Territories of Practice: Kimisagara Community Center, Rwanda

March 4, 2013

Text, images, and drawings by Killian Doherty.


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View into Kimisagara valley and the site. © Killian Doherty.

Rwanda is a country defined by heterogeneity of boundaries, physical and nonphysical. Bordered by Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and the DRC, Rwanda is geographically landlocked with invisible boundaries of ethnic conflict delineating the psycho-geography of the country, following the 1994 Genocide. The authority’s defenses around the capital of Kigali are reconsolidating the public domain with security roadblocks, as NGO’s incestuously huddle in gated enclaves. Public spaces in Kigali are elaborate displays for telecommunication multinationals and not accessible for the common good.

Stark boundaries define the delineation between Rwanda’s neoliberal visions of its master plan and its realities;1 the formally planned vision for the city is for those who can afford it, while those who cannot remain in their informal settlements (83% majority) under threat of expropriation.2

How does architectural practice mold to, navigate and mediate between such a multitude of blurred physical and nuanced psychological boundaries in a country scarred by ethnic division, where the profession itself is relatively unrecognized (less than 15 architects are registered in Rwanda)?

This requires a reflexivity of practice in terms of design, but requires a stepping outside of the traditional boundaries of practice itself where a form of “activism” meaningfully articulates and challenges the divisiveness of sociospatial borders, attempting to reconcile them.

The community center in Kimisagara, designed by KD | AP (Killian Doherty | Architectural Practice) and funded by Architecture for Humanity, is an attempt at such a form of practice “activism.” Mediating the implicit ethnic margins between Hutus and Tutsis, the community center engages with conflict resolution through the education of abandoned youth. The center sits on the edges of a boundary between the formal and the informal city.

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Sketches. © Killian Doherty.

“Space is not neutral. Accordingly neither is the position of the architect or planner; there is no such thing as ‘architecture for architecture‘s sake; nor is there any such thing as a ‘neutral‘ plan. Every plan is the result of negotiation and power relations and these things are expressed through the plan.”3

As architects, do we or do we not undertake projects relative to our professional self-interests and to the benefits of others? In his essay “The Production of Space,” Henri Lefebvre excoriates architects as bending to the dictates of bourgeois capitalism.4 Have we not witnessed the collapse of the profession in the western world as a result of avoiding this line of enquiry?

With the economic downturn, the boundaries of architectural opportunity have consequentially shifted into the terrain of development and emergency practice. We are witnessing an ostensible recalibration of practice evident by the number of architects now engaging within post-conflict and post-disaster environments; corporate social responsibility projects, too, are opportunities within this new terrain of humanitarian endeavors.

With this in mind one has to ask, has capitalism simply retailored itself to re-emerge in the field of development in which architectural practice contributes to a new mode of western cultural imperialism?5 Are we cognizant of the profound hypocrisies of trying to tell people what and how to build in post-colonial, post-conflict countries, such as (in my case) Rwanda?

Working within new terrain requires new dialects or linguistic devices of communication. We architects might be accused of an ease of fluency in NGO rhetoric, something the urbanist Kai Vockler calls “Donor Speak”6 whereby interventionist work does not emerge from a “neutral system of values,” but ‘whose goal is to align everything with the political aims of the donor’ or the stakeholders.

This is a personal account, a discursive case study if you will, where such a line of enquiry into these new terrains of practice encountered multifarious visible, invisible, wavering boundaries during the course of a project in Rwanda.

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Visualization of the center without perimeter walls. © Killian Doherty.

Rwanda is a country of immeasurable complexities and contradictions. Demarcation of class, terrain and power constantly overlap, perilously in flux. Lines of land ownership/tenure are unclear. Administrative boundaries within which the built environment is regulated are only becoming evident to the government; there are no building codes, no planning laws and a widespread lack of professional capacity. High-rise buildings atop hilltops are the visible, physical representations of power and authority. Hillsides and valleys are the less visible living conditions of the subservient majority. Residing in a low-lying valley called Kimisagara is Esperance, a local Rwandan football team that works within the eponymous vibrant low-income community.

Discussing division between Hutus and Tutsis is forbidden in Rwanda. No one talks about it. No one refers to it, and it is off limits to the boundaries of conversation. Esperance uses the social common denominator of football to gather youth as a conduit to topics surrounding conflict and to engage with this difficult subject. In the past, arising from political autocracy of local authorities, Esperance could not conduct their youth programs independently or effectively. Negotiating a plot of land within the boundaries of the Kimisagara primary school to build their own center, I was asked by Architecture for Humanity to design and build a center for Esperance.

Kimisagara is a large informal settlement. Most of Kigali’s built environment is technically informal, in that it was developed before and outside of the existence of a normative planning process. However, Rwanda has arbitrarily defined what is commonly accepted within the built environment, reinforced by the generic bland aesthetics promoted by the city master plan. Definitions through inherited notions of modernity as a result of post-colonialism, the formal versus informal dichotomy is fundamentally shaping the fabric of the city and in turn the socio-economic boundaries are clearly defined within Kigali.

Kimisagara is the largest informal settlement in Kigali, with 30,000 people, most living on less than a dollar a day. Inadequate sanitation, high unemployment, and street children as young as 4-years old define this area as a major confluence of the disadvantaged. Roofs visibly demarcate dwellings, in the overcrowded valley. Rising, falling, almost cascading down the hillside, they create narrow slices of in-between spaces where overlapping of functions operate between households. Cooking and washing are often shared activities within these spaces while vitally acting as access routes through the valley.

The design for the center emerged from capturing these convivial characteristics of the surrounding area, with a large roof defining communal spaces of varying sizes below, allowing for planned and unplanned activities. The design of the center is as much about notions of context and placemaking as it is an interrogation into the boundaries of what is informal or formal, and legitimizing the space, forms, materials and textures within the community of Kimisagara to shape identity. Sultan Bakarat, a professor of the postwar reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York, claims that identity is vital for communities in post-conflict, “in an effort to re-establish belonging and to regain control over one’s life.”7

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Site Location for Community Center—within a degraded wetlands. © Killian Doherty.

The plot for the center lays within a degraded (dried up) wetlands system, bounded on one side by a canal. This canal and its banks operate as a social-infrastructural corridor within the community; people bathe here, sell goods, learn how to ride motorbikes and walk its banks connecting the area to a central transport hub and market several kilometers downstream. However, the land was subject to ambiguous environmental setbacks by the authorities; boundaries emerged late in the design, demanding that the building must move to an arbitrary location several kilometers away. Such decisions regularly inform Rwanda’s environmental policy, causing disruption in which long established settlements are often displaced.8

The boundaries between this degraded wetlands and the community have required the siting, orientation and landscaping of the center to engage with and re-activate this pedestrian way along the water course, providing public/play spaces and urban agricultural functions for the community and existing school. This connection allows the new public realm to move in and around the building, gathering the overlapping activities, activating the edges for both planned events and haptic social encounters, in a city with a lack of (and reticence towards) creating usable public space. Lying on the boundary between city and ecosystem, considering this new public space calls to mind Mohsen Mostafavi’s essay “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Today?”9 in which he posits that through a “blurring of boundaries between urban and rural a greater connection and complementarity between the various parts of a given territory” is achieved. With this negotiated site planning presented to the authorities, permission to construct the center in Kimisagara was given.

The Kimisagara center brief was to provide a small center (200 square meters) with a small football pitch. The construction budget was fixed and immutable. Adhering simply to the brief and budget would have resulted in the building FIFA paid for; a vessel for Esperance but unresponsive to the socio-economic peculiarities that operate around it. The budget was stretched during the design and construction process, through an ongoing process of value engineering: the structure was scrutinized and simplified; locally clay fired brick opted for instead of those fabricated by a plant co-owned by the ruling political party; finishes were pared back and concrete minimized. What emerged was a larger building with the ability to create sheltered spaces around the building to be designed into the center; spaces which are key to promoting social interactions and informal economies in the community.

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Urban Context: Kigali’s built environment is defined, and can be read, by its topography. The Community center is located at the bottom of the Kimisagara Valley amidst informal housing. The commercial center sits on top of the hill whilst upper-class housing is located to the east. © Killian Doherty.

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Roof study models. © Killian Doherty.

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Contextual model. Scheme before realignment to degraded wetlands. © Killian Doherty.

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Exploded axonometric showing components. © Killian Doherty.

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Elevations and sections through building. © Killian Doherty.

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Site panoramic, May 2011. © Killian Doherty.

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Various brick detailing showing windows, ventilation panels, and loggia. © Killian Doherty.

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Various brick detailing showing windows, ventilation panels, and loggia. © Killian Doherty.

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Various brick detailing showing windows, ventilation panels, and loggia. © Killian Doherty.

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Various brick detailing showing windows, ventilation panels, and loggia. © Killian Doherty.

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Building construction. © Killian Doherty.

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Approach. Approximately 4,000 children attend the (overcrowded) primary school in the same grounds as the center. © Killian Doherty.

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© Killian Doherty.

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© Killian Doherty.

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Spaces to gather are created around, through, and within the building. Local papyrus weave was incorporated into doors and window frames by artisans. © Killian Doherty.

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This center mediates between the formality of the school and the informality of its surroundings, purposefully creating through routes for students, and visually opening up towards the valley. With steep hills, the roof is easily seen, giving the center prominence and an identity to Esperance’s social space within the community. © Killian Doherty.

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View at dusk. The building activates the canal edges gathering the informal activities of trading, providing spaces for both planned events and social encounters. © Killian Doherty.

Boundaries denote a meeting of differences (physical, political, social, economic, etc.) which infer a mediation and consensus of inherent limits. In undertaking this project, I have had to engage with boundaries of all varieties, often impasses, which have left me deeply disillusioned about Architecture’s role in the field of development. This project in Rwanda emerged out of FIFA’s Corporate Social Responsibility program across Africa; a program which has not been fully questioned in light of the profits made during the 2010 World Cup.10

Architects eulogize, almost proselytize, about Architecture’s innate ability to change or improve society. It’s within these boundaries of constructed discourse where we comfortably roam but rarely dare to speak truthfully outside of. I have just given one such account. An unfettered account outside of these narrative confines would be more revealing (and certainly more interesting): the systemic power struggles, bureaucracy, and incompetency between the multiple stakeholders which throttled impact of the project at a local community level; routine and harsh indifference by Rwandan beneficiaries about the project intentions, stemming from a profound misunderstanding of inclusiveness; dishonesty by local contractors and the setting of inhumane wage levels for locally procured unskilled labour; and existential guilt relating to my privileged status of operating within an alien environment shaped by the effects of colonialism and reshaped through foreign humanitarian aid.

It was my hope that through questioning these lines of irony and hypocrisy, in which an interrogation of architectural practice relative to social impact resided, a personal boundary of practice may become clearer. It has not, nor do I imagine it will.

Prior to the opening of this center in October 2012, the local primary school, with the consent of Esperance, erected a perimeter wall with razor wire around itself and the community center’s boundaries.

1 Kigali conceptual masterplan can be seen here
2 Kigali Conceptual Masterplan, 22.
3 Kai Vockler, “Architecture of Peace,” Volume Issue #4 (2010), Amsterdam, Netherlands.
4 Lefebvre H, “The production of Space” In Leach, N. et al. eds., Rethinking Architecture (London: Routeledge, 1997).
5 Bruce Nussbaum, “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” Fast Company.
6 Kai Vockler, “Architecture of Peace,” Volume Issue #4 (2010), Amsterdam, Netherlands.
7 Archis, Architecture of Peace Conference, NAI Rotterdam, May 2010.
9 Mostafavi M, “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now” In Mostafavi, M. and Doherty G eds., Ecological Urbanism (Lars Mueller Publishers, 2010).
10 “Who profits most?,” The Economist (May 13, 2010)