I’m working on a piece for an online magazine about Rwanda’s first architecture school within the context of Kigali’s astonishing urban transformation since 1994. The school was founded on the simple and urgent need for Rwandese architects – the few that exist were all trained abroad and aren’t numerous enough to handle the burgeoning urban development. The government is implementing an ambitious “master plan” for Kigali, and new construction abounds. But the city is being built largely by foreigners (major projects led by firms from China, Germany, Singapore, the US…) who employ little local and contextual specificity in their work. A “modern” city tends to mean one thing: steel and glass (imported materials), skyscrapers, high-density, car-centric…western references as absolutes. The architecture school is young (hasn’t yet graduated its first class) and is also run primarily by foreigners (teachers from Italy, Spain, US, Ireland, Kenya). The Rwandese architects who could teach are few in number, overworked with their own projects, and would be paid significantly less than expat teachers.
However, the culture of the school aims to challenge the prevailing ideas about what 21st century architecture in Rwanda should be. The school hopes to instill in its students a sense that architecture – design – is a tool for responsible development, for equality, for democracy. Also, that local knowledge, culture, history, and material can and should inform contemporary work to create an architecture that is contextually specific and responsive to local needs, in addition to being of the 21st century. Many students I’ve spoken to are thrilled about this philosophy, and are eager to be architects for humanity.
But in order to actually train these students, the school’s main challenge lies in cultivating creativity, critical thinking, and innovation -- areas that are sorely lacking in all levels of Rwandese education. Thinking about how design can solve a problem – thinking outside the box – these are conceptual ideas that have little precedent in the students’ education. Undoing rigid, singular notions of what is right and possible is incredibly challenging, but the strides the students make are all the more rewarding. At the school’s end of the year exposition on Tuesday, I saw some of these ideas played out – projects that nurture conceptual thinking, imagination, open-ended thinking – before even talking about constructing a building. Learning to think freely and expansively about what is possible – the students are developing ideas that can extend far beyond architecture.
Students explore form and structure through paper weaving, and experiment with wall usage and construction using local adobe bricks