What New York Architects Can Learn From Rwanda

Posted by Michael Murphy

Buildings that fail, safely

Hurricane Sandy laid bare the mythology of American exceptionalism, and the message last October was clear: New York’s infrastructure was profoundly broken. If the architectural lesson from Sandy is that even our best buildings will eventually fail, we should reconsider our notion of permanent structures. But if we stopped focusing on “state of the art” design and considered resilient design, would buildings and building systems stop failing?
 
Increasingly, we see examples of what low-income economies in the global south can teach the global north about innovation to improve systems. Resource-scarce societies operate under different constraints, using current systems to produce functional innovations, as opposed to new inventions. In a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, along with Rebecca Onie and Heidi Behforouz, wrote, “failure more often stems from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works) rather than ignorance (not knowing what works).” 
 
Social capital to reduce vulnerability
 
Recent mobile innovations have introduced the intangibility of our definition of “community,” and the opportunity to leverage new forms of communication. We have lauded social networks that reduce vulnerability by connecting users to new information services. Platforms like Ushahidi are changing our notions of volunteerism and community service, making empathy actionable despite geographic distance.
 
However, our traditional communities cannot be abandoned for Facebook and Twitter, as those without access are made more vulnerable as proximal communication channels dissapear. As we continually communicate with people in dissimilar, distant environments, we sacrifice the context-specific knowledge gained from our proximal neighbors. In the push to abandon the traditional for the more digital, the most marginalized occupy a narrowing field of visibility—suffering in the shadows of a changing definition of community. 
 
Eric Klinenberg describes this phenomenon through the Chicago heatwave in 1995, where the highest concentration and the lowest concentration of deaths occurred in strikingly similar demographic neighborhoods: low-income and African-American. The only difference between the two neighborhoods was the sidewalks, restaurants, and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors. Civic infrastructure—like buildings and the spaces between them—are investments against failure. In crises, buildings can perform to reduce vulnerability but they should also be designed to strengthen the social capital of the community. Our increasingly digitized world does not change this simple fact—social cohesion matters for our survival.
 
While seemingly novel in the United States, investing in social capitol is self-evident in much of the global south. While building Partners in Health Butaro Hospital in Northern Rwanda, Rwandan engineer Bruce Nizeye launched a craft workshop, artisan-training program, and apprenticeship curriculum to train and develop labor during construction. This strategy was not only cheaper, but also socially advantageous to employ community members to build their own neighborhood hospital. It was an investment in social capital.
 
To build resilient communities and avoid the devastation of the next Hurricane Sandy, designers should look southward. If architects valued prevention instead of permanence, buildings could guide cities and reduce vulnerability rather than increasing risks. Such a values reorientation could radically improve our cities and our lives. The fundamental thing the global south teaches us is that a revaluation of architecture is not only imperative but also already happening far away from the epicenter of wealth. 

MASS Design Group is a nonprofit pending organization based in Boston, MA and Kigali, Rwanda. In partnership with Shaw Contract Group, MASS Design has launched the MASS Lab, a social capital incubator that undertakes research and training initiatives to build capacity and reduce the vulnerability of the communities where we operate. Through employing local labor, training masons, and using locally-sourced, context-appropriate materials, MASS is building community and improving livelihoods. Through engaging with local networks and working within communities, MASS seeks to contribute to the strength of socio-structural systems in the face of crises.