Praemium Imperiale to Francis Kéré

John Hill
12. September 2023
A visitor interacting with Counteract, Kéré Architecture's contribution to the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, The Laboratory of the Future (Photo: Flavia Rossi)

The five recipients of the 34th Praemium Imperiale were announced today, September 12, in Washington DC, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Tokyo. Per the Japan Art Association, “the artists are recognized and awarded for their achievements, for the impact they have had internationally on the arts, and for their role in enriching the global community.” The 2023 laureates are:

  • Painting: Vija Celmins (USA)
  • Sculpture: Olafur Eliasson (Iceland/Denmark)
  • Architecture: Diébédo Francis Kéré (Burkina Faso/Germany)
  • Music: Wynton Marsalis (USA)
  • Theatre/Film: Robert Wilson (USA)

Diébédo Francis Kéré, usually shortened to Francis Kéré, follows Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA as architectur laureate. Previous recipients in the category have included Glenn Murcutt (2021), Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (2019), Christian de Portzamparc (2018), Rafael Moneo (2017), Paulo Mendes da Rocha (2016), Dominique Perrault (2015), and Steven Holl (2014). No awards were given in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Kéré is notable as the first architect from Africa to be a recipient of a Praemium Imperiale since its inception in 1988. The same distinction was afforded him in 2022 but with the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Like SANAA, Murcutt, de Portzamparc, and others before him, Kéré is one of many Praemium Imperiale laureates who also have a Pritzker.

Given his numerous prestigious awards, Kéré needs very little in the way of introduction. Born in Gando, a small village in Burkina Faso, in 1965, Kéré studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin starting in 1995. In those years he established a foundation to build a primary school in Gando, completing it in 2001. The project would earn him an Aga Khan Award in 2004, one year after he wrapped up his studies at TU Berlin, enabling him to establish his eponymous firm in Berlin.

Kéré's approach to architecture was defined in that first building. “We have been taught that a school building should be like in France with concrete and a lot of glass, but we don't have the money to do that,” he explained to the Japan Art Association. “So, I had to fight to explain to people that we have to think differently.” The award statement contends that “this ‘thinking differently’ approach is at the heart of Kéré’s arrestingly beautiful architecture.”

The statement continues: “In the school in Gando and other projects in Africa, Kéré has focused on providing simple, achievable plans for buildings that utilize the skills and energies of the local community — employing traditional building materials and marrying them with modern design, allowing in light and much needed ventilation, while at the same time ensuring a sense of pride for its users.”

A few of the notable built and in-progress buildings designed by Kéré Architecture include the Lycée Schorge Secondary School in Koudougou, Burkina Faso (2016); Léo Doctors’ Housing in Léo, Burkina Faso (2019); the Startup Lions Campus on Lake Turkana, Kenya (2021); the Goethe Institute in Dakar, Senegal (ongoing); and the Benin National Assembly in Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin (ongoing).

Kéré has also been a prolific designer of temporary and permanent pavilions, including a pop-up Camper store on the Vitra campus in 2015, the Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2017, a colorful installation at Coachella in 2019, and a timber pavilion at Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana the same year. In these pavilions, and in other Kéré projects, the idea of the tree as a place of gathering — an idea inspired by his upbringing in Gando — comes to the fore in the “arrestingly beautiful” forms he employs.

See also: “Building a Modest Utopia,” our interview with Francis Kéré after he won the 2022 Pritker Prize.

Each laureate receives an honorarium of 15 million yen ($102,000 USD) and a testimonial letter, with medals presented by Prince Hitachi to follow at an awards ceremony in Tokyo on October 18, 2023.

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