by Meghna MehtaMay 21, 2019
The manifestation of interesting architectural concepts into actual, functional building designs can be tricky, especially since there is always a degree of abstraction involved in the transition. In the case of Benin’s new National Assembly building, commissioned by the Parliament of the Republic of Benin, and designed tastefully and sensitively by Kéré Architecture, the concept manifests as a beautiful building, at least in visualisations, and the translation from object to building only adds to the design. That is primarily because the ‘concept’ here is sought in tradition and context; the inspiration is local. The form of the building speaks to the people of the land, and the design goes a step further to make the building feel inclusive. There is consideration not only of the public facet of a largely democratic building, but also the climatic aspects of it. Even from the looks of it, the National Assembly seems like an intervention that is truly for the people, belonging to the place it is built for, to “embody the values of democracy and the cultural identity of its citizens”, two important avenues that seem to have evaded the design of the same monument on home turf.
Recently, Diébédo Francis Kéré spoke passionately at The World Around Summit 2021 about the lamentable lack of character and external influences in African architecture, and how “buildings that reflect indigenous form of governance, democratic practices, or a material and climate responsible approach and local knowledge” couldn’t be found to highlight their new found independence. His architecture then emerges as a tool that is definitive in terms of a distinct identity for African architecture, one that is homegrown and not foreign.
For the National Assembly of Benin, having outgrown the previous building it occupied, Kéré highlights his inspiration in the arbre à palabre, the palaver tree, as guiding the blueprint and form of the building. An age old custom and a socio-cultural occurrence, a palaver tree signifies a spatial arrangement under a large, shaded tree such as the Kapok or the Baobab, under which people gathered to make consensual decisions in the interests of a community. Apart from being a timeless, ancestral symbol, the palaver tree also inspires respect and homage to the majestic forces of nature in African tradition. Similar to its primary structure consisting of a thick shaft and a crown, the assembly building too is highlighted by an additional mass, offset from the building’s square, on ground footprint, resting on an array of cylindrical and curved, composite columns, akin to the outward branches of the tree. This mass above, mainly comprising offices and auxiliary functions, is further set back from the deep façade that filters strong sunlight in the region during day.
The assembly hall itself is located on the ground floor, its ceiling held by the same dynamic ‘branches’ that form the shaded colonnade outside it. The trunk of the structure is hollow, manifesting as a central courtyard, housing open public spaces and circulation to the other parts of the building, while also allowing internal corridors and offices to be naturally lit and ventilated. An open, spiralling ramp connects the assembly hall on the ground floor to the offices above, while the terrace offers sweeping views of the city and the lagoon in the distance.
As can be deduced clearly from the site masterplan, roughly 60 per cent of the site area is dedicated to a public park, which will showcase Benin’s native flora and provide Porto-Novo with an extensive recreation space. The park extends right to the foot of the ‘palaver’ tree, encompassing within its bounds, the shaded colonnade as well. This is done to induce a sense of openness and transparency wherein citizens can gather and deliberate, while their government does so in the assembly hall on the opposite side. The civic façade of the building is a public square located in the southeast corner of the site just across from the former national assembly, where Benin’s independence was declared. A number of other government facilities are designed to fit seamlessly within the expansive park’s topography, complete with planted roofs.
The National Assembly building, Francis Kéré’s democratic edifice for Benin, is all set to break ground in March 2021.
Name: Benin National Assembly
Location: Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin
Typology: Civic, Parliament House
Size: 35 000 sqm
Architect: Kéré Architecture, Débédo Francis Kéré, Berlin, Germany
Design team: Project Architect: Jeanne Autran-Edorh; Architects: Alexandra Zervudachi, Kinan Deeb, Javier Mola Cardenes; Contributors: Andrea Maretto, Leonne Vögelin, Charles André, Ismaël N’Faly Camara, Léon Bührer, Malak Nasreldin
Project Management: Jeanne Autran-Edorh, Fabiola Büchele (Kéré Architecture)
Construction Management: Ecoplan; SImAU, Cotonou, Benin
Engineering: Aecom, London, UK; Sahel-ingenierie Dakar, Senegal
Client: Republic of Benin, Minister of Living Environment and Sustainable Development