Lagos, Kinshasa, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Niamey. Do you know these cities? Can you place them on a map? According to UN estimates, these are the cities that will grow the more in the coming years, doubling Africa’s population by 2050 and quadrupling it by the end of the century, to exceed the population of China and India combined. Global warming, desertification, poverty and the spread of epidemics in crowded conditions threaten this scenario for development, but will not halt it. Rather, this growth will create a need for homes, schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure of all kinds. It will create a need for architecture and architects, for design solutions and strategies.
These proposed solutions and the strategies will have a broad impact: creating imbalances between the local and global distribution of resources, or instead, improving quality of life in communities across the continent.
In this sense the work of MASS Design Group in the poorest areas of Africa has extraordinary potential as it proposes a humanist and ecological approach, focused on the need to optimize scarce material resources and, in turn, taking advantage of the “human resources” of the communities in which the studio works. At the heart of MASS’s philosophy is the idea that architecture is a tool to create social impact. This operates on two levels. It implies direct impact on users, through the creation of efficient and healthy conditions, that prize beauty and quality (with a focus on sanitation, temperature, lighting and ventilation through judicious choices of form, technology and materials). It also implies a systemic level of impact in which the community engagement is at the heart of every stage of the construction process, from design to implementation and in development of a project’s guiding principles down to its smallest details. Lo-fab, which stand for “locally-fabricated”, is the banner for a contemporary architecture rooted in specificity of place and of community.
Two of the studio’s recent accomplishments, a school in a remote village on the Congolese jungle and a center for neonatal care in a small town hospital in Rwanda (difficult to find on most world maps), are emblematic of this approach and of its potential.
The Ilima Primary School, built in collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation, started as a village primary school and community center for the wildlife preservation. The challenge, taken on by AWF, is to bring together conservation and development: the organization uses education as a tool to counter activities and livelihoods that threaten the environment. In rural Democratic Republic of Congo, farmers are often dependent on slash-and-burn practices that damage the forest and threaten already endangered species. The hope is that, through school, children can discover new opportunities to thrive, perhaps related to defending the wealth of biodiversity of this region.
In the face of this challenge, MASS Design Group intervened with a simple project but that, through the design volumes and landscape, proposes a strong formal articulation: a system of circular geometries in the jungle form an abstract, harmonious landscape, one that is orderly and complete. To respond to the heat and rain of the rainforest, a large roof hangs over a system of perimeter walls allowing air circulation and offering open spaces away from the sun and rain. Local materials (mud bricks, tiles and wooden pillars, woden panels) all produced on-site by the residents of this and nearby villages, mean the building has literally grow from the ground.
At Rwinkwavu Hospital, the Neonatal Intensive Treatment Unit is characterized by a system of high and low openings, drawn by the sloping shape of the roof, that maximize cross-ventilation but also celebrate birth and life, through an intimate connection to the surrounding landscapes and natural light. The careful design of outdoor spaces, with spacious seating under shaded rest areas created from a large roof overhang, is also targeted to receive visitors. This revers what can be a management headache (the presence of patient’s families) into a resource for care.
But the most interesting aspect of this project concerns the manufacturing process, which here involved unskilled workers, with approximately a third of the project budget devoted to labor: labor entrusted to local builders, trained on site by architects, wood workers and master masons. This process was led by Amelie Ntigulirwa, Associate at MASS and site manager for the project, who understands her role as continuing a trend of encouraging opportunities for women that MASS had already highlighted on the Butaro Hospital construction site. Here another woman, Anne Marie Nyiranshimiyamana, had trained on site and risen to the rank of master mason, becoming an example for other women interested in this highly-specialized and well-paying work in a country still working to give women the skills for economic self-sufficiency.
At Rwinkwavu Hospital, new and experienced workers together produced welding, masonry, woodwork in traditional and innovative ways, interpreting drawings and finalizing construction details to put together the facility piece in a process of “learning by building”. The process is an end in itself, slow and painstaking but creating value and opportunity above and beyond the architectural product.
That’s why the work that MASS Design Group has created in Africa over the past several years is much bigger than a simple portfolio of buildings. It’s the operational core of a new type of Bauhaus school: continent with each new worksite and is slowly forming of a new community of builders.
Images courtesy of MASS Design Group