Christian Benimana is from Rwanda, a place that until recently didn’t even have a word for “architect”. There are scant designers and architects on the continent, and that’s particularly important because of the many areas that need them the most. Poor, rural areas can be hundreds of miles from good hospitals and schools, and many people are living in inadequate or non-existent housing. Benimana studied architecture in China and is now helping design and construct buildings around the world that make a difference for underserved populations, buildings that transform the communities where they are located. Benimana told his story and presented examples of purpose-led architecture on Friday at Design Indaba in Cape Town.
Benimana told the story of a rural district in Rwanda that did not have a public hospital. A traditional perspective might respond to this challenge by trying to build the largest facility as quickly as possible. But if the building is not designed and built with the needs of the people in mind, it will not achieve the desired result. Benimana and the company he works for, MASS, took a human-centric approach. The hospital was designed to protect against transmission of airborne diseases through natural cross-ventilation built into the design and architecture. And to Benimana, “Who builds and how we build matters now more than ever.” The project employed 4,000 locals, many of whom did not have any training or experience building such a massive project. And many local raw materials were used in an innovative way, including volcanic rock.
The hospital is an example of Benimana’s “lo-fab” approach (the “lo” meaning “locally”). “We have to hire locally, source regionally, and train whoever we can,” he said, adding that most of all, a building must uphold the dignity of the community in which it will serve.
Another example of this “architecture with a mission” is a project he worked on to bring a maternal waiting home to a village in Malawi. Childbirth is a celebration the world over, Benimana said, but it remains a struggle in many poor rural areas, where the child and mother are both in danger because of proximity to a hospital or health center. “A pregnant woman is not a patient,” Benimana said. “She is not sick. We need to create a home for her.” So, the building was built using vivid colors, with communal spaces for the mothers and their friends and family to socialize. And like the hospital, the home features adequate ventilation to prevent against the spread of airbore illnesses.
After the deadly earthquake in Haiti, the country was hit with a deadly outbreak of cholera. As the country’s infrastructure was racked, there were no facilities to treat patients of the disease. Once again, Benimana and MASS used the lo-fab approach. The building’s colorful, recognizable facade was built by hand, piece-by-piece by local Haitan metalworkers. Much of the building is showered in daylight and patients are near windows, a hallmark of Benimana’s design based on a study he read that said a view to the outside can contribute to a shorter healing time.
As with many of the examples we have seen this week at Design Indaba, Benimana and MASS have used non-traditional, human-centric approaches towards solving problems. In Benimana’s case, every building should be designed and built with a specific purpose, one that understands, reflects, and enhances the culture of the people using it.