Burkina’s ‘Opera Village’ by its groundbreaking architect
With its imposing, angular proportions made out of clay, laterite and other local building materials, the Opera Village cultural and educational project, designed by Burkina Faso-born architect Francis Kere, blends into the landscape.
It overlooks Laongo, a rural community not far from Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, and is the sort of groundbreaking design that helped Kere scoop architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize, this week.
In so doing, the 56-year-old, who holds dual Burkina and German nationality, became the first African to win the honour in its more than 40-year history.
Built on 20 hectares (almost 50 acres) of a granite plateau, the Opera Village is shaped like a spiral, with 26 buildings housing workshops, a health centre, guest houses and a school.
Eventually, at its centre will be a performance venue and covered exhibition area with 700 seats.
Built-in the early 2010s with the aim of combining art, education and ecology, the project was the brainchild of late German theatre director and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.
– ‘The simplest material’ –
Kere was hailed by the Pritzker’s sponsors on Tuesday for designs that are “sustainable to the earth and its inhabitants — in lands of extreme scarcity”.
His Opera Village used local construction materials, such as clay, laterite, granite and wood to allow it to withstand the extreme heat of the region, the site’s administrator Motandi Ouoba said.
“These are local materials that the architect found on site: blocks of compressed earth, bricks taken from the site, paving stones made from granite,” he said.
Kere “starts with the simplest material, which we commonly share… which our parents used, and he makes something noble out of it,” he added.
“It’s the earth, it’s all that’s around us, when he brings them together, he brings to life something that is magnificent.”
It also blends well with local vegetation, contributing to a sense of harmony.
– ‘Bioclimatic buildings‘ –
The immense roofs overhang the walls and ventilation keeps the temperature in the rooms down, even when it’s more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) outside.
Kere ensured that “our buildings are bioclimatic, with a double ceiling and openings to dissipate hot air,” Ouoba said.
The health centre’s consultation and treatment rooms have dozens of long windows that slide upwards.
“With so many openings, patients feel less isolated by hospitalisation. They have a view of the landscape,” doctor Issa Ouedraogo said.
The stylish classrooms filled with daylight are a far cry from the makeshift decor of many of the schools in Burkina Faso, a country battling a jihadist insurgency since 2015 that swept in from neighbouring Mali.
“The architecture of the buildings changes everything. We are in perfect classrooms because it is very hot here and not everyone can afford fans or air conditioning,” said headmaster Abdoulaye Ouedraogo, who is also an actor and playwright.
Six classrooms can accommodate 181 pupils — and there’s a separate space for music, dance, theatre, plastic arts, photography and audiovisual lessons.
– ‘Durable and functional’ –
Opera Village also serves as a creative residency site for artists, according to Ouoba.
“It reminds us that we can get something beautiful, durable and functional from local materials,” he said.
With its unique architecture, the centre attracts around 2,500 visitors every year.
Ouoba hopes that international recognition of Francis Kere will help maintain the curiosity of visitors.
“This very prestigious prize is the pride of everyone, especially in these times when Burkinabe news is dominated by terrorist attacks.
“We are happy for Mr Kere but also for us who are among the first beneficiaries of his work,” he said, congratulating the architect.