Lo-Fab African Bauhaus

The architecture idea of MASS Design Group – quality, education, local fabrication – could become a model responding to attain United Nations’ goals centred on dignity, prosperity and global justice.

MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school
Lagos, Kinshasa, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam and Niamey are the cities that will grow the most in coming years, according to UN forecasts, meaning that the population of Africa (today approximately one billion) will more than double by 2050 and quadruple by the end of the century, overtaking the populations of China and India combined.
Studenti di Architettura al Kigali Institute of Social Sciences
Top: MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school; above: Architecture students at Kigali Institute of Social Sciences

The environmental crisis, global warming and desertification, as well as the spread of epidemics in conditions of overcrowding and poverty, will threaten this development but not stop it.

This population growth will bring with it a need for houses, schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructures of all kinds, driving the demand for architecture, architects, solutions and strategies on a continent that currently boasts approximately ¼ of the number of architects in Italy alone.

MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school
MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school, MASS designers Jeancy and Jonathan on Ilima site
On this basis, the manager of the MASS Design Group’s Rwanda Programme Christian Benimana developed a proposal in response to a “call for solutions” launched by the United Nations seeking innovative ideas to attain the 17 Sustainable Development Goals centred on dignity, prosperity and global justice. Benimana’s idea, one of the 20 visions selected for presentation on 27 September last to an audience of stakeholders, policymakers and potential funders, consists in founding an educational programme, with its first base in Rwanda, to train a new generation of African architects and adopting the ecological and individual-focused approach that distinguishes MASS Design’s research. This ecological and humanistic attitude centres on the specifics of local contexts and the centrality of community involvement, the people who will use and construct the buildings.
MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school
MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school, table weaving fabrication

The office’s philosophy rests on the concept that architecture must go beyond mere construction, namely that architecture is a means to achieving a broad-ranging social impact: an aesthetic and therapeutic effect that takes beauty and quality into living (healthy environments with good climate control and well lit/ventilated) but also making a social and ecological impact by involving the community at every stage of the process, from design to construction (of the whole, parts and details) via the use (or training) of local labour and craftspeople, local materials and construction techniques. Lo-fab, in the sense of “locally-fabricated” is the name, statement and movement underpinning the group’s operations. It is the idea that this approach can exemplify contemporary architecture rooted in the specifics of a place and its community.

Their latest two projects, a village school in the Congolese jungle and a treatment centre for cholera patients in Haiti, are emblematic of this approach and its potential methods.

MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school,
MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school, le pareti mobili e i banchi

The school in Ilima, constructed in collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation, was designed to work as both a junior school and a community centre for the conservation of the landscape and wild fauna. The challenge accepted by the African Wildlife Foundation was that of combining conservation and development, funding education to tackle conduct that threatens the environment. People survive by felling trees to produce charcoal and killing rare animals for food. The construction of the school in one of the innermost and most inaccessible parts of the Congo rainforest will further education in the hope that the children can discover new opportunities and ways to survive, linked perhaps to the protection of the region’s wealth and biodiversity, rather than its deforestation.

MASS Design only used local materials, mud bricks for the walls, wooden shingles for the roof and woven wooden panels for the partition walls. This meant the worksite became a training ground for the local community, a school for bricklayers and joiners.

MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school
MASS Design Group, Ilima primary school
In Haiti, MASS worked with the medical organisation GHESKIO to construct a centre for the treatment of cholera patients, complete with a local structure for waste-water treatment, key in preventing the spread of the illness. Field hospitals – the most commonly adopted solution for treating such epidemics – consist in temporary tents and have no waste-water purification systems, often using private waste-water collection and management services. This system is not at all safe in the city’s generally precarious state.
MASS Design Group, GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, Haiti
MASS Design Group, GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, Haiti
In this case, however, building the hospital offered an opportunity to create a safe, local purification system based on a four-chamber anaerobic biodigester. With a reinforced-concrete structure and a sloping steel roof, the new hospital was designed to withstand future earthquakes and flooding but also to collect, treat and use rainwater, which flows from the gutters into a cistern below the rectangular plate on which the pavilion building rests. The roof folds optimise the collection of rainwater but also generate a system of rooflights serving ventilation and natural lighting. The steel facade, hand-perforated by local craftspeople features smaller holes at the bottom to preserve patient privacy and larger ones higher up to optimise light and ventilation, giving the hospital a welcoming and playful appearance reminiscent of Haiti’s the colourful collective taxis.
Built with the extensive involvement of local craftspeople and companies, the Cholera Treatment Center (CTC) stands beside a large slum near the Port-au-Prince rubbish dump. For its inhabitants, the treatment of an illness transmitted by water will pass through the blue light and efficient water management system of this construction – precisely the approach that the “new African Bauhaus” wants to impart.
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