Your Name:
Friend's Name:
Friend's Email:
Sign up to receive general JWTC news and announcements as well as:
Your Name:
Your Email:
The Salon

Ouagadougou Modern

Kwabena Abrah-Asiedu, Edward Becker, Osaruyi Igiehon and Kayla Lim

(Harvard University)

Burkina Faso and its capital city of Ouagadougou are on the verge of radical transformation. While Burkina Faso remains one of Africa's least urbanized countries, with only seventeen percent of its population residing in urban areas in 2001, its cities and towns exhibit a growth rate greater than five percent annually; at that rate, over one third of all Burkinabe will be urbanized by 2030 (UN-Habitat 2006, 188). Additionally, the capital city of Ouagadougou is projected to double in population from 1.8 to 3.6 million within the next decade. "Such rapid urban growth has increased competition over the allocation of urban land titles and comes on top of other problems of persistent corruption, rivalries among local elites, and serious limitations in the democratization of the broader political system"(Harsch 2009, 265). Within this problematic urban context characterized by high growth rates, one must question the urban planning and physical construction methodologies that influence the development of effective housing systems for the city's expanding, and largely low-income, populations.

"...misconceptions of Western-modernism as a productive housing-development model for the Sahelian city negatively influence opportunities for contextually appropriate and sustainable- development strategies."

The specific challenges of designing and planning for affordable housing in Ouagadougou were undertaken last Fall by a studio course at Harvard's Graduate School of Design led by Francis Kéré. The authors conducted research while visiting Burkina Faso including meetings with local government officials, developers, architects, builders, fabricators, townspeople, and tribal chiefs in the city of Ouagadougou, as well as additional site visits to outlying rural villages. Based upon the studio research conducted both at Harvard and in Burkina Faso, the authors concluded that misconceptions of western modernism as a productive housing-development model for the Sahelian city negatively influence opportunities for contextually appropriate, sustainable-development strategies. Only through the understanding of local climate, culture, sociological influences, material availability, mobility patterns, construction technique, family organizational structures, and other factors can effective housing systems be created. This project, through both written/graphic research and a design proposal, explores what challenges limit the development of effective housing systems in Ouagadougou, as well as how progressive housing development models can be created in such a dynamic Sahelian context.

Reconceptualizing ‘Modern' Housing Practices Relative to Local Contexts

The French have historically had a heavy influence in Ouagadougou, most noticeably through the city's expansive boulevard arrangement and the composition of its most iconic architectural elements, namely the Memorial to the Martyrs, a concrete replica of the Eiffel Tower. These examples are residual evidence of the country's past utilization as a French colonial hinterland and concrete manifestations of the European-to-African grafting of French urban ideologies.

While certain western importations such as the limited access highway and interchange system have been effectively implemented - resulting in quantifiable benefits for the city - rarely are such skin-deep replications of western systems effective. The conception that what is ‘modern,' or progressive, in one geographic context is appropriate for dissimilar contexts is fundamentally flawed and should be re-examined. Ouagadougou's rapid growth, extreme Sahelien climate, agrarian-rooted urban populous, tribal cultural influences, import-based economy, high poverty rates, and lack of stable financial systems differentiate Ouagadougou from the cities upon which current ‘modern' urban models are based. "It is possible to conceptualize modernity in such a way as to avoid both eurocentrism and the type of ultra-relativistic, third worldist interpretation of the term that views it merely as an ideological means for the further advancement of western cultural imperialism," states Nicos Mouzelis in the essay "Modernity: a non-European conceptualization" (Mouzelis 1999, 156).

The perspective of modernity that Mouzelis offers is important to the understanding of development in Ouagadougou precisely because it offers an outlet where development can be both localized/culturally-specific while also being ‘modern.' Considering the high-degree to which Burkinabe developers capitalize on the public's belief that western-modernism is progressive or capable of increasing status, the switch to a more Mouzelian conception of modernism within Ouagadougou's housing real estate market would provide the framework for development rooted in the methods and means of local culture. This localized system of development is more financially and socially sustainable and engenders developmental frameworks that provide a greater degree of financial flexibility for the developer.

While the concept of ‘modern' is an evolving notion defined through the collective consciousness, Burkina's recent struggles to elevate its stature as a ‘modern' nation through the built form of its capital city emphasize a direct, and ineffective, grafting of western-development models to solve Sahelian problems. The current dichotomy between methods of planning and construction for the wealthy (e.g. low-quality, single-family detached homes primarily constructed with imported materials) and housing for the rapidly growing low-income populations (e.g. single-story low-rise housing clusters constructed of banco, compressed clay, and tin) illustrates that a greater emphasis must be placed on holistic residential planning strategies and infrastructural development.

Infrastructure and Housing

Adding to Ouagadougou's housing crisis is the city's limited infrastructure. Most residential neighborhoods tie into a fragile electrical grid-if any grid at all-and sewage is primarily disposed of in pit latrines. Clean water is rare at the household level and most roads are dirt. Large airborne particulates from dirt roads, polluted water from both pit latrines and seasonal flooding, and polluted air from automobiles and wood-fueled cooking fires all negatively affect human health. While the new housing model attempts to respond to the failure to provide basic infrastructure and services to city residents, it fails to address the needs of the vast majority of the population who cannot afford the only housing options currently being offered. Considering the rapid growth projected for Ouagadougou and the massive amount of new construction that will occur both formally and informally, changes in housing development practices hold the potential for systemic impact. To achieve this, investment needs to be rebalanced between the large scale infrastructural developments currently prioritized by the State and the provision of socially appropriate and affordable housing. Public service provision must be strengthened either through increased government oversight and/or through increased local governance structures. Residential development will need to shift away from western models to more effective, regionally specific solutions that improve urban quality-of-life. Finally, new development practices will need to focus on removing barriers to entry, increasing competition among developers to ensure better quality construction, and creating opportunity for small scale enterprise.

"While the new housing models attempt to respond to the failure to provide basic infrastructure and services to city residents, they fail to address the needs of the vast majority of the population who cannot afford the few housing options currently being offered."

Additional examples of enhanced housing development strategies are as follows:

1) provide an infrastructure of varying expense/quality that can be upgraded over time, relative to population growth and the shifting of a resident's economic status
2) provide protection for public space as the city rapidly expands while also designing a framework that is compatible with future, private development
3) maximize the use of local materials, techniques, and the sweat equity of the local populous, all the while providing multi-tiered, skill-building educational opportunities
4) construct a housing system that provides a healthy framework for long-term financial stability relative to both the residents individually and the development collectively
5) create a phasing strategy that provides both immediate and long-term quantifiable benefits
Based upon this critique and the aforementioned characteristics of the local context at large, the authors have designed a system for affordable housing in which agricultural ‘silos' would support agricultural production currently occurring in the city's public greenbelt. As housing demand increases and the public greenbelt falls under insurmountable threat from development, the ‘silos' shift function and begin operating as ‘collectives' - infrastructural chimneys - around which housing is constructed. While the ‘collectives' act as an infrastructural seed, the housing they support rings preserved agricultural land. This system where agriculture supports housing and housing ‘plugs in' to infrastructural seeds addresses Ouagadougou's growth at an urban level. While the local government would initially fund construction of the ‘collectives', standard methods of taxation on informal economic activity would replace government assistance. Collaborative construction, locally-sourced materials and sweat-equity, all familiar to rural-to-urban migrants, would support housing construction.


Harsch, Ernest. 2009. "Urban Protest in Burkina Faso". African Affairs 108/431:263-288.

Mouzelis, Nicos. 1999. "Modernity: A Non-European Conceptualization". The British Journal of Sociology 50.1:141- 159.

UN Centre for Human Settlements (UN-Habitat). 2006. State of the World's Cities, 2006/7. London: Earthscan.


1. Ouagadougou's Greenbelt rings the city, mediating between undeveloped land and the city's dense urban fabric. The land is city-owned, but is currently occupied by informal settlements and agricultural production. It
is understood that the greenbelt was only designated as such to receive grant funding and will be developed in the near future.


Low Income Housing Ouagadougou

Instructor: Francis Diebedo Kere Osaruyi Igiehon, Ed Becker, Kayla Lim, Kwabena Abrah-Asiedu


The project site is located on the southern portion of Ouagadougou's greenbelt and is bordered by a diver- sity of contextual conditions (i.e. North-N6 highway to Ghana, East- government subsidized single-family housing based on Western conception of nuclear fam- ily, South- dispersed low income slums and West- greenbelt). Conceptually similar to a Burkinabe urban wall, the project rings the site forming a catalytic threshold between informal agriculture on the site's interior and an economically and socially dynamic streetscape on the exterior. Project phasing and for- mal diversity in the building mass ensure that the de- velopment is rooted in its local context and strength- ens the socio-economic condition of its residents at each stage of its implementation.

Housing Unit

Burkinabe familial structures are unique due to the prevalence of polygamy and housing constructions are predicated on extended family sizes, resulting in a "compound" housing typology. Rural villages are com- posed of multiple family compounds arranged around a central communal space. This aggregation of small housing units is flexible (i.e. it accommodates growth and adjustments over time) and efficiently responds to climate and the presence of livestock. This rural hous- ing type has been grafted into Ouagadougou's urban context by migrants and now composes a majority of the city's residential arrangements. Housing in the Burkinabe context has historically been a horizontal construction, resulting in rapid sprawl as rural to ur- ban migration increases.

Based on this precedent, the project proposes a progressive and innovative vertical model for the com- pound dwelling. Family compounds are each adjacent to wet walls that handle sanitation and water quality issues. The individual housing units are also tied into a passive cooling and air purification system using water drip and charcoal to improve temperature and air quality. Units are small enough to conform to social standards, but allow for ample storage space, additional sleeping space and livestock-human separation. Most importantly, housing units tie into "collectives," or social and infrastructural nodes that organize a majority of the social and circulatory challenges of vertical compound dwelling.