The Bauhaus design schools of Germany are celebrated as the most influential of the 20th century, leaving a legacy that is visible today in the architecture of cities from Chicago to Tel Aviv.
The “Bauhaus of Africa” may be aiming higher.
The African Design Center will open its doors in Kigali, Rwanda later this year, courtesy of international architecture behemoth MASS Design Group, tasked with training a new generation of architects capable of building the continent’s future.
MASS believes it is addressing a critical skill shortage that will only grow more urgent.
There are just 35,000 registered architects in the whole continent, according to the Group, compared with 153,000 in Italy alone.
Rising to the challenge
“The population growth we have now is staggering — and scary,” says Christian Benimana, MASS program director for Rwanda. He cites World Bank figures predicting that 1.2 billion people will live in urban areas in Africa by 2050.
“This means three-quarters of the buildings we need have not been built yet,” says Benimana.
The Rwandan architect, who was forced to study in China through a lack of opportunities at home, is happy to draw on the original Bahaus as an inspiration.
But he is keen to create a distinctive new identity for African designers. His previous projects with MASS — such as a maternity clinic in Malawi — have used “low-fab” materials and traditional aesthetics to fit local conditions and culture.
He says courses at the center will have an emphasis on field work to prepare students to work with construction projects as swiftly as possible. They will break down into three tracks; design, research and policy.
“The policy track will be about connecting the students with major players, and changing policy at national and even international level,” says Benimana.
The architect believes that investing in design is as critical as emergency relief focused on hunger and poverty, and can save lives by preventing such crises from taking hold.
“If you address housing you might need less clinics,” he says. “If you invest in schools you may be able to achieve appropriate housing.”
Making dreams a reality
Regional design experts believe the Center can have a serious impact.
“This initiative could contribute an exceptionally valuable dimension to architectural discourse and education on the African continent,” says Iain Low, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Low agrees the need for fresh impetus in the field is urgent, and predicts the Center could deliver “fresh approaches…(in) its methods of practice, modes of production and inclusion of local participation, especially socio-economic development.”
However, Low believes a greater test will arise when the new generation seek to implement their methods in dense population centers.
“The real challenge is going to be at the urban scale and in the reconfiguration of space for settlements that comfortably accommodate the mega city scale, while attending to the empathetic cultural practices,” he says.
Benimana shares his confidence, although he admits the project gives him sleepless nights.
“I worry that countries may not be ready,” he says. “But the success of the program is just a matter of time.”
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