by Eleanor Langdale

October 30th, 2014 in Burkina Faso was due to be the day that parliamentarians voted on a bill to change the constitution to remove presidential term limits, paving the way for president Blaise Compaore to extend his 27 year rule yet further.

Instead, on the day of the proposed vote, 1,500 incensed demonstrators bore on Ouagadougou’s National Assemblée, Burkina Faso’s national parliament building. Setting fire to buildings, documents, equipment and cars, protestors sent the message they intended not only to halt the progress of the bill but to finally wrest power from the president.

Events forced the government to abandon the constitutional changes. In time Compaore stepped down and in November 2015 Burkinabes voted in presidential and legislative elections which, with no incumbent standing on the ballot paper, were considered to be the most democratic ever held in West Africa.

Though the institution of parliament was now beginning to rebuild, the national parliament building, the Assemblée National, had suffered the change. MPs had met there since its construction in the 1960s, and to look at it, it was an unassuming bureaucratic structure. Yet in condemning it to rubble, protestors showed the extent to which the building had become a symbol of the country’s unclenching, centralised power.

With this in mind, Burkina’s new parliament asked the country’s most famous architect, Francis Kéré to design a new assembly. His brief: “What kind of parliament building should be built for a people who have chosen to throw out their rulers”. It needed to be the seat of parliamentary and not presidential power, rooted less in concrete than in democracy.

Based in Berlin, Kéré is known internationally for sustainable projects which draw inspiration from Burkina Faso’s vernacular architecture, its local environment and its light. Grandstanding is not his trade: one of his best known works is a primary school designed for his village Gando, from which he was the first child to be sent to school.

His designs for the new parliament, which were unveiled at the 2016 Venice Biennale, would at 6 storeys high, be radical to the landscape of Ouagadougou, standing out from the low profile of the city. Yet unlike many tall buildings, which shoot out of sight, the parliament would take the form of a stepped ziggurat, designed so that citizens can climb over and inhabit the surface.

“We want the entire building to be a platform that people can take ownership of”, said Kéré.

Aside from this symbolic value, the designs also address local circumstances. In Western-style parliamentary halls discussion can be shaped by the adversarial nature of the chamber – the House of Commons comes to mind, where government is pitted bitterly against opposition. Formal speaking rites like the use of speakers’ boxes or timed speeches can also arguably stymie discussion.

By contrast in Kéré’s vision, the inside  of parliament would provide space for members to meet more directly, reflecting the way in which, in rural areas, discussion is often held beneath the spreading shade of a great tree. Besides the more formal 127-seat Assembly Hall, a discussion tree or “Arbre a palabres” would be recreated for that purpose. The building would also incorporate natural ventilation systems, whilst green terraces integrated into the building’s façade would make reference to the country’s agricultural economy, which employs as much as 90% of the workforce.

Few nations have the chance to reimagine their national assembly. In the UK, Dr Stephen Games’ has proposed ‘Brexitropolis’; taking the radical step of moving the capital out of London. Yet unless that idea gains traction any time soon, the Restoration and Renewal programme at the Palace of Westminster might be the closest we get.

Francis Kéré’s approach will be reaching the UK, however, as his Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park is unveiled for the summer on June 23rd this year. In the meantime, it’s worth a look at some of the other parliament buildings in West Africa, for what they can tell us about the countries’ own unique histories of parliamentary-style democracy.

 

Nigeria

With a landmass of over 900,000 square kilometres and an ethnically diverse population pushing 180 million, Nigeria’s parliament faces different challenges than those of Burkina Faso’s

Each of the 360 members of the House of Representatives represents over half a million people. These members are drawn from the six geopolitical zones, made up of 36 states. The capital, Abuja, which lies in the heartland of Nigeria, was chosen in the 1970s as part of an exercise in balance, officials at the time saying:

“It is our belief that one way of forging the idea of unity of this nation is by building a capital city which will belong to every Nigerian, where every Nigerian will rest assured that he has opportunity to live in parity with every other Nigerian, and where no Nigerian will be regarded either in law or on the facts as a ‘native foreigner’”

The design of the parliament building reflects that striving for balance. The building has two chambers, seeking, like the American model, checks on the power of any political grouping. The structure of the building is symmetrical, with a central dome flanked by flat rectangular buildings and daubed in the national colours of white and green. Seats in the assembly hall are arranged around a semicircle, a style which developed in the aftermath of the French revolution, and which is supposed to foster unity and consensus in debate.

The power of symmetry may have its limits though; given the diversity of Nigeria’s population, the meaning of the building has on occasion been contested, with some claiming the dome signals Islamic affiliations.

 

Benin

Benin operated as a Marxist-Leninist state between 1975 and 1990 under the name People’s Republic of Benin. During this period leader Mathieu Kérékou extended Benin’s hand in Socialism to Libya, the USSR and the People’s Republic of China.

Although the Socialist regime has expired in Benin, the country’s relationship with the PRC lives on: the People’s Republic of China funded 80% of the $25 million cost of the Benin’s new parliament building, the Palais des Congres, which was built in 2003 by the Shanghai Construction Group. The mammoth sum might otherwise have been difficult to squeeze from Benin’s tiny population of 11 million.

The parliament is not actually seated in the Porto Novo, which remains the capital as a colonial legacy, but in the biggest city, Cotonou. Unlike Nigeria’s national assembly, the parliament building in Benin is idiosyncratic. Set between three truncated cones, the moulded concrete structure couldn’t look further apart from the US capitol. It was modelled on the vernacular castle-like houses built by the Somba people, that were to protect inhabitants from wild animals and potential attackers.

 

Ghana

Kwame Nkrumah who led Ghana to independence, is well known for his efforts to conjure a Ghanaian nationalism arranged around symbols. These included stamps, statues, and crucially, architecture.

He was removed from office 1966, accused of dictatorial leanings, for which an Italian marble statue of himself was clear evidence for some. He is remembered more, however, for his leading role in establishing the basis for Self Determination, Socialism and Pan-Africanism on the African continent.

Nkrumah once wrote “”In the new African renaissance, we place great emphasis on the presentation of history. Our history needs to be written as the history of our society, not as the story of European adventures.”

This intention led to the construction of monuments and buildings like Black Star Square and the National Museum of Ghana. Appropriately, Ghana’s members of parliament now meet in one of these buildings: the Kwame Nkrumah Conference centre. It was built in 1965 to host the first Organisation of African Unity conference, a major pan-African congress convened by Nkrumah.

Years on from then, leaving Ghana’s past associations with Socialism behind, there were reports of uproar from MPs and civil society in 2016 at the decision to import new chairs for the parliament from China.

 

Relevant events:

If you’re interested in Francis Kéré’s approach, and the spatial dynamics of democracy, there’s plenty going on in London this summer to get involved with:

June 12th: Spaces of Democracy: How do we design for debate and participations? London Festival of Architecture http://londonfestivalofarchitecture.org/programme/?ev=1064.

June 19th: African Modernism: The architecture of independence  http://londonfestivalofarchitecture.org/programme/?ev=1370

June 23rd: Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion opens to the public, remaining open until October 8th http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/explore/pavilion

June 23rd: Building Brexitropolis: The case for a new capital city – London Festival of Architecture https://www.newpremises.xyz/

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