Learning from a rising star

Diébédo Francis Kéré

Only 11 UWM students were admitted to an architecture course co-taught by Marcus Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré, an emerging star from the African nation of Burkino Faso whose practice is based in Berlin.

Chad Bloedel thinks it’s time that people and bats begin living in harmony again – the way they did when Native Americans first settled the Menomonee Valley.

They envision it as a crossroads, attracting people and bats, and drawing the native creatures out of the attics of nearby homes.

“Kéré told us to focus on the things that people don’t automatically think about,” says Bloedel. “So when I looked into the ecology, I hit on bats and the relationship between them and people. I thought we could create a better system of cohabitation.”

Kéré is Diébédo Francis Kéré, a rising star in the world of architecture, who won the 2011 Marcus Prize, an international award that recognizes emerging design talent. The student project is one of many that materialized from a course, or studio, taught during spring semester by the celebrity instructor. The 11 students had to apply for enrollment in the exclusive studio. Bloedel and teammates Adriana Arteaga and Blake Villwock described the experience as “the chance of a lifetime.”

Graduate students Blake Villwock (left), Adriana Arteaga and Chad Bloedel meet at the base of the 35th Street bridge where they designed a multi-level public space intended to bring together people and bats.

Funded by Milwaukee’s Marcus Corporation Foundation, the $100,000 prize is administered by UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP).

Cultural contexts

“We’ve gotten Kéré just as he’s approaching warp speed and that’s the goal of this award,” says SARUP dean Robert Greenstreet. The award also is the vehicle for world-class architects – in what Greenstreet calls their “pre-greatness stage” – to leave a mark on Milwaukee and inspire students.

Kéré hails from Gando, a small village in the African nation of Burkino Faso, but his architecture firm is in Berlin, Germany. The simple but unique buildings he designed as a labor of love for Gando, which were built by the villagers, have created such a buzz that he is now highly sought after.

“When we first toured Milwaukee, Francis wanted to see not the tourist destinations, but where ordinary people lived,” says Assistant Professor Chris Cornelius, who co-taught the studio with Kéré. The pairing stands out because Cornelius, who is Oneida, is also known for bringing cultural identity to his designs.

What Kéré has learned by working in Gando is the importance of getting buy-in from residents – even if it means surrendering some of the details of his own artistic vision in order to stoke enthusiasm and ownership.

“His idea is that people get more value from a project when they are involved,” Cornelius says. “So he didn’t want the students to go into a neighborhood and ask, ‘What can we build for you?’ He wanted them to design something that could get residents involved in their respective spaces.”

He and Kéré were hoping to engage the underserved with the studio’s projects, he adds, so they chose the 35th Street corridor as the target area. Researching census information informed students that most residents there didn’t have access to a car, for example, and had to use public transportation to access the closest large grocery store.

As a result, many of the projects incorporated themes such as fresh food, community recreation and transportation.

This secondary school in Dano, Burkina Faso, was designed by Kéré Architecture.

“I was particularly interested in transit issues because the census data we used showed that there was no community here in the Valley,” says Arteaga. “But that hasn’t always been the case. The area was the heart of Milwaukee right up to the mid-20th century.”

Bus stops and bats

The team focused on a bus stop in the middle of the viaduct. It isn’t immediately obvious where the riders come from or go until you see a steel staircase that leads straight down into the Valley.

It was the vertical drop that gave the students the idea to design a “layered” public space that improves access to natural wonders, like the bats, at various levels.

If the bus stop were defined architecturally, says Villwock, more people would notice the sweeping view of Lake Michigan. Descend the stairs to mid-level, and the plan includes a bat observation deck.

Building on the existing Hank Aaron State Trail that meanders near the Menomonee River, their project also calls for a bat hiberniculum below ground. Encouraged by the fact that the Urban Ecology Center is also locating in the Valley, the team imagined a place that provided habitat for bats, research opportunities for scientists and public education for residents.

“In one hour, one bat eats 1,000 mosquitoes,” says Bloedel. “If we incorporate a place for these animals in our [architectural] intervention, it will protect them and also provide education that will reverse their negative image.”

The protection of bats struck a chord with Kéré because of the significance put on nature by people in his home village. “I love their idea of bringing the natural world into the architecture,” says Kéré, “and the architect is trained to design for these circumstances.”

Kéré has had his own experience with bats. Of the three trees in the village compound in Gando, one had bats living in it. “The people didn’t know why the bats were there,” he says, “but they believed that if we don’t care for them, we [ourselves] will die because the bats are a part of this place. So I thank them for bringing this idea to Milwaukee.”