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Impact Education Around The World: The African Design Center

October 28, 2015

Five years ago, Christian Benimana looked all around him and saw disaster. Born and raised in Rwanda, Benimana had just returned to his native country after finishing his architecture studies abroad. What he found was a nation developing so fast it was hurtling toward destruction – entire neighborhoods leveled to make way for new construction, displaced communities forced into hastily built new homes that had no hope of withstanding the next earthquake, environmental degradation on a massive scale. “If we continued down that path,” says Benimana, “we were simply going to create more disasters.”

By 2025, one child in three will be born in Africa. Twenty years from now, there will be a billion more Africans than there are today – a faster growth rate than anywhere else on the planet. While Africa’s extraordinary diversity should not be overlooked, the pressures of demography and development are common to many African countries. “In Rwanda alone we need to build 93,000 affordable homes per year in the next five years just to keep pace and house our urban population,” says Benimana, who now serves as Rwanda Programs Manager for MASS Design Group, a non-profit architecture firm that builds health and education infrastructure around the world.

Primary schools, health facilities, low-cost housing – “in each and every African country, the need for these is scary,” says Benimana. And yet there are four times as many designers and architects in Italy as there are in the entire continent of Africa. In 2002, when Benimana himself first sought to train as an architect, there were so few opportunities in Africa that he found himself racing to learn Chinese so as to take up a scholarship at Tongji University in Shanghai. But when he came back to Rwanda for good in 2010, he found signs of change alongside development nightmares. The Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (now the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology) had a new architecture program, established only two years before – Benimana received an offer to teach there. MASS Design Group had helped to design the architecture school’s program and its head of department was the MASS country director in Rwanda. Soon after, Benimana was offered a fellowship at the firm.


MASS designers review plans for the Butaro Doctors Sharehousing project

Benimana’s first full project for MASS was the Rwinkwavu District Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The experience taught him about the importance of human-centered architecture, about the crucial need for design to uphold the dignity of those it serves and its power to change people’s lives. Invited to create design standards for other African countries, Benimana began to ponder where the crucial deficit lay in the development model – how to change the paradigm from one that created so many disasters, to one that lifted people up. His initial thought was to train masons and artisans, but then he realized the greatest problem was with designers. He saw that if Africa was ever to meet its challenges and reach its true potential it would need a generation of creative talent deeply versed in human-centered design and social and ecological sustainability. And so the concept for the African Design Center (ADC) was born.

Benimana took his inspiration from the Bauhaus. Founded in Germany in 1919, Walter Gropius’s radically new conception for a design school quickly became the epicenter of a Modernist revolution in how we think and build; a revolution that reverberated far across the world and on into the present day. As Benimana stresses, the Bauhaus was an educational institution that transcended its local and physical origins to become an ideological movement. His own vision was to create the “Bauhaus of Africa” – a program to train the next generation of Africa’s creative leaders. “We want a whole class of people who design differently,” says Benimana. “We want to instill a methodology that we know creates real impact for communities, that has the power to change the fundamentals of the built environment in Africa and around the world.”

Key to this mentality is a dedication to quality rather than mere quantity. “With infrastructure projects today in Africa, it’s always the bare minimum of care so as to rush on to the next project,” Benimana observes. “But if we can create a series of projects with a methodology of quality that both trains our fellows on-site and produces fundamentally good design, we can change the way people think in the process.” By setting a new standard, the public and the powers that be would see the value of a more thoughtful approach; they would start to demand it, leading to systemic change.

Benimana and his colleagues at MASS found the perfect candidates to test this hypothesis: themselves. “We were the guinea pigs,” he recalls. “The key is to understand the power of design tools and the impact they can make, and the best way to do that is to be immersed.” And so an educational program took shape in real time through the rigors of creating new schools and medical facilities. Working on projects such as the Butaro Hospital and the Mubuga Primary School, Benimana and other Africans in the MASS fellowship program empowered patients and young people, employed thousands of local men and women to build with local materials, and perfected their human-centered and impact-based approach.

Christian Benimana working onsite at the Mubuga Primary School
Christian Benimana working onsite at the Mubuga Primary School

Since 2010, when Benimana joined MASS and began this work, 16 designers have gone through the process as MASS fellows. Last month, Benimana finally unveiled his vision for the official launch of the African Design Center at the United Nations Solutions Summit in New York City. The ADC will be a fellowship program that goes beyond MASS to partner with many different organizations and stakeholders. Recruitment is now under way for the first class of 12 fellows. They will sign on for a two-year program, working to build schools for the Rwanda Ministry of Education. “The primary location for the fellowship is in the field,” says Benimana. “There’ll be some supplemental workshops to be sure, but to truly learn you need to work and be immersed in the field.”

Thankfully, the ADC will not have to look so far as before for recruits. When Benimana left to study in China, there were no architecture programs in Rwanda whatsoever. Today, in addition to the program at the University of Rwanda, the East Africa region boasts seven accredited programs and the pool of talented graduates is growing – indeed some of the designers who helped forge the ADC’s program of study are now teaching in those very institutions, transforming them from within. “We’re trying to get those new graduates before they’re absorbed by the market,” Benimana explains; in other words, before the furious demand for architects to do quick but questionable work pulls them in, resulting in more building that Benimana deems “harmful to the community.”

Architecture Students at the Kigali Institute of Social Sciences
Architecture Students at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology

The educational framework for the fellows will consist of three main pillars: the power of collaboration, enhancing hard and technical skills, and learning soft skills. Of these, Benimana considers the last to be most crucial. “Hard skills only create impact if you have the soft skills to gain that deeper understanding,” he says. Benimana points to the example of using local materials, which has become a design mantra. But very few designers think about whether local people will actually be adept with those materials, and so whether using them will translate to economic benefit for those who live in the region – materials need to be matched to skills, otherwise the benefit is wasted. Benimana believes there is no single way to teach this kind of deep sensitivity and knowledge, which is why full immersion is so important.

As to the future, Benimana hopes to expand the fellowship to encompass other fields. “We started with architecture because we know it works, but we want to bring in other design disciplines – interior design, systems design, engineering, even fashion design. We see exponential growth until we reach a scale we can’t manage,” says Benimana, laughing. The question of expansion, however, brings with it the question of what an “African” Design Center means exactly. Benimana acknowledges that this can be treacherous ground: “People ask me what is ‘African’ about what I’m doing. They say you’re not doing anything ‘African’. Sometimes it’s as if what they really mean is that we’re not doing something that’s poorly designed. But ADC isn’t about creating something that’s generically ‘African’; this is a movement to instill change in and from Africa, not just in the built environment but in how we see Africa and who deserves what in Africa. We want to change Africa and make it better, not make something ‘African’ – and hopefully the world will learn from that.”

MASS's Ilima Primary School in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

MASS’s Ilima Primary School in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Africa, says, Benimana is not so different from other places, aside from its extraordinary development challenges. But the opportunities to leverage change are greater. Beyond Kigali, Benimana envisions two more centers in Accra, Ghana and Cape Town, South Africa within ten years. And he sees a process of expanding influence and impact: the education of designers going hand-in-hand with the education of government and academia to help both understand the benefit of human-centered design; partnerships with the fast-growing sector of African entrepreneurs forever lamenting the broken structures and systems they have to work around; and a continuous loop of research, building, and advocacy, revolving and evolving to keep raising consciousness and standards. Even more than this, he imagines a time when – like the Bauhaus movement that inspired it – this philosophy and structure will move beyond any one program, country or continent to inspire change around the world; a time when international fellows will come to Africa and then return to their homes to be agents of change in their own countries.

For now, though, Benimana is focused on his immediate surroundings, and when he looks around he sees great promise – the schools and hospitals that will be built; MASS fellowship alumni forming a network of mentors to guide the new ADC fellows; and the finest designers in the world coming to give lectures and lead workshops for the ADC on impactful processes and human-centered design. At some point, Benimana concedes, the center may have to move beyond the conceptual and become a concrete institution – an interdisciplinary home for the Bauhaus of Africa to bring all its participants together. “I ultimately see a great building, a living example – I guess it will need to be pretty well-designed,” says Benimana with a chuckle.

 

Photos courtesy of MASS Design Group.

3 Comments

  1. Brenden Jackson October 28, 2015 at 5:23 PM

    It’s a fascinating piece. Well done.

    My first thought is that it begs for a follow-up piece. It would be interesting to check in with Benimana, say, a year from now to see how his efforts have evolved and what lessons he’s learned.

    Also, it would be interesting to see how socially conscious individuals are addressing the infrastructure challenges in other regions of the world facing a population boom. India, in particular, comes to mind. I read recently that they have to build the equivalent of Chicago every year to keep up with their exploding population. How on earth do you do that in a way that’s sustainable, equitable, cost-effective, and generally adherent to principles of good design?

    • Hasdai Westbrook October 29, 2015 at 11:54 AM

      Thanks Brenden. Your kind words and insightful suggestions are much appreciated. We’ve definitely been thinking a lot about other parts of the developing world such as India. There are indeed many parallels, and Benimana himself appears to be very interested in eventually exporting his philosophical model for design education beyond Africa. For a long time, we in the developed world have seemed to have a go-to paradigm of “how are we going to save the developing world” – the irony is that with our crumbling infrastructure and apparent inability to shake up our own energy and development models, it may be that the developing world ends up saving us.

      Lots to follow-up on to be sure. We’re looking forward to seeing how these projects and trends develop.

  2. It was interesting to read how you are approaching education. I am also in the field of education and teaching at and Art and Design education institution in Pakistan. Lots of similar concerns and lots of similar thoughts. I do believe that it will indeed be the developing world which will help us come up with solutions to our problems. The pace of change has been so quick that even though history is a great teacher the problems the developed world tackled and the solutions they came up with might no longer the best solutions for us. We need to reach out to each other more. I would also love to know the results of your efforts. It would also be lovely to exchange views on educational models which are responsive to our needs.

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