In October 2014 a popular uprising spread through Burkina Faso following president Blaise Compaoré’s plan to change the constitution in order to extend his 27 years in office. On 30 October, the day the National Assembly was to debate the matter, demonstrators burnt parliament to the ground. Compaoré fled the country and, in November 2014, a civilian government took power. So far, it survives.
However, Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has no illusions about his country’s political stability. “The next uprising will come,” he says, sitting in his Berlin studio. So when he was asked to design a new National Assembly, he chose a different kind of revolution. His proposal turns parliament into a transparent and democratic “open house”; a glass-roofed pyramid whose façade is accessible to citizens (one of few green public spaces in the capital) and allows for urban farming. “If you have such a building, at the next revolt they won’t destroy it,” says Kéré. “They will support it.”
Kéré was born in 1965 as the eldest son of the chief of Gando, a village in eastern Burkina Faso that had no school; he was the first village child sent to the city to learn to read and write. He became a carpenter and received a scholarship for an apprenticeship in Germany, where he attended night school and eventually studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. As his thesis project he designed a school for Gando – and then raised money to build it.
Kéré has since established an award-winning practice responsible for the next Serpentine Pavilion in London, a groundbreaking stage for Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre and numerous hospitals, schools and orphanages in Africa. He is also running an NGO that has allowed him to expand the school facilities in Gando, and is propagating his philosophy for architecture in Africa, which refutes western models in favour of community skills. As he debates designs in three languages with his staff, the strain is starting to show.
“I never thought I’d burden myself with such a millstone,” he says of the National Assembly. “But you’re happy when through one’s influence some kind of democracy takes place.” His first nod to democratic participation was to invite people to voice their ideas; another was to submit a proposal radical enough to spark debate. This way, he says, without a stone being laid his building is already improving politics. “Never before in Burkina Faso has there been so much participation in how something like this should be built.”
He also hopes to have a wider impact. “I regard my contribution as encouraging debate about how parliament buildings will be built in the future,” he says. “Of course, you need security. But in a country like Burkina Faso, what do representatives have to fear? The revolution happened anyway. If you don’t face the problems it will happen again. Let’s dare a new beginning.”
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