Former Student Nerea Amorós Talks About Her Work in Rwanda

By September 12, 2011 Blog, Featured

KIST third year students final review
Nerea, top left, at the final review of 3rd year design studio, student housing project for KIST campus

Last week we caught up with one of last year’s students who is now working in Rwanda as a professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Environmental Design (FAED) in the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). Established in 2008, the faculty’s aim is to train the experts and technocrats needed for the ongoing rebuilding effort of a country ravaged by war and genocide less than 20 years ago. The faculty’s Department of Architecture, led by Sierra Bainbridge of MASS Design Studio which we recently talked about here, was the first to launch and in January 2009, admitted the first intake of 25 students.

Now in its 3rd year, Nerea Amorós (25) is an assistant lecturer of the department since February. She talked to us about what brought her to Rwanda, her experience there as a teacher, and her aspirations as an architect.

Arcbox gallery FAED KIST Rwanda
FAED arcbox, a student gallery space designed by senior lecturer Toma Berlanda and head of Architecture Dpmt. Sierra Bainbridge

How did you end up in our masters program in emergency architecture in Barcelona?

After spending several summers and my free time as a volunteer and working in cooperation, I graduated as an architect and got involved with the NGO Africa Nos Mira started by some friends of mine in 2006, through which we collaborate on an orphanage and also build schools and water access projects in northern Ethiopia. I enjoyed my work at Rahola Vidal but felt like doing something more for our small nonprofit and seeing if I could take my work in cooperation and development to a professional level. I searched the internet and found a masters program that had in its title the exact words I had Googled [Sustainable Emergency Architecture]. I think purely commercial architecture lacks a social perspective and the idea of starchitecture makes no sense; it is obsolete and unsustainable on a large scale, something we’ve learned with the crisis and especially in the construction sector. I wanted to put my knowledge and energy to better use.

Nkombo island, Lake Kivu, Rwanda

What brought you to Rwanda and what is your role there?

I landed in Rwanda having only planned it two weeks in advance; I was going to go to Haiti as my internship with the masters, but due to the situation there I had to change last minute, and the project in Rwanda seemed the most interesting, being based in Africa and dealing with education. I was also very interested in learning how a large organization like UNICEF worked. Through my work there, which involved the design of  Early Childhoold Development (ECD) centers, I visited the recently inaugurated FAED that forms part of KIST, the public university of Kigali.

There was a major lack of resources–no library, materials or full staff–but the team and group of students had the enthusiasm and energy of something big that is only beginning. The first round of students will start their fourth year this December. My internship coincided with the start of the semester so I took on the part-time role of project professor (design studio), together with senior lecturer Toma Berlanda. Now I’ve come back as a fulltime teacher and am also in charge of organizing conferences, exhibitions and managing the faculty’s blog, Arcbox.

traveling studio to Mombasa

Traveling studio to Mombasa, first time at the beach!

What projects are you working on with the students?

With UNICEF I spent the first three months designing ECD centers for the government together with Luca Ginoulhiac, head of UNICEF’s construction projects in Rwanda. At FAED, I’ve worked with third-year students on residences for their campus, which we presented at the East Africa Architecture Conference at the University of Nairobi. The next semester we set up a traveling studio to Mombasa, Kenya in order to learn from other cultures, given that 23 out of th 25 students had never left the country. I’ve also set up a workshop with Killan Doherty, Design Fellow for Architecture for Humanity here in Kigali, to design mobile kiosk prototypes for selling milk, a very culturally significant product in society here.  On the side I also continue my work with Africa Nos Mira, which can really benefit from my ties to the university.

Rehabilitated school by UNICEF in Cyangugu, Rwanda

What is the demographic of the people you work with?

It’s interesting to see how many Americans are working in Rwanda compared to other African countries… At the university the majority of foreign professors are from Boston’s MASS Design Studio. Outside work I’ve met people from small NGO’s like Spark Microgrants, and larger ones like the Clinton Foundation or Parnters in Health. There’s also a lot of Italian architects and designers working for UNICEF. There aren’t as many Rwandan professors simply because until recently, there was no such thing as a department of architecture in the country. Some of them were able to study in China through scholarships, and there are also quite a few professors from Kenya.

Health clinic Colombo Island, Rwanda

That means architecture must also be something new for the students.

This is the first generation of architecture students in a country where the profession of architect, per se, has never existed. The first group (22 men and 3 women), didn’t even decide themselves to study architecture; it was the government that decided who was to study what. Nevertheless, the students feel a great deal of pride and responsibility, despite the lack of materials and resources…what they don’t lack is motivation and lots of imagination.

Adversely, in Rwandan society, creative thinking  is not a valued trait throughout primary and secondary school;  it is obedience that is awarded. So a lot of our efforts lie in potentiating the creativity, innovation and decision-making that is so crucial in architecture. During our trip to Nairobi and Mombasa we talked about the importance of local culture and the need for local architects to work in their own country, against the current backdrop of Chinese-built urbanizations of blue glass and concrete towers that are supposed symbols of “modernity”.

Arcbox gallery student works

What have you learned so far from your experience in Rwanda?

If I’ve learned something from the crisis it’s that if you don’t find a job you have to create one for yourself, and that is much easier over here where there is still so much to be done, and where small NGO’s, in spite of little money, have big initiatives, ideas and creativity. I believe in the exchange of knowledge between local and foreign architects, to expand perspectives, adapt techniques and design processes. We need to go back to a more participative, local and sustainable architectural practice.

ECD center in Kayonza, Rwanda

What would you tell architecture students who like yourself, wants to make a difference through their work?

It’s not easy working in development as an architect; often it is the demand for quantity and speed that trumps the quality of the finished product, so you constantly have to fight to preserve that added value that good design can contribute. A house shouldn’t just be a structure; it has to be a home. Design shouldn’t be a luxury. Having said that, if you love to work hard and you don’t want to do it solely for the money, it is such a wonderful experience…you get to share knowledge, give back and learn so much in the process. Just know that it’s not all moonlight and roses!

Rehabilitated school by UNICEF in Cyangugu, Rwanda

What is your favorite part of being an architect, and where do you see yourself in the future?

Honestly I have no idea where I’ll be… I’ve been here since February and I’m staying indefinitely. I suppose what I love the most is the direct contact with people, whether it’s with the community, the students, or clients. Working in a foreign country, especially a developing one, gives the work a much more sociological and cultural relevance. Also the fact that everything here is a challenge, big or small, makes one thing for sure …it’s never boring.

Nerea Amorós Elorduy obtained her BArch in 2009 from Escola Técnica superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona (ETSAB)– Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and completed our masters program in 2011. Follow her work at FAED’s blog Arcbox, Milk Kiosk Prototypes and Africa Nos Mira.

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