Christoph Schlingensief Opera and Festival House in Africa is under way at Burkina Faso through Aga Khan architech award winner architect Francis Kéré

Schlingensief Opera: How an Idea Met with an Architect-


Copyright: Christoph Schlingensief

Daring idea: a festival theatre for Ouagadougou (Illustration: Christoph Schlingensief)

For some, it seems a mad idea: Christoph Schlingensief wants to build an opera house in Burkina Faso. Yet, the artist quickly got teammates for his plans – among them the architect Francis Kéré. He now tells us, how it came about.

The first time I was faced with the question of an opera house for Africa, I thought it was a joke. Such fantasies can only come from someone who’s either unfamiliar with Africa or who is so satiated that the only ideas he comes up with anymore are nonsense. That was my spontaneous reaction.

Then, I met Christoph Schlingensief and after ten minutes it was clear: The “opera house for Africa” project was no joke.

In the time following I had intensive dialogue with Christoph and his team. During a number of journeys through Africa I discovered what indescribable energy Christoph emits and with what seriousness he is driving forward his vision of the opera house. It is really fascinating. I enjoyed it very much to guide someone like him – who shows great interest for African culture and society – through Africa.

To admire someone is one thing. But, how do you develop a project that can live up to the demands of such an ambitious artist as Christoph and the necessities in my homeland? // <![CDATA[//

Over the past days, weeks and months, I was challenged as never before – as a person, and as an architect. Many questions needed to be answered. How do you build an opera? What do you start with? There are very many examples in the world, but not a single one in Africa.

Can we even connect the opera as a cultural institution, which in the western world is even seen as old-fashioned and elitist, with a country like Burkina Faso, which, according to the World Bank is one of the world’s poorest?

Many people I spoke with demonstrated great enthusiasm, but they had the same questions as I. The core questions are not so much about the architecture, but about how we can morally reconcile the economic situation of the country (in which more than 80 percent of the population can neither read nor write) with the establishment of an opera. It sounds very sarcastic, but during that phase of thinking and doubting, a catastrophe came to our aid.

In late August 2009, Burkina Faso was hit by a massive flood. I was travelling through Burkina at the time with Thomas Goerge, Christoph’s stage designer, and became a witness to this flood disaster and the destruction it wreaked. A few hours after the water receded, we attempted to view a site in the capital city of Ouagadougou, which Christoph had chosen a few weeks earlier as a possible location for the opera. But, this site, located at the boundary between authorized and unauthorized settlements, no longer existed. It had simply been washed away in the flood. The people who had happily lived there lost everything within a few hours. Under this impression, we wrote Christoph that we could in future not speak only of the opera project, but that it was more important to help the people rebuild their homes.

Schlingensief in Africa: “Big man, what’s the plan?”

Christoph reacted very quickly. He proposed that we design a house prototype that would be suitable for the people and said he would finance some of them. For me as an architect and planner, it was the opportunity to design a module that could be integrated in the “opera village” project. I no longer thought about the whys and wherefores. The idea of designing a module that could be used both for the homeless flood victims and as the basic module for all of the functions of our opera village was something that I and my office could use as a starting point. In the words of Thomas Goerge, you can compare this situation with the caprification of the fig. “Only caprification, or injury, triggers the pollination of the fig.” In our case, it was the flood that triggered the spark of an idea for planning the opera village. The necessity to act immediately to help the people, forced us to integrate something useful for the flood victim in our plans.

In this way, an entire village was created for the opera, which is made up, like a traditional African village, of small modules surrounding a central clearance. At the centre of the complex stands a large stage, the actual festival house, for approximately 500 spectators, around which an entire ensemble winds like a spiral. The theatre space is a multifunctional shell that can be used for performances and assemblies of many different kinds. Around this, a school with a film and music class will be incorporated, in which to promote musical and artistic education. An infirmary as an emergency ward will enable many people without enough money to receive medical treatment, crop areas for self-sufficiency, a restaurant operated by the opera, artists’ workshops, the digital archives and much more will be added over time.

As Christoph describes it, it is meant to “grow like the human organism, slowly and organically.” We plan, as far as possible, to use local building materials such as clay and involve as many people as possible from Europe and Africa in the project as early as the construction phase. With my previous projects, which were built in cooperation by the people for the people and also suit the harsh prevailing climate as well as the local economy and culture, I have proven that technology and science from Europe can be employed very wisely for the people from my country as long as you believe in them and fight for them.

Now I am quite certain that we together with the many individuals and institutions that promote and support the project “Festival House for Africa” will succeed in implementing our joint project.

The architect Francis Kéré comes from Burkina Faso and is designing the opera village Remdoogo. He received the most highly endowed architectural award of the world, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for a small village school with three classrooms in Gando, Burkina Faso. We extracted his article from the feuilleton section of the Zeit (No 53/2009), which Schlingensief designed.
Related links

Totales Theater: „Grundsteinlegung in Burkina Faso“ – BauNetz

Am kommenden Montag geht es endlich los. Aus einer lang geträumten Idee wird endlich ein kleines Stückchen greifbare Realität: In Ouagadougou, der Hauptstadt der ehemaligen französischen Kolonie Burkina Faso, wird der Grundstein von Christoph Schingensiefs „Festspielhaus in Afrika“ gelegt – einem Operndorf, das am Ende mehr sein wird, als ein Festspielhaus, wie wir es in Europa kennen.

Many links to subject: Christoph Schlingensief, Francis Kéré, Festspielhaus in Afrika and Aga Khan Award for Architecture:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.