The land of a thousand hills, Rwanda is a mountainous country in Africa bordering Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The European colonization of Rwanda in the 19th-century gave rise to a system of ethnic classification and divisions that contributed to a catastrophic civil war.
Over two decades ago Rwanda saw radical population shifts due to the war and political turmoil in the country. It triggered a state-sponsored genocide of around 800,000 of Rwanda’s minority population in 1994. The massacres revealed the country’s political instability and the grave impact that was left on the people of the nation.
The challenge of rebuilding the country in its aftermath would be phenomenal and today, the nation’s government and people prioritize maintaining political stability. The economic and structural reforms are rebuilding the environment, mindsets, and progression of Rwanda.
Soon after the war, the social and political unrest led to many citizens fleeing the nation. But despite the shortcomings, the nation planned for rebuilding its political and social dilemma through many government-led plans. Rwanda quickly became one of the biggest growing economies in Central Africa.
With falling poverty rates, Rwanda also successfully reduced gender inequality. In 2014, women won a majority of seats at the parliament and new laws have been introduced that give women a host of rights. Stringent measures were taken to improve access to education, and the country records 97% of its children attend primary school, the highest rate in the continent.
Rwanda’s economy has been driven by the export of coffee and tea, foreign aid, and the tourism trade. The country has shown a remarkable change with transformation and modernization in its attempt to remodel itself.
Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda is transforming itself into an urban city, planned around new commercial, financial and cultural districts with modern infrastructure. The architecture and design of the city bring a fresh narrative to Rwanda, named ‘the Switzerland of Africa’. Its transformation from an agriculture-driven economy with a network of wetlands, lakes, and forestries, to a knowledge-driven economy, emulates urban grandeur.
With leadership from long-term president Paul Kagame, smooth and traffic-free roads, tree-plantation drives, and plastic bag bans are seen nationwide. Modern architecture began to take form as people started moving back into cities in the 1980s and development took place as architects started embracing the land’s topography and addressed the changes from the country’s history.
In 2008 a new architectural thought came to life with the rapid urbanization of Kigali, Rwanda. Architects such as David Adjaye, Foster & Partners, Sharon Davis Design, MASS Design Group, etc have made a fundamental impact on Rwanda’s architectural fabric.
Light Earth Design provided a design solution for a sports pavilion that creates exchanges between returning inhabitants and those who were in Rwanda during the war through the game of cricket. The pavilion consists of large structural vaults made of stabilized clay tiles.
Materials are locally manufactured and low in cost, that is also low in carbon emissions and use local labor-intensive construction techniques. The vaults mimic the parabolic geometry of a cricket ball that bounces and also enhances the hilly topography of Rwanda.
The Women’s Opportunity Center designed by Sharon Davis Design focuses on empowering a small community in Kayonza, where women dedicate their time to farming, animal husbandry and even features a marketplace where women can sell food, textiles, baskets, etc. They also designed the Rwandan Share Houses that were meant for medical professionals who attend the Rwinkwavu Hospital.
The structure is located on a hillside and comprises two single-story dormitories of eight bedrooms each, constructed using handmade bricks, local stone, clay tiles, and hand-woven eucalyptus.
Another example is the African Design Center based in Kigali and designed by the MASS Design group that operates as an innovative hub where creative minds can learn and collaborate.
The centre encourages architectural training and technical skill building for local designers with workshops on history, social justice, and leadership among other humanitarian topics. MASS believes that every built environment should have a holistic effect on its users and they visualize a design ideal for each building to go past its architectural form and to also function in ways that help its users—schools helping students learn, and hospitals helping patients heal.
The post-war architectural wave is heavily influenced by international donors, investments, and designers but also encourages young architects to address many political and social matters through the power of design.
The master plan of the capital city of Kigali is representative of a socio-economic and cultural phenomenon of what a modern city should look like. The urban spaces focus primarily on mass memorials which pose as a tribute to the new government. The other public spaces feature large roundabouts, lawns, and shopping centres.
Rwanda’s redevelopment plan has received praise as well as criticism just like its president. Rwanda’s national motto of ‘Unity Work Patriotism’ is used as a guideline for the country’s growth and continues to inspire the future generation of architects and designers.