The man from Gando

By Mathias Maurer, July 2018

The internationally respected architect Francis Kéré is building a Waldorf school.

Photos: © Simone Wald, Lichtwerk

The large railway station in Huglfing. Television is there, braziers are burning, a large buffet awaits the guests. Representatives from the town and region, the Waldorf movement, parents and teachers, friends and sponsors are in attendance. We are in Upper Bavaria. At the moment the Weinheim Waldorf School is still domiciled in a plain commercial building, but that is all about to change. The school’s building group, on which the bank has placed architects and civil engineers, asked six respected architectural practices to present their work. Among them Francis Kéré, a rising star in the international architectural scene – and he agreed.

Kéré knows about Waldorf schools. He regularly visits schools with his architectural students and he tells them: “When you build, you have to look at the human being. They are at the centre. That is ecological, that is sustainable, that is holistic.” For him, Beuys‘ “social sculpture” means: “People participate – this is our joint project.”

He outlines the connection between his African traditions and Waldorf education with the concepts life – building – doing – community – colour. Space is synonymous with homeliness for Kéré. In his village it is considered immoral if not everyone lends a hand when a building is being constructed. “I wanted to get away from post-colonial architecture, away from modern incubators, and move towards a way of building related to the tribe, the village, the community. And that is connected with Waldorf. I try to create spaces in conversation with the children, parents and teachers, spaces which strengthen the idea of community, which guide our steps towards community. That only works with participatory processes.”

He is inspired by the work of Lois Kahn, an American architect, who says that the material wants to go beyond the functional and not just be something used for building. Even the material should serve the community. The exclusively functional and rationalistic approach as represented by Mies van der Rohe, which shaped the style of a whole architectural period, is not what Kéré is about, even if economy always plays a role in building. The total work of art will cost a sum of tens of millions, planned in four building phases in line with the growth of the school; a fifth building phase with kindergarten and daycare centre is envisaged. But nothing is more economical than drawing on the local human and material resources, Kéré says – effectively a counter-vision to the global market.

A group of people is gathered around the model of the new school in Weilheim, plans are inspected. In his designs Kéré looks for simple, indeed elegant forms, a structured ensemble of buildings which harmonise with one another and the landscape. “Simplicity requires precise observation and a great deal of planning,” Kéré remarks. At the centre there is a courtyard with a fire pit, a focal point intended to be a point of orientation for the children.

The whole project will arise on a former strawberry field which will be transplanted on to the large curved roofs. Large areas of window provide a view of the adjoining conservation area with its Roman wall and the snow-covered mountains. The idea is to use materials from the cultivated region to build the school. Kéré is known for his innovative structures which combine traditional materials with modern building techniques.

Sun orb and studies

Kéré’s biography is an Afro-German adventure. He grew up as the son of a tribal chief in Burkina Faso who sent him to school so that Kéré could read the letters for his father, who could not read. Kéré’s face is marked by an orb of scars – a symbol of the sun, he say, which he was given at his initiation. He learnt the traditional building methods in his home village, did an apprenticeship in carpentry, obtained a grant to study in Germany, caught up on his university entrance exams and studied architecture at Berlin Technical University.

At the end of his studies he opened his own practice, Kéré Architecture, which has meanwhile grown to sixteen staff. Kéré’s list of international awards is impressive. Among others, he has received the Aga Khan Award, the most important prize in the Islamic world. This was followed by numerous exhibitions at home and abroad, most recently in Philadelphia and Munich. Kéré holds a professorship in “Architectural Design and Participation” at Munich Technical University as well as teaching assignments at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio und the Graduate School of Design in Harvard.

Kéré loves stories and needs them for building. They are the cultural memory of the people at this location, in the landscape they cultivate. Thus he agrees spontaneously to the offer of a long-established neighbour at the site where the building is to go , the deputy chief executive of the local authority, to take a walk around the area – including a snack of white sausages. “I discover the culture much more quickly in this way,” he says. It is indeed a surprise, in a region in which Waldorf schools do not always find it easy, to experience the openness and interest with which the people here respond to the school’s building plans; even more astonishing that a coloured architect from Burkina Faso meets with such great acceptance and enthusiasm. This is no film fiction like Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe (Out of Rosenheim) but a real Bavarian miracle.

Impulses for Europe

Kéré is a development worker in both directions. “The man from Gando”, as he is called locally, visits his home country almost on a monthly basis. There building is continuing on the intercultural Operndorf which he planned and executed with the deceased performance artist Christoph Schlingensief. After a school and hospital, a festival theatre is now being built as a cultural centre. Kéré resists the suspicion that he is a political architect or, indeed, wanting to start a “postcolonial discourse”. His social commitment as an architect is not provocative but quietly makes its point.

“The world must come together,” he says, “and Africa, the cradle of humankind, can provide impulses for Europe. That is what I want to do, even if it sounds ridiculous to some. We need vision, even if some people shake their heads. Without vision things will not progress. Community building through African architecture, people laugh at that. But at the university in Mendrisio the students are queuing up to make their designs with me.”

One of his projects is the Satellite Theatre at the closed Tempelhof airport in Berlin where 700 refugees are accommodated. Kéré considered how he could include them in the work on the building. It was only possible to realise the project in part. At the opening, the play Iphigenie by the Syrian playwright Mohammad al Attar was performed with 40 refugee women.

Kéré says he would be happy if he could bring a breath of fresh air into the German Waldorf school landscape. That will certainly be the case in Weilheim.

The Weilheim Free Waldorf School is seeking sponsors and investors to provide subordinate loans for this forward looking building project. As a school in development, it is also looking forward to new pupils and teachers.


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