In this interview, Rwandan architect and designer, Christian Benimana, says that the 'African city' does not exist and suggests that the continent look to urbanizing without necessarily creating cities.
When Christian Benimana left Rwanda to study architecture in China in the early 2000s, he inadvertently bore witness to one of the world's biggest building booms. During that time, China underwent one of the most rapid urbanization in the history of the earth. But behind the glittering skyscrapers and brand new urban neighborhoods, says Benimana, in a TED Talk from last year, is a much darker story. "Behind these facades was the exploitation of huge numbers of migrant workers and the massive displacement of thousands of people that made these projects possible. As countries in Africa undergo massive rates of urbanization, it's these lessons in city building from his time in China that come to the front.
Benimana is the principal at MASS Design Group in Rwanda, a firm that has carried out architectural projects in Rwanda and broader Africa over the past 10 years. He has become the lead in implementing the African Design Center.
The African Design Center, the project-based apprenticeship established by the MASS Design Group, is committed to a more sustainable model of architecture. The ultimate goal is to begin a movement of young and inspired people who will completely upend what we have come to know as conventional architecture. By incubating talent and redesigning curriculums, the Africa Design Center is attempting to envision what development in Africa needs to start looking like outside of the Western conceptions of development being imposed on the continent. Schools are a particular focus for the center as it challenges what schools should look like and how their architecture goes hand-in-hand with the education African children receive.
We caught up with Benimana to talk more about the African Design Center's ambitious vision and his own personal views on the state of cities on the continent right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe the current state of African cities?
That's a very difficult question. Personally, I don't believe in the notion of African cities. I believe there are cities in Africa, but there's no such thing as an African city. In Nairobi, Kinshasa, Kigali, Jo'burg, Cairo, they're all in Africa. They all have a very different nature in themselves, their origins and identity. I don't think that there could be one blanket that covers what an African city is at the moment. However, I can say that the general understanding I have of African cities, at least the ones that I've had a chance to visit and experience myself, is that they're still not even at that "city level".
Often times they've been promoted as sources of economic transformation and opportunities, but more often than not, they also fail to go back in a tangible way. I keep telling people that we really don't have cities. We have very dense areas, often times it's because of a high concentration of economic activities, but I wouldn't call them cities.
Photo courtesy of MASS Design Group.
Having said that, do you at least feel that there should there be a difference in the way that cities within Africa look versus those in the West?
"I don't believe that the answer to urbanization is necessarily a city."
In this modern age of technology and advancement in thinking and systems, I think you can urbanize without creating cities. The notion of a city is not new in Africa. It's just that the way we interact with them, the way we deal with them, the way we manage them through time is fundamentally different from how Europeans use them. Right now, we're forcing this concept of either a European or an American city onto our communities and it's creating this deep confusion.
Do you think how most people get around is a big part of how well we can rate the city in which they live?
Definitely. I've been to cities where people can't walk around because the city is designed around this motor vehicle culture that comes from the US, but 99 percent of people in that city cannot afford cars—that's a tension right there. Then what ends up happening is that you have these "hustlers" who know how to seize an opportunity and proceed to go buy these minibuses that can only seat like 12 people. They end up seating like 30 or 40 people, that minibus never sees maintenance in like 20 years and becomes a hazard that kills people day in and day out.
People who are left to rely on that same public transportation are subjected to a condition that is so dehumanizing for such a very long time that sometimes they forget that we're dealing with the consequences of a problem that was created years before.
The next generation of African architects and designers | Christian Benimana www.youtube.com
What are some of the challenges you've faced with the the Africa Design Center and what it aims to ultimately do?
I think the biggest challenge is a shift in mindset and providing the evidence of what the African continent will look in the next 50 years. There is this rush to, for instance, accommodate this generation that is coming, a generation that is different than the one before it. We now live in a world where it's very clear what's happening to the majority of people. The lack of opportunities that allow certain communities to rise to a certain level of living is creating some problems.
What's lacking in Africa is a public dialogue or a series of discourse that talks about where Africa sees itself in the next 50 years. What does development look like? And in my opinion, there's an opportunity to change traditional notions around what a city and urban living is or could be, what a country is and even what forms of economic opportunities we could have. We have the potential to shape all of that.
"I think if we miss that, I we're going to repeat the same mistakes Europeans and Americans made. We'll be back in the same spot where we are now."
What are some of the successes that have affirmed to you that this is the kind of work that you should continue doing?
The fact that the new generation of people don't need any convincing that something needs to be done [about development]. They already have that thinking. The only thing that we may be required to do is point out the boundaries of the realistic world we live in—but they're ready to go. To me, that was a very big validation that this needs to be done. Young people are already thinking about it, so whether we like it or not, it's going to happen. They're going to do it.
It's just a matter of us supporting them in doing it, and supporting them in a manner that does not hurt them in the process.
What significant projects are you currently working on?
Well, as the African Design Center, we don't have a class of fellows on site at the moment. The last class of fellows worked and finished a public school in the north of Rwanda, but that school is part of a larger study trying to understand what the true value of education is, and what component you have to put in place so that the intended living outcomes are actually attained. In Africa, we also have this tendency of just sending children to schools but nobody really questions the content of that education or the outcome of it. The same with the physical spaces that supports that education.
Ruhehe Primary School. Photo courtesy of MASS Design Group.
And then as MASS Design Group, one of the biggest projects we're working on is a university campus for conservation and culture. It's looking at applying the concept of "one health" in the built environment. So, the principle that human life, animals and ecology are all inextricably linked. Therefore, in all our efforts to create a physical environment, we need to think about that balance very carefully. It's an important one.