Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
In Burkina Faso and elsewhere, Architect Francis Kéré approaches design as a medium for easing tensions around political issues like migration.
Three years ago, demonstrators in Burkina Faso set fire to the National Assembly in Ouagadougou. The Burkinabé uprising led to the ouster of the country’s longtime president Blaise Compaoré followed by a short-lived military takeover. Today, Burkina Faso is rebuilding.
Diébédo Francis Kéré designed the next National Assembly building to reflect the reality of life in Ouagadougou. The design by the Berlin-based architect (and Burkina Faso native) is open and transparent, a pyramid whose façade doubles as a public space. The plans include terraces that celebrate (and demonstrate) the country’s agricultural achievements. Low-slung and marked by permeable walls and green event spaces, the National Assembly appears to rise up from the ground. Kéré’s design is grassroots architecture.
“If you create the little box, and you put [up] high walls and fences to protect again, it’s not the solution,” Kéré said.
The architect’s design reads like a series of gardens or pavilions—not unlike the open-air structure that Kéré designed for the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion, the annual series of architectural follies hosted by the Serpentine Galleries in London. The idea of a communal gathering place as a formal design element drives Kéré’s work for London and Burkina Faso alike.
“My naive idea was, the next time that there is a revolt, they will care for the building,” Kéré said of his National Assembly project. “They will not burn it down, because they use it.”
Social conscience can drive decisions about design that result in more “coherent and peaceful cities,” the architect said. He lists as his primary example migration: a crisis that is changing the shape of cities and dividing people along new political fault lines across Europe. Migration is in many ways a building crisis.
“We have to tackle this problem by creating affordable housing. Not just for those who are arriving,” Kéré said, “but for those who are living there with low income. If you do so, you create the most inclusive situation. You don’t create the tension.”
Kéré knows that architects cannot achieve ideal solutions without effective political leadership, whether that’s in West Africa or Western Europe. The immigration crisis is global. It’s rooted in a misguided understanding of how a society works, Kéré said: Radical opposition to immigration stems from a zero-sum perception that anything good that happens to migrants must be the result of someone taking something away from natives. Design can’t change politics, but it can shift perception.