Francis Kéré’s education campus in Kenya is inspired by termites
Francis Kéré’s perfectly ventilated, termite-inspired Kenyan education campus, SLAK, is a breath of fresh air by Lake Turkana
Turkana County in Kenya is a large expanse of beautiful yet arid land of low bushes and occasional trees, home to Lake Turkana, the country’s largest landlocked body of water and the biggest desert lake in the world. Termite mounds, buzzing with activity and up to several metres high, are dotted around the region’s gently undulating landscape. It was these tall structures that first caught the eye of Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré when he started researching the area for one of his latest commissions – a sustainable education campus on the lake’s banks.
In 2019, Kéré was in Munich for the Global Africa Forum organised by the city’s Technical University. There, he met Ludwig Bayern, founder and CEO of Learning Lions, a non-profit organisation that works to empower young adults in impoverished rural areas of Eastern Africa. Together, the pair decided to build a school by Lake Turkana – a higher education facility that would offer valuable IT knowledge to the county’s youth. This part of Kenya offers immense natural beauty, but it is also the country’s poorest region, with high unemployment rates. ‘The NGO wanted to support development in the area, to create opportunities,’ says Kéré. ‘It wanted to give the area a boost and the people a better future.’ The project was named Startup Lions Assets Kenya (SLAK).
The architect, who first gained widespread acclaim a decade ago for a series of school projects in his native Burkina Faso, is known for a site-specific and inventive approach that is particularly sensitive to the needs of local communities. Today, he runs an 18-strong and extremely busy studio in Berlin. Projects span London, Montana and Kenya, while a new National Assembly for Benin is in the works. ‘Every project is different,’ says Kéré. ‘Material availability is important to me, and local traditions and handcraft, too; you also have the climate as a factor. But I’d say a common thread in my work is finding a way to create the most comfort for the people living there. And if possible, I always try to use renewable, local materials rather than very expensive materials.’
For this design, he looked at the local nature and building vernacular, aiming to create an architecture that not only looks and feels stylistically at home in its environment, but is also respectful and operates in harmony with it, too. Turkana’s climate can be hot and harsh, so ventilation and temperature management were key concerns. Traditional local housing is very simple, made of straw. Inspiration came from the area’s termites. ‘Nature is the best architect,’ says Kéré. ‘I wanted to learn from termite mounds and design something that provides passive ventilation. So we studied the mounds and came to a shape that does that and is really visible, and becomes part of the architecture. The complex has these sort of wind towers.’
Indeed, the first indication of a man-made structure on the site as you approach is the three towers. Celebrating the local context, these elements support natural ventilation ‘by extracting warm air upwards, while fresh air is introduced through specially designed low-level openings’, says Kéré. Electricity is produced on site, using solar panels.
The hillside campus, which focuses on information and communication technologies, is a composition of five main buildings spanning two levels and made of local quarry rocks finished with concrete plaster to aid with insulation and keep the interiors cool. The cluster is arranged in a circular shape, around a clearing that allows students to gather. Various shaded terraces, covered by planted pergolas, offer options for teaching outdoors. Wide steps connect the various parts, also providing impromptu seating for large and small groups. Inside, the buildings house classrooms and flexible workshops, but also storage and technical facilities. The metal and wooden window frames feature woven straw shades, in the traditional mkeka style, which can be adjusted depending on the sun’s position. Mosquito nets keep insects at bay while air flow remains continuous. All labour was local and all elements were made on site.
A second phase is currently in the works and includes housing (by a different practice) for the staff, volunteers and students who board. Creating a restaurant on site is also part of the plan. This is just the first step in what both Kéré and his client are hoping becomes a network of similar hubs in remote areas. ‘The political power behind the project is subtle but strong,’ says Kéré, who also recently completed the RTL Kinderhaus for the Sauti Kuu Foundation, and has finalised designs for the Mama Sarah Obama Legacy Campus, both in Kogelo, western Kenya. ‘Give the people a laptop and instruct them, and see what they can do.’ §