Design and new thinking in urban planning are helping to reshape cities and heal communities in Rwanda

Mention Rwanda to anyone over the age of 30 and the chances are they’ll reflect on the nation’s traumatic mid 1990s past. It’s hard not to associate the country with the severe unrest of 1994, when 100 days of fighting between the dominant Hutu and Tutsi tribes saw almost 2 million deaths in what many in the global media referred to as ‘the genocide capital of the world’. But much like South Africa and its post-Apartheid ‘born free’ generations, new conversations are now being had about the country’s spirit and although the reality of brutal mass murders will always shadow this country’s past, Rwanda has a new global story to tell. 
It’s in the expansive area of design and architecture that the capital, Kigali, is bringing fresh narratives to this landlocked East African country. An old slogan, ‘the Switzerland of Africa,’ was once aimed at Rwanda. Its current beautification is firmly linked to its government’s mission to reboot the nation’s ocular character, with strict steering from long-term president Paul Kagame. Smooth roads, uncongested traffic and tree-planting initiatives are often the tourist talking points when visiting Kigali, as is the 2008 nationwide ban on plastic shopping bags, which has led to high fines, or prison sentences, for traffickers who flout the laws.

“With a country that can’t afford urban sprawl and requires building in highly seismic zones, the cities in Rwanda need to have efficiently designed systems that work jointly to deliver
good quality of life”

2008 was also the year that new architectural thought started to seep into the minds of those involved in the design sector. Before then, there were no design schools in Rwanda, and no specific word for architect in the national Kinyawaranda language. The country has now shape shifted enough to gain the attention of heavyweights such as architect David Adjaye OBE, whose plans for a 100-bed Children’s Cancer Hospital in Gahanga, south of Kigali, should see its completion in 2017. Said to be the first of its kind in Africa, the three-story venue will use exterior design motifs taken straight from the red, white and black spiral Imigongo art form that’s traditionally created using cow dung. The walls will feature a series of graphic patterns that will mark the building out as one that’s a neat hybrid of old and new architecture. 
Another outside influence on the landscape is the dome-shaped Kigali Convention Centre, a “feminine” building by German architect Roland Dieterle, whose Spatial Solutions firm have “enveloped” the structure, which is attached to the swanky Radisson Blu Hotel, with a series of metal ribbons that echo the orange, green and yellow colours of local fabrics and the intricate woven patterns of traditional baskets. Dieterle has talked about the circular style of many of the country’s buildings, which led to the structure of the centre’s 40ft metal dome – a direct play on the beehive-shaped home of the King of Nyanza in southern Rwanda, but with added features of window shades and a protective coating to help regulate the interior temperature. LED lighting and transparent glass throughout is meant as a structural nod to a new openness. All citizens can witness the life and use of the building, from the exterior light displays to its regular conferences.  

Lately, the long view of architecture and its processes in and beyond Rwanda has been broadly expressed by Christian Benimana, programme director of the MASS Design group – an organisation with studios in Kigali and Boston. With a four-point approach of innovative design, advocacy, research and training, the mission for MASS is to create “architecture that heals.” The venue portfolio includes the 2011-built Butaro District Hospital in the Northern Province of Rwanda, which was designed to reduce the transmission of airborne diseases, the Malawi-located Maternity Waiting Hospital and the memorial to Peace and Justice, which sits in Montgomery, Alabama and is the USA’s first national memorial to victims of lynching.

Benimana has become one of MASS’s most vocal advocates, often speaking at international events about creating African Design Centres (ADCs) across the continent. With a belief that every architectural scheme should have a holistic effect on its users, Benimana has expressed a design vision for specific buildings to extend their structural form and to function in sublime ways - schools should help students learn, and hospitals should help heal the patients. The Butaro Hospital is a prime example, with beds facing outwards towards large windows, where expansive green vistas are the natural and energising order of each day. With the launch of the first ADC in Kigali, the institution’s courses, lectures and hands-on skill building workshops are forming a blueprint for high-impact design that will eventually be replicated at centres in Accra and Cape Town. 

Benimana studied architecture in Shanghai; a factor that has further informed his push to create robust design opportunities on his home ground. The similarities between the two countries boils down to a cultural resolve for hard graft, as well as the need to rise to the urban challenges posed by population growth. However, the clash of design ideals between urban lifestyles and rich cultural traditions that are often sacrificed in the march towards modernity, are familiar in China “but vastly exaggerated in Africa,” Benimana says. In Kigali itself, there’s uniqueness to the landscape that he specifically points out. “Kigali is laid out entirely on hills. Past attempts to make it function as a flat city have only proved to degrade the environmental conditions, as well as being costly.”
With most African cities laid out on flat land, he’s yet to see one that resembles Rwanda’s capital. The difficulty in designing for the country as a whole comes from what the tourist board currently boasts is its status as “the land of a thousand hills”. 
It’s why architecture in Rwanda works specifically with the country’s gradients, rather than against them, which is spawning innovative thinking when it comes to access to education within venues such as the split-level Umubano Primary School in the Kazebo neigbourhood of Kigali, which features outdoor classrooms, crisscrossing walkways and multi-tiered play areas. 


The important call to mend the nation’s past wounds is also a main driver in terms of social models of architecture, and another compelling voice on notions of progress come from architect Killian Doherty, who runs the Kigali-based practice, Architectural Field Office (AFO). With projects that reach Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, AFO are the designers of the Football for Hope Centre in the Kimisagara valley, the most densely populated area in central Kigali. A hub for play and education, the space is used by local youth and the wider public. 
Very much aware of how Africa is framed in line with ideas of aid and development, Doherty’s views on the actions and semantics within the design sector are potent. 
“Architecture, as it has been defined by history has excluded Africa,” he says, alluding to the “complex arrangements of power and imported forms of administration” that the continent has historically been subject to. Often remotely understood, Africa, Doherty says, is victim to fundamental problems with perceptions of "development" that are rooted to this historical constructed view of the continent. “It is deeply tied to histories and trajectories of a promised modernity. Through the history of colonialism, development and industrial exploitation of resources, Africa has functioned as a continual space of intervention by the west,” he says, adding that this thinking – externally and internally – has created the view that Africa is always lagging behind.

Doherty’s design training was honed in Ireland where he worked in social housing alongside co-operatives in inner city Dublin. This extended to research on his home town of Derry, which sits several miles from the political border between Northern and the Republic of Ireland. His research probed issues of urban development in relation to national economic investment with respect to the history of political conflict in Northern Ireland. From there he worked in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina alongside several prominent community activists before moving to Sub-Saharan Africa. 


Questioning Doherty on the word ‘activist’ in relation to his practice in Rwanda elicits a wary response. “I’m not comfortable with the title,” he says. “It feels disingenuous and is a frame within itself that many architects capitalise upon.” ‘Architect’ as a label also earns some skepticism as a term that does little justice to its interdisciplinary nature. “The tradition of the architect has changed dramatically in the past 10-15 years for those working in the global south, yet the understanding of this lags well behind.”

He speaks also of the models of social architecture in particular, that manifest under structures of development and international aid that remain as centralised powers within the west. Changing lives for the better through design is tricky when it comes from a place of power that’s stuck in a cycle of compassionate role-play. Doherty’s big question is how best to acknowledge the deep struggles that lie within the type of power that drives architecture. Focusing on what happens to how architects work and what they do is vital in creating culturally relevant knowledge for a continent where youth populations, urban lifestyles and diverse aspirations are expanding.

“As long as architecture remains wedded to western power and knowledge, it will always be stuck or immersed in a debate about whether it’s culturally or contextually relevant (or not),” he says. Simplistically put, versatility and collaboration should be the way forward in terms of the education, aesthetics and social cohesion bound up in the healing or re-design of spaces – with all their urban and rural nuances of post-trauma, conflict or ultimate beautification – in and beyond Africa. 

This global viewpoint is reiterated by Benimana, specifically in relation to East Africa. “Design will play a crucial role in already stretched cities as the populations continue to grow,” he says. “The quality of life of urban dwellers in Rwanda will be heavily influenced by how efficiently the city functions as a whole. With a country that can’t afford urban sprawl and requires building in highly seismic zones, the cities in Rwanda need to have efficiently designed systems that work jointly to deliver good quality of life filled with technology and advancements.”