We caught up with former student Nerea Amoros after she recently gave a lecture to our current students about her work in Rwanda since graduating our masters program in 2011. She talked to us about what she learned from teaching at Rwanda’s first architecture school, setting up her own firm and her mission to carve out a key role for architecture within the emergency and development sectors.
What have you been doing since we last interviewed you as a professor at the University of Rwanda’s Architecture department?
I have been working towards the same goals: to improve architecture and education in the region of the African Great Lakes. At the University of Rwanda (formerly KIST), I became the coordinator of the 3rd year design studio and the final year project studio. It was exciting to witness the first and second batch of graduating architects in Rwanda! I also continued the task I started as UNICEF’s intern in Rwanda when I went there with the master, collaborating in the development of the national standards for ECD (Early Childhood Development) centers, engaged in the national task force and later as an external consultant with my firm ASA. Now I am back in Europe to pursue a PhD.
What were the biggest challenges as a teacher in a foreign country?
Establishing Rwanda’s first ever architecture school was not easy, and we have definitely learned from our mistakes. We felt like we were fighting against the odds and constantly overcoming obstacles like getting forced out of our building by the military, lacking support from the administration, scarce resources and budget… However, the team and students at the school are remarkable and we have tried our best to build a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking, innovation and social engagement as core values, taught through creative techniques and research by design. Workers at Nyamagabe and Gikomero ECD sites. Photo courtesy: Johan Eriksson
Besides being a lecturer there, you also set up your own practice.
Yes. In 2012, I co-founded ASA (Active Social Architecture) together with Tomà Berlanda, a senior lecturer at KIST who I mentioned in my last interview, and who was recently appointed as the new director of the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town. Our involvement at KIST and our interests in education and architecture showed us the importance of quality design for vulnerable communities, and in particular the long-lasting benefits that early childhood stimulation could bring a society, and that we could see in our own university students. That is one of the reasons why we founded ASA, to empower communities through design, improving the educational and health facilities in the Great Lakes region.
Now that you and Tomà have left Rwanda, who is leading your firm ASA?
Tomà and I decided to sell ASA because both of us needed to take new and different paths, but felt it was important to keep the projects going. We founded ASA on the premise of giving solutions to Rwanda from Rwanda and strengthening local expertise, so managing it remotely was not an option. In November 2014, it was sold to several of ASA’s employees, some of who are also fellow professors at the university, and has now grown to a staff of six that has completed over 24 projects and oversees several more which include ECD centers, district hospitals, social housing and schools in rural communities and refugee camps. It hasn’t been easy to let go, but is great to see our own staff continuing the work with the same vision, new ideas and renewed energy.
What did you learn the most from your experience in Rwanda, both professionally and personally?
I learned the importance of pursuing your goals while being flexible enough to understand other people’s views of life and of your own work. You have to keep an open mind while staying true to your principles and larger goals, and continuously learn from your own failures and those of others in order to be productive.
In terms of architecture, I learned that research by design and sharing knowledge (even through social media!) are two things that should be taught in architecture school and that can benefit both the communities we work for and the architectural community as a whole. Theory without practice and vice versa is not very useful. I think that lack of knowledge, fear of change and laziness are some of the worst enemies of good projects, both in their design and implementation. That is one of the reasons why I felt it was important to take a new step, to sell ASA and start my own research.Kigeme Refugee camp ECD center. Photo courtesy: Johan Eriksson, WTYSL.
What is your plan for the near future?
At the moment I am pursuing my PhD at the Bartlett school at UCL. Working on the field in Africa for more than 5 years, teaching and practicing architecture, I have seen first hand how good design is misunderstood and undervalued within the emergency and development sectors. The knowledge on the potential and impact of architecture in communities hit by conflict is scarce.
The aim of my PhD is to understand through empirical research, the capacity of architecture (elements and processes) to empower vulnerable communities after conflict and contribute towards an enduring recovery. I want to give answers to why, when and how to include architects in post-conflict recovery.
I believe architecture can and should have a role in post-conflict recovery. The key is to understand which role. Having worked with emergency and development aid agencies, I feel there is an evident reluctance to invest in well-designed facilities, and believe that compelling research on the role that architecture can play in rebuilding communities can overcome a lack of understanding.
I also believe that architectural teaching across the globe, specifically in southern African schools should promote the value of design work within vulnerable communities, increasing both job opportunities for architects and the chance to improve the built environment where the impact can be greatest. Architectural education and practice should have a place in the development field; and research is the first step in understanding the challenges, potentialities and outcomes that this approach may hold for the profession and for the communities it serves.
You talked about “larger” goals. What are yours?
Well…I don’t have a grand plan, but I hope to continue working hard–as an architect, teacher and NGO member–and investigating the link between architecture, cultural behaviors and post-conflict influences that shape future generations.
More specifically, I am committed to and have a passion for architecture and education in post-conflict regions in Africa. I think that there is an unexplored potential for collaboration between architecture and the emergency/development sectors. I believe the built environment in post-conflict communities across the globe, particularly in the East and in the Horn of Africa can improve, and it is important to include broader topics related to vulnerable communities within the study and practice of architecture in post-conflict regions. That is my larger goal, to continue being a part of that.
What advice would you give our students in terms of making the most of the program and pursuing careers in development after graduating?
I can’t think of a general rule. What has worked for me, and at the risk of sounding naive, is to love what you do. Never stop learning and challenging yourself and the status quo. Graduating is just one more step towards your larger goals.
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. Check out her previous work with Arcbox, Milk Kiosk Prototypes and Africa Nos Mira.
ASA works with international and local NGOs, governments, UN agencies and always in partnership with local communities. Their work has had a sizeable impact on creating the national standards for pre-primary schools and ECD centers. They have been published in online magazines and blogs, and featured in exhibitions like Afritecture curated by the Andres Lepik and Together in the furniture fair in Milan.