(Re)Design for Good

Recently, I read a great article in CityLab called “How Architects Can Design ‘Coherent and Peaceful Cities'”. This piece profiled Diébédo Francis Kéré, an architect native to Burkina Faso, who was commissioned to design the new National Assembly building after the former was destroyed by fire in an uprising that took place three years ago. The 9-minute interview between Kriston Capps and Kéré provided some incredible insight into the design concepts, and I highly encourage you to check it out!

“If you create the little box, and you put [up] high walls and fences to protect again, it’s not the solution.”

Aside from the refreshingly eccentric design of the National Assembly building, there are two things about this project that stood out to me. The first was the effort to instill a sense of ownership of the building by the community. The built environment has long been, and still is, instrumental in the sustained systemic marginalization and oppression of many individuals and groups. While some of this might readily (or dismissively) be chalked up to “unintended consequences”, this has largely been intentional – it has been by design. Key to this marginalization and oppression is segregation by design. The way communities, buildings, and spaces are sited, designed, and accessed says a great deal about who belongs there and who does not. So, in thinking about designing for equity and justice, it is critical to always keep in mind the intended user(s) and what can be done to create that sense of ownership, access, and participation by all peoples.

In the design for the National Assembly, Kéré went with an open concept which invites Burkinabés to spend time in that space and participate in its day-to-day activities. Since agriculture is a huge part of life in Burkina Faso, this has also been integrated into the design through a series of terraces. Kéré even included a number of trees throughout the complex which brings an added cultural element that Burkinabés can identify with. According to Kéré, gatherings in Africa almost always happen under a big tree, which can serve as a classroom, a hospital, or even a meeting hall where individuals can debate and exchange ideas. “If you introduce this [tree], which is an element of the culture, in a design for the parliament house, then it’s evident that you’re connecting the design to the reality”, says Kéré.

The inclusion of trees in the design, and the reason behind it, is easily my favorite part of this project. If we are serious about creating communities, buildings, and spaces that bring about an element of justice, then creating a bridge to the existing culture in those spaces is, and should be, of the highest priority.

“Design can’t change politics, but it can shift perception.”

The second thing that stood out to me was Kéré’s thoughts on design as an (a)political agent. As I mentioned earlier, design has been instrumental in creating and sustaining the issues that we face in our society. As a result, I believe that design to fundamental to direct opposition of those issues and the forces behind them. Currently, the world’s population stands at approximately 7.6 billion people. While the rate at which the world’s population is increasing has slowed down, according to the United Nations, we are still expected to reach about 8.6 billion by 2030. Space is, and will be, at a premium and as we grow in number, so, too, will the impact and complexity of our issues and challenges.

This is why design is so critical in our time just as it was in times past. The threat of climate change, migration, and political, economic, and social unrest and oppression, makes for an extremely volatile situation that only needs the smallest spark to turn into a global humanitarian crisis. Rather than be reactive to these forces, I believe design can  be proactive and address current issues and challenges while preparing, inasmuch as possible, for those on the horizon. Naturally, this is easier said than done, and it is something that I think about a great deal. My goal is to explore and unpack the how in this blog.

As Kéré said, we are called – designers, architects, decision-makers – to come together and seriously consider the issues and challenges of our time. If not, we will miss the opportunities to create “peaceful and coherent cities.”