Every once in a while, a thought bubble drops from the sky and bursts on the surface of Earth, displacing conventional thinking about architecture. If you put your ear to the ground, you can catch the ripple effect spreading to, say, the poshest quarters of London or into the heart of Africa.
The glass tower, a sacred cow in the corporate and condo world, is increasingly being damaged by damning revelations. It's expensive, energy-wasteful, and it's time is over, says Briton Ken Shuttleworth, who a decade ago designed the gherkin-shaped Swiss Re tower in London, one of the world's glassiest constructs. Following the British economic collapse, and since making an exit a decade ago from Foster + Partners, Shuttleworth has grown intent on designing new, simple boxes – not alien structures that flaunt impossibility high up in the air.
In a just-released video clip, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor stands in the lushly planted courtyard of his black, brooding Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, and demurs that nature, not architecture, is what's mesmerizing about his latest intervention. "It's framing the sky," says the 2009 winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, who often celebrates, in a self-effacing way, his love of nature and the craft of buildings magnificently detailed. "This is unique. Usually I control everything, but here I only do a frame … here we are painting with plants."
In the last month, what I have found particularly moving is the honourable, locally inspired architecture being produced by Diébédo Francis Kéré. Alongside Shuttleworth and Zumthor, Kéré – from Burkina Faso, one of the poorest nations on Earth – is cracking open new frontiers in leaner architecture.
Kéré grew up in a clay hut on the southern plains of his west African homeland, where a modest, ethical approach to design was nurtured by a childhood spent living in architecture of absolute necessity. "After all the achievements of modernism, it is important to go back to the roots," he says. "The future is to go back to simplicity."
I met Kéré last month at the downtown Toronto innovation centre known as MaRS. He was in town to speak at a lecture sponsored by the Goethe-Institute, along with Geoff Cape, founder of the not-for-profit eco enterprise Evergreen; I was moderating the event.
The face of Kéré is etched around its edges with short incisions according to a family tradition in which the eldest son is marked from an early age. The child of a village chief, Kéré was the first person in his community of 3,000 to go abroad (to Germany) to study. His father would become his client and a mentor but, as adults, their worlds were vast, separate territories. When Kéré told his dad that his work was being included in the recent exhibition, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architecture of Social Engagement, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the older man looked at him and asked: "What is this MoMA? Can it teach us how to grow food?"
Being a global architect – he is currently designing the permanent exhibition facilities for the Red Cross Museum in Geneva – Kéré speaks several languages: German when working at his studio in Berlin; a mix of French and local dialect when in Burkina Faso; and (as he did with the Toronto audience) English. Boldly, he stepped off the stage and into the crowd, where he stared up close at people in their seats, imploring them to remember that Africans can teach the West much that they have chosen to ignore. Most specifically: that the planet's resources are limited. "The West must moderate its consumption. We must deal directly with nature. Nature is the ancestor of all of us."
Sadly, Kéré left Toronto for Africa under a dark cloud – he had just received news that his father had died. After the funeral, the peripatetic architect relocated again, temporarily, to Venice, to teach a design studio with architecture students there.
Kéré believes that architecture must be grounded in a deep community desire to see something designed, built and maintained. "Help to self-help" is his motto, one that he has applied to the Gando village school. Motivated by his desire to provide an elementary school constructed of raw earthen bricks for his people, a decade ago he raised $30,000 together with his friends at Technische Universitat Berlin.
Kéré added cement to the easily available clay, creating a tougher material able to withstand the harshest rainy season. The school, featuring a protective double roof of corrugated iron and clay bricks, was designed for optimal air flow and natural light. Built with a single handsaw and a small welding machine by members – both young and old – of the local community, its simple, elegant forms and natural ventilation have propelled it to international, award-winning stardom.
On a savannah just outside the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou rises another Kéré intervention: His opera-house village was designed in close collaboration with the late German cultural activist and director, Christoph Schlingensief. There, a concert hall is surrounded both by housing for locals and by training facilities for musicians.
In a commission arranged by the Aga Khan Development Network to mark the 50th anniversary of the independence of Mali, Kéré has also designed the Bamako Restaurant and Sports Center for that landlocked African country's eponymous National Park. In concert with the land, the striking restaurant sits on an outcrop of ochre rocks, its overhanging roof projecting dynamically over the front entrance.
The sports buildings are arranged to give maximum shade to the playground and provide interior spaces that protect from the blazing sun. Local sandstone, cut directly on the site, was laid up for the building's walls by Malian stonemasons.
Architecture of simple dignity – of intelligence, of natural fit within a particular context – is the new sublime. Architect Shuttleworth defected from Foster + Partners to declare a new interest: designing mid-rise buildings as masonry constructions. "Efficiency is the most important thing," he says. "We've been designing more and more complicated glass boxes for 30 years, to try and reduce energy load with three layers of glass and louvers in between the sheets – rather than just accepting it should be a solid wall with a window in it."
Change is coming, but don't expect it to radically, or immediately, rewrite the status quo. At this writing, an elongated, glass pyramid named The Shard, rumoured to be a lunchtime-napkin design by superstar architect Renzo Piano, is rising up over the London skyline. It'll be even taller than the glassy Gherkin that Shuttleworth designed a decade ago.
None of the work by Kéré, the buildings that rise as enduring and solid as the earth from which they come, will change supertall, bombastic design. But for sobering acts of architectural wisdom, keep your eyes low to the ground, where Kéré and others are quietly making buildings that stick in our minds.