow other kids to stay in the village and be able to attend education.

Education is so important for human development. But I wanted to have better classrooms. I wanted to have well-ventilated classrooms. I wanted to have bright person. I wanted people to feel happy going to school.

Jeffrey Brown: Last year, a New York Times survey named the school he designed in Gando as one of the 25 most significant works of postwar architecture.

And Kere, now 56, has continued to define and refine an architecture of social purpose, schools, housing, health care centers, and more, mostly in Africa, always working with limited resources, and using simple materials such as wood and clay.

Kere often works closely with community members, at times including them in the building, and even helping raise funds for projects through a foundation he first created to help build the school in Gando.

This doesn't sound like the normal activities for an architect.

Diebedo Francis Kere: Yes. Yes, this is right. It wasn't that easy. It was not the normal way.

I needed to create this structure in order to raise the needed money to be able to build the school. And we succeeded, honestly. I think it was good. You know, it's a great experience. For me, it was the best thing that I could do.

Jeffrey Brown: Why has it been so important to involve the community, even having them help build some of these buildings?

Diebedo Francis Kere: Yes.

No, it's really important. It's about, how do you transfer knowledge? If you build a school and you have the community be involved, there's two things that are happening. First, you are getting the community to really become proud, the common sense. It is we. It is our school. And they will protect it.

So, the second thing, most important, is knowledge. You are diffusing, you are transferring knowledge. And then you're making your community even stronger. At the end of the day, I am the one that gained a lot from that. I have a happy community that had a school and I'm very happy.

And I am getting even to talk to you, to talk to you, Jeffrey. Can you imagine?

Jeffrey Brown: Kere's firm designed the Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2017. And he's shown a whimsical side in so far limited work in the U.S., colorful towers for a 2019 installation at the Coachella music festival, a structure called Xylem at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana.

Among his recent or ongoing projects, the Benin National Parliament, now under construction, the Goethe Institute in Dakar, Senegal. A community playground soon to open in Kampala, Uganda, and in the design stage in Germany a bridge in Mannheim and a kindergarten in Munich.

At the heart of every project, he says, are the people he's building for, especially in his home region.

Diebedo Francis Kere: I realize, wow, I have not just only created the structure, but I am changing the game, how people see things, you know?

People in my place, they love the West. You don't know that. They love the West. They love your culture, and they want to have it. But, often, we don't have educated people to get our people to benefit from all these achievements in science, in design, in economic innovation. And I did -- with architecture, I did this for my people.

Jeffrey Brown: How much does that translate to work that you do in Europe, in the U.S., in work that you will do?

Diebedo Francis Kere: First off, all my work is transporting optimism.

And it is looking how we can learn from past and to create something that is refreshing by applying materials that are not causing a heavy burden to the environment. So these issues are not just for the poor, the poor community. It is worldwide.

Jeffrey Brown: Another way in which this prize is important, Kere is the first African and first Black architect to win the Pritzker in its 44-year history.

Diebedo Francis Kere: It's just history, and I am part of it. So, I take it. It's a great, great honor, a big privilege, if it can inspire others.

But about the field of architecture, there is something we have to know. Studying architecture is very expensive. And access to any kind of education in Africa, where you have most Black people living, is also not easy.

Jeffrey Brown: And then there is the cost of building itself. But Kere believes that an increased focus on the kind of work he does can help change the larger field of architecture.

Diebedo Francis Kere: In the moment, there are more elements that can contribute to architecture than in the past.

The social component is being seen as something that is important. Climate issues is important. And so I am very happy that my work has become where this was needed. But I wish that the world will create more schools in Africa, so that we see, in the near future, more inspiring examples from Africa.

And I hope many of them will win Pritzker. For sure, they will.


Jeffrey Brown: All right, Diebedo Francis Kere, congratulations again, and thank you very much.

Diebedo Francis Kere: Thank you. Thank you very much. And I hope to see you soon. Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: I love that he says he wants his work to project optimism.

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