MASS is an architecture practice based in Boston in the US and Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, which was established in 2008 by Harvard graduates Alan Ricks and Michael Murphy. From its inception, the group's projects, beginning with the Butaro District Hospital in a northern province of Rwanda, have prioritised healthcare and education. Over the last decade, MASS – whose mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity – has worked in several countries in Africa and the Americas. The Maternity Waiting Village in Malawi, the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Centre in Haiti, and the Ilima Primary School in the Democratic Republic of the Congo count among the agency's projects.

Since joining MASS in 2010, Benimana has become a pivotal player in the practice. He is leading the implementation of the African Design Centre (ADC), a post-baccalaureate fellowship programme created by MASS and intending to become the Bauhaus of Africa. As chairman of the education board of the Rwanda Institute of Architects and the East African Institute of Architects, Benimana is a visionary thinker on how to improve architectural education on the continent.

Christian Benimana
DAMN°: You've said that all the internationally vocal architects from Africa studied abroad. What are your thoughts on improving design and architecture education on the continent?

Christian Benimana: Everyone who is leading the architecture field on the continent has studied abroad. Either the current training programmes on the continent aren't good enough or there's something wrong with the transition from those schools to entering the profession. Not having enough schools is one problem; another is the quality of teaching. I don't believe that the problem is African education in general, but how people compare studies on the continent to the opportunities available elsewhere. Maybe it's also about the way commissions are won and trust is built. We need to build the credibility that even somebody who has been educated on the continent, and not at Harvard or Yale, could deliver high-impact projects.

Built entirely with materials and labor sourced on site, the Ilima Primary School embodies MASS’s ethos of Lo-Fab, or local fabrication, highlighting local crafts and skills. Ilima, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by MASS Design Group.
DAMN°: You are leading the implementation of the ADC in Kigali and its fellowship programme. How did you choose the fellows selected and what are they working on?

Benimana: Our online application process was conceived for African students but we also received applications from outside Africa. We went through a lengthy selection process based on essays, experience, and how the applicants articulated their hopes for the future. [As we speak] the 20-month-long fellowship is now in its 15th month; there are 10 fellows from eight countries: South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ivory Coast and Ghana. It's not easy coordinating design efforts with so many people from various backgrounds. But the idea is that the diversity of thinking contributes to the project, which is a public primary school. The school is under construction and should be completed in a couple of months. The amount of work generated by the fellows is overwhelmingly impressive and this should provoke more critical dialogue about the process of architecture. The aim is to question the vision of architecture, from how we train people to become architects to how we set up practices and provide economic opportunities.

Christian Benimana, presents the “African Design Center: The next generation of African Architects” at the Autodesk University in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by MASS Design Group.
ADC fellow, Yemi Kacoutie presents her ideas during a pin-up. Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by MASS Design Group.
DAMN°: How does MASS approach its healthcare and education projects?

Benimana: The outcome of all our projects is the result of a very long engagement with stakeholders which includes community members, funders, government entities and leaders, NGOs, and others looking to ensure the success of the project. We make sure that we have a full understanding of all the challenges and then aim to address them with design solutions. We want to be more involved in schools and curricular developments, understand how teachers work and where policies are falling short in order to achieve long-term results. We try to learn from the best practices across the globe but we have to make sure that our approach is site-specific and culturally appropriate. We need to push innovation in the area of materials in every project, marrying that with local and teachable skills depending on technology and available resources. We don't want to separate skills from abilities, materials and crafts, because all those things go hand in hand. Right now, we're working on two district hospitals in Rwanda, using our first project, the Butaro District Hospital as a precedent.

DAMN: Can you say how Butaro is like a template model, and elaborate on the architectural vision for these two other district hospitals?

Benimana: Butaro disrupted the thinking around district hospitals in Rwanda and challenged the status quo on hospitals in rural Africa. I think up to very recently, in Rwanda at least, all of the hospital models that were being built were the campus type developed during the colonial era. Most district hospitals in the tropics were these decentralised, separated buildings, connected by walkways.

The completion of the Butaro Hospital led MASS to be commissioned by the Rwandan Government to develop a new set of standards and guidelines for all district hospitals in the country. The vision for these hospitals is not only that they are the first of their kind, but also that they are taking what Butaro has achieved and improving upon it.

One of the things that Butaro did was to bring dignity in the concept of opening wide spaces. How does that influence the two district hospitals? These two hospitals that we are working on, the Nyarugenge Hospital and the Munini Hospital, are the first two applications of these new standards.

DAMN°: In 2015, MASS designed and constructed the Maternity Waiting Village in Malawi – a prototype village with clusters of four-bed units around small courtyards for expectant mothers living far from a hospital. Could you talk about the brief, commissioned by Malawi's Ministry of Health and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the US?

Benimana: Project Malawi, a collaboration between the University of North Carolina in the US and the Malawi Ministry of Health, contacted us because they weren't sure if the response to the ‘safe motherhood’ initiative launched by Malawi's health ministry fulfilled the programme's intent. So we came up with this model, which is definitely a project that we could replicate in Malawi and elsewhere. The expectant mothers arrive six weeks before their due date for pre-delivery monitoring. The village was built using simple, local materials and vernacular techniques. Some countries are treating the maternity waiting homes model as a groundbreaking innovation that could fill the gaps in access to healthcare facilities for expectant mothers. Others are treating it as a temporary solution, as they deploy strategies to roll-out more professionalised healthcare institutions. We see the Maternity Waiting Village model we developed in Malawi as something that could fit both short-term and long-term contexts. The ingenious thing about the design is that the units could duplicate as houses if it doesn't serve the purpose of maternity waiting halls any more.

In Malawi, one in thirty-six women had a lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or delivery. The Maternity Waiting Homes in Kasungu address this issue by providing a safe, comfortable and dignified environment for expectant mothers to stay until their delivery period. Kasungu, Malawi. Photo by Iwan Baan.

DAMN°: How did the collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation come about to design the Lupani African Conservation School and the Ilima Primary School? What are your views on how design can amplify design efforts, and what other conservation projects is MASS developing on the continent?

Benimana: In 2013, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) approached MASS to design a network of African Conservation Schools (ACS) in landscapes throughout the African continent where AWF was working to protect both people and wildlife. By providing communities access to educational resources in exchange for their participation in conservation, the programme provided a resilient paradigm for how wildlife conservation tied to community empowerment can improve lives.

The Ilima Primary School and the Lupani Primary School were the first two ACS Schools built with this specific conservation agenda. The design and construction of each school sought to promote conservation values appropriate to its context, engage community members throughout the process, and become a demonstration of the value of environmental stewardship through the use of locally sourced and renewable materials, and local fabrication. Using local instead of imported materials ensured that the materials were sustainably harvested and local craftsmen were employed and trained to work with these materials. In the construction of the Ilima Primary School for example, 93% of the building materials were sourced from within 10km of the site. This resulted in greater impacts on the community environmentally and economically.

Along with the design of the Ilima Primary School and the Lupani Primary Schools, MASS also created an ‘ACS design manual’ to ensure future ACS Schools adhere to the conservation principles developed through the design and construction, and scale the impact of these projects.

MASS works to employ conservation principles on all projects, but recently has been designing on the new campus for the Rwanda Institute of Conservation Agriculture based on a ‘one-health’ concept, providing a holistic approach to animal, human and ecological health.

DAMN°: And the architectural concept for the Mubuga Primary School, how did you hope it would serve as a model for Rwandan public education? Are you planning to use this project as a referential starting point for other schools?

Benimana: The whole concept for Mubuga is the overarching design philosophy of trying to understand what updates to education need to occur in the community within the particular context of Rwanda.

We focused on trying to understand what standards for private education and public education are defined by the government of Rwanda, and if those meet or do not meet the physical infrastructure available for a majority of Rwandan schools. From basic things like adequate lighting and comfort, and availability of classrooms and libraries, the other important thing we looked at was how we could make this expansion an upgrade of the Mubuga school. We were trying to create a full model of a good school. And from that model, by articulating that vision, other schools could adapt to that level of physical space – adequate space, furniture, libraries, lighting, play areas. That was the whole concept of Mubuga.

And yes, that is the whole point of the ADC: to work with the local community and look at how we build the capacity of local construction by creating role-model schools. With the hope that the district itself will see the value and start improving other schools to the Mubuga standards.

DAMN°: Finally, how would you outline your vision for future African cities?

Benimana: My dream is that African cities could begin a new way about how society occupies the environment and not be a replica of how the US and Europe are at the moment. The danger is that if we play this catch-up game, believing we should get where developed countries are, we would miss the opportunity to understand Africa's development or the chance to respond to a new way of leading the future. The built environment in the past 100 years has been dominated or influenced by the industrial revolution. How do we create cities of the future and society lifestyles in the next millennium? If Africa could be a showcase of what our lives on the planet could be like in the next 100 or 400 years, that would be awesome.

This article appeared in DAM68. Order your personal copy.
Thandizo Vanessa Kachiza onsite during the Ruhehe Primary School immersion. Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by MASS Design Group.
Victor Iyakaremye presenting the Ruhehe Primary School project at its groundbreaking. Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by MASS Design Group.