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Francis Kéré

Francis Kéré

February 5, 2020

Hosted by the award-winning classical music radio announcer, Naomi Lewin, this episode of the Tippet Rise Podcast features a conversation with Francis Kéré, the world-renowned architect behind the art center’s latest installation, Xylem.

Produced and narrated by Naomi Lewin
Recorded and mixed by Naomi Lewin
Photo of Francis Kéré and Xylem by Erik Petersen



Naomi Lewin: In 2019, Tippet Rise inaugurated a new pavilion designed by African architect Francis Kéré.

Francis Kéré: You know I’m here in Montana, in the heart of the US, and the land of the cowboys, that my people knew through TV. And I am creating a structure in this world. You can imagine how far I have been.

Justin Davidson: He’s the world’s most famous architect for buildings that very few people have seen. Because the bulk of his work is in Burkina Faso, specifically in the small village of Gando.

Lewin: Justin Davidson is architecture critic for New York Magazine.

Davidson: It’s miraculous that he even learned to read and write, that he got an education, that he trained as an architect. I mean, coming from where he came, there was nothing that you could take for granted about any of that. What’s great is that he brought all of that experience with him. It’s not just that he left it behind, and became somebody else. He never forgot where he was from, or what formed him as a person.


Kéré: My name is Francis Kéré. Diébédo Francis Kéré. Actually Diébédo is pronounced Gambédo. My tradition is orally transmitted; the person in charge of writing down my name, put Diébédo instead of Gambédo. Gambédo literally mean by my family the guy that will come to bring wealth to the community.

Lewin: That name turned out to be prophetic, in large part because of Kéré’s father, who was chief of their village.

Kéré: I am his first son, and what he did is to send me a [to] school. And all of his relatives was criticizing him. He was stupid, is what they said. Why he’s sending his son to school instead of letting him work on the field to support him, to feed the family? And he just let me go. He was a visionary. And then without this decision, I will never be sitting here. He say, we have to think about transition. We need to know from the other world, from the modern world.

Lewin: There was another compelling reason his father wanted him to leave Gando.

Kéré: At that time, the colonial power will come and select young people, the strongest one, and you know where they will send them? To war, colonial war. And so many will go, and they will never come again.

Lewin: Since there was no school in his village, Kéré was just a kid when he was packed off to stay with a relative in the city.

MUSIC: PROKOFIEV: SONATA #7, 3rd movement

Kéré: I was seven when I left my family, and my community, and this landscape, and all the people, all the animals – everything. In Gando there was no cars, And suddenly, you have a city big, crowded with people cars, cars, cars. It was like wow, what a world!

Lewin: While he was at school, Kéré earned his keep by helping his relatives do repairs on their house.

Kéré: And as a kid, I was asking myself why we need to fix the housing every year? Why we need to make the roof every year? And then I couldn’t go to play, I had to work hard. And so I grow the idea, if I have the chance I will learn something that will enable me to make better housing, or like better roofs. And so the first thing I got is a carpentry. I just got the scholarship to become a carpenter. I just grabbed it. And then, looking for a job, I went to the Ministry of Vocational Training, and they was offering a scholarship to go to Germany.


Lewin: So, for the first time in his life, Kéré got on a plane.

Kéré: From Burkina Faso, to Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, from this to Nigeria, to Lagos. And suddenly to take this big, big bird, this aircraft, and sit with people that you don’t know, next to each other. You are sitting straight, and then you start to see these highways. I discovered later what it is – it was the road. I was, wow. And so I land in Germany, and in another world – totally in another world. It took me very long to feel comfortable in Berlin in Germany. First the weather … I discovered snow … the food … the people, of course … and then the language.

Lewin: Burkina Faso was colonized by France, so Kéré grew up speaking French, and several African languages – but not German. Then, there were the cultural differences.

Kéré: There was a lunchtime, O.K. I got half a chicken, and I sit, and I was waiting for the other people to come to share it. Because half of the chicken would be for my entire family in Burkina Faso. And I sit, look left, right, straight … no one is coming! And I watch. I saw someone, I saw him start to eat his half of a chicken. I said O.K., is for me potentially. I start, no one’s complained that I eat all. It took me a lot of time, and now I love Berlin.


Lewin: Carpentry may have been his ticket to a scholarship, but it didn’t take long to realize that woodworking wasn’t going to be all that useful back in Gando. With visionary thinking worthy of his father, Kéré decided to study architecture. It wasn’t easy.

Kéré: I did my high school degree again in Germany, in the evening school to graduate, and be able to learn to do architecture. During the day, I was doing many, many jobs, including being a carpenter. I just distributed newspaper, I did everything you can imagine before going at night to school, from six to 10:30 p.m., every day except Saturday and Sunday. Very intense. When I studied all of this stuff in Germany – architecture, Bauhaus – I just said, what can you do in your village? What we had is mud. But mud was consider poor people construction material.


Kéré: And I came back to tell my people, I am able to make the school you dreaming to have. And I said it is going to be mud. There was shock. Mud? He studied in Europe! He studied in Germany! In the land where they build Mercedes, BMW, all of these great cars, and tools, and a school building has to be out of concrete and glass. I said no, no. We have to build with what we have the most. And that was clay. And I used it. So it was successful. People from the local government came, and admired the school, and it was done by my people, so everyone become proud. And I realized, that is what you have to do. Just wherever you are, look for what is first available. How can you use it to shape people’s dreams? And so I keep doing that. And it has opened me a career, a professional career in the world.


Lewin: It was in Denmark, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen, where Tippet Rise founders Cathy and Peter Halstead encountered Kéré’s work.

Kéré: I was using wooden logs to create a sort of canopy, and a sort of gathering space inside the museum. And Cathy and Peter was inspired by this project. And then we start to explore.


Kéré: And listening to Peter and Cathy, both of them artists: Peter, a musician, a poet; Cathy, doing art. These are the people to get to know. How they deal with the landscape, and how they deal with people and architecture. I say wow.

Lewin: The Halsteads were equally wowed by Kéré. They wanted a space at Tippet Rise where people could gather, so they asked him to design a pavilion.

Kéré: Is not intend to say, “Hey, I am here!” Loud, a big pavilion – no. It like seek and hide. People will go hiking, people will go on tour, and then you will come back, and you’re looking for a shaded place. You see a glimpse of it, coming out of the trees, and the more you walk in, you feel it, the wood, you already feel it warm. You see a structure, welcoming, not enclosed, has no doors, no windows. We want people to come, and just sit and relax. To listen to the creek. To listen to the song of a bird.

Lewin: The pavilion is called Xylem, which is the tissue that supports plants, and brings water up from their roots. It comes from the Greek word for wood, and that’s what the pavilion is made of. As in Africa, Kéré wanted to use local, sustainably-sourced materials. With Xylem, he was thrilled to give new life to hundreds of dead pine trees, all culled from western U.S. forests.

MUSIC: HAYDN: TRIO IN C, 1st movement

Kéré: I’ve been exploring wood for a long, long, long, long, long time, and I love the smell of wood. I knew that concentration of logs, the way we cut them, going to add something to this piece: the smell. So, the piece is challenging all of your senses. The tactile – you will feel. Its smell. You will listen to the sound, and you will see how the glimpse of light is coming through the openings, and warm it. It’s simply there, and waiting for you to explore it.

Lewin: Architecture critic Justin Davidson is full of praise Kéré’s pavilion.

Davidson: It’s in a beautifully chosen spot in the landscape. It’s not high on a ridge, it’s in a little hollow, so you don’t see it from far away, you don’t really understand what it is until you get close. It’s a place where you can hear music. It’s a place where you can have a drink. It’s a place where you can get out of the sun, where you can sit and have a conversation. All these things that are very important qualities for architecture, and you don’t even really need to pay attention to the innovative things about it. You can just kind of be there, and it feels good to be there. And that’s a great thing for a work of architecture to just be a place where you think, oh, let’s go sit there, because it’s nicer there than it is somewhere else.

Lewin: Tippet Rise visitors have had a great time exploring Xylem.


Adult visitors:
(1) I feel like I’m inside a tree trunk.
(2) It reminds me almost of like a hive. And the carved out seats remind me of sort of an organ.
(3) I like the smell of it, it smells fresh. And the smoothness of the texture, so it’s sort of inviting to sit down.
(4) I like how the wood really integrates with the trees around it. It’s incorporated in this little grove with aspens, and it just feels very much at home here.
(5) This reminds me of wooden flute pipes – the little pipes that you see in like South America. The whole thing just feels very in touch with nature.
(6) And it feels like it has movement, to me. Yeah. It feels like the pieces of the ceiling could go up and down. It feels very alive.
(7) This bench here is amazingly comfortable. Everyone should have one in their backyard. It’s a great gathering place. You know, little kids could crawl up and over this.
(8) It looks like a playground.
A wood jungle gym, a wood jungle gym.
[whispered] Looks exactly like a forest.
Oh look! A spider web! We love spiders! And there’s a spider on it.
I found a nest! Bird house!!!
Adult visitor:
(9) Just the peace, and listening to the brook. You know, in 60-some years, I’ve never seen anything like it. And that’s what you look for.

Lewin: Cathy Halstead is delighted with how Xylem turned out:


Cathy Halstead: Before it existed, I feel like Francis knew, and we suspected, that it would just be magical. I love all the different experiences of being in each corner of it. The openness, and yet the coziness and the sense of being in this very, very natural place that is unlike anywhere I’ve ever, ever been.

Lewin: And Peter Halstead composed a sonnet to Xylem.

Peter Halstead: Streams of earth that wash the sky
With canopies of vines and leaves,
Wooden coils that amplify
The sound each season weaves,
Morning bent around the crucial air
Whose roots begin in loam.
Bound by the laurels that they wear,
Until at last each rhizome
Flares into rampant troves
Of summer, orchards shower
Blossoms in the frenzied groves,
And all our innate worlds flower,
Human shoots and thickets sprung
From what these primal trunks have wrung.

Lewin: Francis Kéré now lives in Berlin, but he’s still deeply connected to Africa, and to his native village.


Kéré: I have twelve brothers and sisters. My older sister is living in the Ivory Coast, but all the other are living in Burkina. And you will be surprised – all of these people has become part of my workshop. I have a big workshop. I started as a student to build a school in my own village. And from that a workshop has started where I tried to train my people to new ideas.


Lewin: The elementary school Kéré built has educated so many kids that his village now needs a high school. So, Cathy and Peter Halstead told him…

Kéré: We hire you to help us create the structure at Tippet Rise; we want to support you to create the high school in your village. We know you’re struggling to raise the money. We will support you to do that. So we have two project. We’re doing something in Montana, and then we do a school in Africa, so to link the two communities. This is fantastic.

Lewin: The new high school in Gando is named for Kéré’s father. He died in 2011, but he lived to see his son’s success.

Kéré: 2004, I won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. And then I was invited to attend a ceremony with my father. With my father. We sat in an aircraft – unbelievable – together to fly from Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, to Paris. And we took another aircraft to fly to Delhi, where there was the ceremony. And my father and I – he was dressed with his traditional clothes – and was in the front page of every newspaper in India. Every newspaper! My father and I. You can imagine how proud he was.

Lewin: Diébédo – Gambédo – Francis Kéré, who fulfilled his father’s vision, and made good on his African name: “the guy that will come to bring wealth to the community.”