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A Lesson in Simple but Edifying Architecture

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page C02

The village school that Diebedo Francis Kere designed in the West African nation of Burkina Faso is modest in scale. But the ambition it represents is grand.

The long, low structure measures 5,661 square feet. It was built by hand with blocks of compressed earth and a few metal struts. Simple slatted windows in the three classrooms ward off the blistering Sahel sun. Curving sheets of corrugated tin serve as an affordable and surprisingly elegant canopy roof. Most important, the roof's innovative design eliminated the need for a crane to lift it into place. In the village of Gando, a community of 3,000 about 125 miles from the capital city Ouagadougou, a construction crane is the kind of unimaginable luxury that villagers live without.

Architect Kere's school is one of seven winners in the latest cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Designed to serve 120 young children and constructed at a cost of less than $30,000, it exemplifies the simple but thoughtful goals of a highly unusual global design prize.

The award program was started 28 years ago by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect and financier behind an eponymous economic development network. The impact of the program drew the attention of the National Building Museum, which this week honored the prince with its highest honor, the Vincent Scully Prize.

Unlike most design awards, the Aga Khan program does not celebrate a star designer for a lifetime of work. It sends an international jury to canvass primarily Islamic countries for individual projects that benefit Muslim communities, from the "ultra rich" to the "ultra poor," as the Aga Khan put it.

"I was concerned that much of the building that was taking place in the Islamic world had lost its sense of direction," he explained at a public program at the Building Museum on Wednesday. "Architecture is not just about building. It's a means of improving people's quality of life."

At Tuesday night's prize ceremony, an image of the Gando primary school flashed briefly on a screen in the museum's Great Hall. The humble structure made a graceful case for socially relevant design.

The school is located in one of the world's poorest countries. The economy of Burkina Faso, a landlocked former French colony, is dependent on subsistence agriculture. Per capita income is $300. About half the population of 13 million is Muslim and nearly half the inhabitants are younger than 14. Only about 44 percent of primary-school-age children are enrolled in school, according to the U.S. State Department.

There was no school in Gando when architect Kere, now 36, was growing up. The son of the village chief, he was sent away to school at the age of 7. A scholarship from the German government took him to Berlin, where he became the first child from the village to earn a degree. But Kere didn't forget his roots. "I had a big chance to go to school, to go to the West," Kere explained by phone yesterday from Berlin, where he teaches architecture at a technical school. "My role is to give more chances for the children of the village."

While studying architecture, he became determined to design and build a school in Gando. By then, the village had acquired one "very small school in a deplorable condition," Kere said, speaking in French. The structure was on the verge of collapse, and villagers feared they might be left without any school, he said.

Friends in Germany helped raise money to pay for bricks for a new building. The Burkina Faso government granted additional funds. Upon his return home, Kere enlisted the community to complete the project. Men, women and children of Gando acquired the skills and provided the labor to build the school, which opened in October 2001.

The Aga Khan awards jury saluted the "elegant architectonic clarity" of the design and the community involvement.

"The result is a structure of grace, warmth and sophistication, in sympathy with the local climate and culture. The practical and the poetic are fused," the jury noted. "The primary school in Gando inspires pride and instills hope in its community, laying the foundations for the advancement of a people."

The school has lived up to that description. Since its completion, the Aga Khan organization reported, the local government has agreed to pay teachers' salaries. The community has set about building residences for the instructors. Two neighboring communities, inspired by Gando's example, have begun construction projects of their own. And young people, who learned skills on the job, have been put to work in other town projects.

But according to Kere, success has created a new challenge. The school is overflowing with 350 students, three times more than planned, and another 150 children want to attend, he said. Young people in the village are gathering materials for an expansion. But more money is needed to proceed.

As for the architect, he is stuck in Berlin. He'd like to return home, but there is as yet no architecture school where he can teach in Burkina Faso.

"We have to build more schools," he said. "I hope the world will give us a chance to finish our task. Without education, development is a dream. One can never develop without education."

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