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Building a Rwandan Wall: Design to Balance Local Traditions and New Solutions


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On a hillside in rural Rwanda stands a hospital that a small group of classmates and I designed and built while we were still just students, living on the land for months at a time. The hospital, which became our first project at MASS Design Group, has been widely recognized and deeply embraced by local community members—many of whom helped construct it with their own hands.
Like the majority of buildings in the area, we used local volcanic rock for the walls. Having seen one too many brittle wall, subject to erosion, we opted to push the craft level with a new aesthetic and more sustainable technique. After having local stonemasons build mock-ups of the new stone patterning, they began construction on the walls of one building, working their way around. Their technique improved so much over the course of the building that, at the end, the masons voluntarily decided to tear down and redo the stonework on the first wall.
After sharing our story at a recent conference, I fielded several critical comments from attendees concerned that using a different, western aesthetic on the walls discounted traditional building methods. By introducing a new technique, they claimed we were devaluing local voices and culture, replacing them with western ones, just as missionaries had with religion. To be sure, I am well aware that no building and no effort is immune to criticism, nor should it be. But since then I’ve been unable to shake this confrontation by two American architects who have likely never spent time working in Rwanda.
It was odd being compared to a Christian missionary, especially since I’m about the furthest thing from it: a half-Japanese woman raised agnostic in Berkeley, California. Yes, placing an entirely un-contextual building in a place like rural Rwanda without thought to the community and its culture is irresponsible. But blindly recreating what is found in a community, even if that model doesn’t serve the health and livelihood of its members, is equally irresponsible. We are paralyzed as a field if we are afraid to use our design skills to move beyond the strictly vernacular.
There is a critical balance that comes from first taking the time to understand a community as we did by living there and working side-by-side with local people. Harnessing this new understanding, we were then able to propose powerful new design solutions. Ghanaian architect Joe Ossae-Addo talks about “Inno-native” architecture—a combination of innovation and local tradition. At IDEO.org, where I served in the inaugural class of fellows last year, we used the term “human-centered design” for this methodology.
In a place like Rwanda, it’s not neo-colonialist to work on high-quality design projects as long as you’re deeply and authentically engaged with the community. In today’s world, it’s more neo-colonialist to assume that African people don't want well-designed buildings and spaces.
It’s patronizing to assume that Africans don’t crave innovation or jobs as much as anyone else. Indeed, the Rwandan masons who worked on the hospital using modern techniques have now become well known throughout the region and beyond. 11 members of the site crew recently formed the COTCR, or the Cooperative of Technicians and Constructors of Rwinkwavu, through which they are now able to mentor other workers in community-based construction. New capacities don’t have to be a degradation of culture; they can also be a powerful source of pride and livelihood.
In his opening remarks for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting this year, the theme of which was “Designing for Impact,” President Bill Clinton pointed to the Butaro Hospital as an inspiration and model of the power of design to create opportunity. USAID is now offering Innovation Grants to test new ideas and methodologies, including in the area of design. These are but two recent examples.
Clearly, the field of design for social impact is gaining traction. But in this work, it is critical to be able to distinguish which aspects of a design fall under the aegis of innovation, and which constitute harmful attempts to bury indigenous culture. The difference, I argue, lies in the responsibility of the designer to place themselves within the community they seek to impact in order to gain a real understanding of their habits and needs.
Of course there are examples of projects that are out of touch. One famous example is the Play Pump. First heralded as a breakthrough for clean water, workers tore out existing water pumps to replace them with new merry-go-round powered pumps, which were harder to operate and required more effort than the basic pumps they replaced. In retrospect, this problem may sound obvious, but all too often we designers skip the steps of learning about our target community, assuming we already have the answers.
Design has a crucial ability to push past what exists to unearth new solutions. It is a highly creative field, and it can also be messy. But we don’t do ourselves any favors as a field by painting Africans as naive traditionalists. It thickens the line between us and them, and it doesn’t allow us to do our best design work: that which comes from a deep and abiding understanding and mutual respect.
Africa may feel a world away from everyday life in the U.S. But let’s remember that at our core, we are all in search of the same thing: healthy spaces in which to work, live, and play with dignity.
Images courtesy of John Cary.\n
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