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Designing with Africa

Peter Rich Architects

Designing with Africa
By Peter Rich -

Designing WITH Africa is very different to designing FOR Africa. The WITH demands a commitment process and quality time spent engaged with those for whom you are designing. 

Designing FOR Africa often takes place in a state of dislocation, often on another continent, in a culture distant to the one for which you are designing.

This editorial presents a timely opportunity, (this month I turned 70!!), to retrospectively look back at my career as an architect and see how collaborative practice has informed my attitude on architecture in Africa today. 


The apartheid Years (1964 -1994)

In the mid 60’s I entered architectural school at the height of the apartheid oppression of the masses. Worries and questions about inequality in our society set me on a quest for a humane architecture that addressed social issues and empowered people. 50 years ago other likeminded South African colleagues and I became only too aware of the power of a social agenda in architecture. We knew that we could and had to play a meaningful role, in serving a broader constituency including the 95% of the world who are underprivileged.

I supported the Architects against Apartheid Movement and the Sports boycott. For both of these I paid the price, by being banned from competing as an athlete in the Mexico Olympic finals (I was a world class hurdler) and being marginalised as a professional practitioner. This activism instilled a zeal to effect change.

At the time, Pancho Guedes (the Picasso of African Architecture) was at the height of his multi-faced career in Mozambique. Through his work and teachings my young eyes and mind were opened to Africa and its creative genius. His use of community art workshops exposed him to naïve artists. He valued the place and space making found in peasant cultures. It was my admiration for Pancho that inspired me to channel my activist energy and venture out to document the living cultures of the South African high veldt. This field work, documenting their homes and settlement’s, their ritual and daily practises fundamentally changed the course and direction I was to take as an architect working and living in the ever-changing African context.

It knocked me off my professional pedestal, and made me show respect and learn from cultures other than my own. It made me want to work with cultures other than my own!

It opened up an awareness to the mythology of a people - their inner belief system, world view and connection with the earth. It altered and expanded my spiritual understanding, opened up other ways of thinking and I began to appreciate the diversity and richness of other traditions.

It showed me that one did not need to go to Rome to train in the Beaux Arts or Classicism. You could do it right here in Africa amongst peasant women, whose architectural literacy in divine systems of measurement and composition were learnt from adorning their bodies and houses as part of ritual practice.

Amonst the Ndebele settlements I sat, drew and documented everything diligently - capturing the spaces and people - and I learnt how the formality of walls, pavillions and courts dealt with the incremental growth of the family in the most sophisticated way. 


Experiments with African space making, in their application to contemporary designs in South Africa

Two brother and sister built works, built at the same time, come to mind; Westridge house, (1982-1985) was and still is my own house and garden. Elim rural Shopping Centre (1978 to 1985) was the other, an initiative by an African doctor to build a facility to serve his people in the far north of our country. These two projects (African Township “struggle work”) together with two holiday houses, allowed me to experiment and apply some of the lessons I had learnt about African space - and fuse them with a more contemporary language.

The Elim Shopping Centre (and later township work) was undertaken ‘under cover’ in difficult political circumstances - with strong resistance brewing against Apartheid. At Elim, I was to cut my teeth and begin learning the importance of social process when engaging in community work - the process was almost more important than the building.


House design

On one hand a Hybrid architectural language began to take root as well as an attitude to building and empowerment, (I built my own house working with unskilled labour whom I trained). For example spatially the Westridge house explores the Eurocentric idea of “Raumplan” in the articulation of interior space, integrated with the Ndebele observations of diagonal extensions of space. Detached and attached pavilions give definition to external space and entry sequences.

House Kemp (one of the holiday houses by the sea) proposed 3 detached pavilions defining an inner court and two external morning and afternoon courts. It is a quintessential model of lessons learnt from the Tswana /Ndebele model of checkerboard solids and voids. Again its construction empowered local African builders.


Struggle work

The “struggle work” of the Apartheid era was followed by post-democracy opportunities working on cultural tourism initiatives. The new projects allowed one to be involved in initiatives that ‘told the stories of those peoples whose story had never hitherto been told’. They set the foundation for later cultural heritage work and gave me a better understanding of the new context - the African constituency of a New South Africa.

Africans as part of apartheid’s oppression were denied open access to the capitalist system. We, however, learn our greatest lessons through struggle and difficulty. The lessons we learnt were how to win the confidence of the local community, whilst reconciling conflicting community and local governance politics. The work and its context was exhilarating.


Post 1994 democracy in South Africa- A new beginning

Cultural Heritage interventions and projects, often as part of a larger academically led team, became our key work load in the practice. Two built rural and three built urban projects best illustrate the process of working WITH Africa at that time. Bopitikelo Community and Cultural Centre at Molatedi Village, North West Province, was a model example of how one should use a project to train local unemployed people and set up satellite industries and livelihood opportunities. An equal selection of both gender and age groups were selected and empowered to build - the use of local soil cement bricks and thatching expertise was encouraged. Again the project was a small part of a much larger initiative and impact.

The Mphebatho Community Museum in the Pilanesberg was a design, build and restoration project. This also involved working with the community, involving them in the design, building work and exhibition curation.

The two Johannesburg Urban township projects, one the Alexandra Heritage Centre and the other Alexandra Riverpark housing (looking at housing typologies that can grow), are both loved by the communities for whom they were designed. Why is this? I believe that it is in part due to the sheer amount of community involvement at all levels. This gives a sense of ownership - the project is empowering and the architecture is not imposed. These two projects along with the Thulumtwana Children’s Owned Centre (set in the squatter dumping grounds west of Johannesburg) I feel are true high points in my career - with truly positive outcomes for the communities involved.


The year 2007 was a turning point in my career.

Mapungubwe and venturing as a practitioner for the first time into greater Africa

When we won the national competition for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in early 2007 - we were presented with a great opportunity and challenge. At the same time we were invited to lead the Rwandan team to design a large scale Government building complex in Kigali. These two demanding appointments, forced an early retirement from a 30 year Adjunct Professor teaching position at Wits University School of Architecture and I became a full time practitioner - at last practising what I had been preaching full time.


Venturing as a professional into greater Africa

The opportunity now existed to apply both acquired and new knowledge on African space making and to work for the first time in a professional capacity north of our borders in the greater African continent. 

The exposure to the rich diversity of other African cultures was to further expand my African spatial interests in observing a fast disappearing vernacular Architecture. Circumstance had it that my initial exposure was to the settlements of the people of East and Central Africa (the Rwanda, the Masai, the Hadza, and Kush people of Tanzania and the Tigray people of Ethiopia). Subsequent exposure was to the people of West Africa (the Dogon, the Bambara and the Berber of the Moroccan Atlas mountains).

I was in most of these instances very much an outsider looking in. Peter Rich IN Africa, not WITH Africa. I could draw and observe in order to gain some level of understanding. A later commitment to work with communities and local authorities in Ethiopia and Rwanda respectively, was however to change this. It enabled me to start working WITH the people of another culture, beneficiating a mutual two way learning experience.  

In 2008 Tim Hall entered my life. Tim had chosen, as an architect, to become a consultant to my Johannesburg practice, Peter Rich Architects. We met and talked for many days before we actually worked together. I guess that he recognised and appreciated the strengths and integrity of our work, the African spatial research, and was intrigued by the two buildings that were under construction at the time in late 2008, (Alexander Heritage Centre and Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre). Tim as a former Partner of Feilden Clegg Bradley London, brought new energy and insight into the practice. Tim’s design talent and critical enquiry broadened the architectural dialogue and debate and established a culture of appropriate low energy sustainable design as an ethic of the practice. Tim worked with me over a 3 year intense period - resulting in a huge design output for a small practice. We designed and delivered the following projects:

Two high profile Rwandan government projects (that are classified and cannot be published), the Aksum Thematic Master Plan in Tigray Province, Ethiopia and Ramciel (The South Sudan New Capital City) kept us very busy. We are proud of our work in Aksum - it continues to be implemented - effectively we were putting life back into the oldest city south of the Sahara at Aksum. At the same time we were looking at how to translate African spatial ideas into a macro-city scale with conceptual design proposals for a new Green and sustainable Capital City in South Sudan.

Robert Rich my eldest architect son joined our practice as a graduate architect to work with both Tim and I, sharing and contributing over a seven year period to our African work. Robert was to curate my retrospective Learnt in Translation Exhibition, with Tim conceptualising the layout (again born from early vernacular spatial ideas). What a beautiful revelation - my son enlighened me to my past - to projects and built works and memories of which I had lost track. Robert has subsequently established his own practice with Shawn Labuschagne and his younger brother, Rogan Rich, called Richlabs. We continue to debate and we regularly collaborate.


Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre (2007 - 2010)

The work portfolio with African communities strengthened our Mapungubwe Competition submission and was key to the win. The African contingent on the client body and jury convinced the client SANparks to take the risk on a small practice and build a truly unconventional structure. It is a testament to a brave client - and a miracle that Mapungubwe was built at all.

The design (The Plan 043) concept sought a structure that could take one into the sacredness of the half-light, emulating a cave experience. As fate had it, Issy Benjamin (a legendary ex -South African Architect of 1960’s fame), was building two intersecting earth covered domes at Pines Calyx near Dover in England. Issy, hearing of my search for a cave architecture, introduced me to two inspiring engineers from the MIT School of Architecture, who were experimenting with the use of Catalan (Timbrel) vaulting on his project.

Michael Ramage, with his MIT mentor Prof. John Ochsendorf, assisted by the mason James Bellamy from New Zealand (who was honing his skills with Catalan masons at Pines Calex) formed the creative engineering team with whom we were to work at Mapungubwe.

Through a poverty grant - we trained local unemployed Africans in the area - as tile makers (made of soil and cement), and as masons. This project was an exemplar of community liaison, empowerment and practice. Everyone was so elated with the outcome - even the most unskilled labourer felt ownership of the project.

Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre was awarded The World Building of the Year 2009 at the World Architecture Festival and this changed everything. Our response as an office was not to expand - but to remain small, enjoy what we do, and to focus on quality and select work.

Post the many accolades, Tim, Michael and I designed and built two very different vaulting projects. The London Earth Pavilion at Lancaster House was built in 14 days out of London soil tiles -creating a humble but wonderful space in Prince Charles’ garden. The Office interior for FR-2 in Chicago for Joe Ritchie (The Plan 072) inserted a dynamic vaulted ceiling made of earth from Joe’s farm. It was challenging and truly innovative, using advanced computational modelling and fabrication to create a warm and personal space that feels handmade. 

Tim, Michael, and I strove to work in a cooperative constructive manner on the design and engineering of these new experiments and we capitalized on our individual strengths. Both of these projects were in a developed world context - yet the design approach was consistent with past work.


Light Earth Designs 2012

In 2008, I was to work as a technical advisor to the Urban Planning Unit of the City of Kigali on sustainable solutions to address the housing of an emerging first generation urban dweller. 

As an African, I was only too aware of the challenges the continent faces as it develops. Tim Hall’s 2011 move to Rwanda was essential in establishing a strong local practice in Kigali. We are proud that under Tim Hall‘s leadership, with Anton Larsen’s assistance and the support of Michael Ramage, the practice has over the past three years been producing challenging and stimulating work.

Some background. 

Six years ago, we started to look ahead and prioritise sustainable design practice. At the same time, whilst proposing a new capital for South Sudan, we engaged with the challenges of designing African cities. The practice Light Earth Designs, currently based in Kigali, Rwanda and Cambridge, UK, was formed with Tim Hall, Michael Ramage and I as co-founding partners. Both Tim and Michael have a long track record of sustainable architectural and engineering practice in the UK and USA. At that time in South Africa an energy crisis loomed and, like Europe had decades ago, through necessity the profession began to turn towards low carbon solutions to building. As South Africa struggled (as has since failed) to deal with the problem - Rwanda was thinking ahead - with ambitious government policy to de-couple the country’s economic reliance on fossil fuels. The country has prioritised renewable infrastructure projects and this year a vast photovoltaic array came on line - providing clean renewable energy to thousands of households. 

Our office in Kigali concentrates on two primary work streams - sustainable technology and sustainable communities.

As Rwanda is remote and landlocked it is heavily reliant on road freight from the ports Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. Due to the huge distances involved, there is a massive carbon and financial cost in importing raw materials. As the country is developing and urbanising so rapidly there is huge pressure to build quickly at a large scale - yet there is a very limited local or regional material supply capacity.

To try to offer an alternative to the inevitable low quality, or high cost imports we prioritise research and building pioneering locally produced technological solutions that use locally sourced materials. A large executive eco-house (Bralirwa House) and a modest family house (Rebero House) and a multi-use city centre tower (Sole Luna mixed use building) both propose the use of glue laminated eucalyptus as the primary superstructure. The eucalyptus will be sourced from managed sustainable forests - run by the huge tea plantations, who use Eucalyptus to steam dry the tea. Other work and research explores the use of local clay, which is in abundance, fired with agro waste products. On many projects we propose rice husk fired bricks, floor slabs and tiled roofs. We have also been working closely with a supplier of zero carbon agro-waste panels as a solution to constructing low cost housing (Akuminigo masterplan for City of Kigali).

A modest cricket stadium furthers our pioneering work, building soil tiled thin shell Catalan timbrel vaulting - adapted to a seismic context - built by local unskilled labour sourced in partnership with Rwanda’s flagship social protection programme (Rwanda Cricket Stadium, Gahanga). Further developing work on different vaulted forms - we combined the use of claytiles with timbrel vaulting to create a rather uplifting and gravity defying design for a church in Gahini, Rwanda.

In this context we see our buildings as prototypes - manifestations of technological ideas and research - that we hope will enable Rwanda to become more self-reliant and build economically in the future. 

Rwanda is already by far the most densely populated country in Africa and continues to face rapid population growth and mass urbanisation. As in most African cities there is a shortage of decent housing for ordinary working or middle class people. The hilly topography of the country also presents acute challenges in terms of planning and infrastructure - and it is important that any land suitable for development is done so efficiently. At a policy level - Rwanda is trying to tackle the challenge of building nearly 300,000 houses in the next 20 years head on. It is only too aware that affordable housing is an essential ingredient in a successful city. Looking to the future - Kigali is on course to achieve it’s vision - and be the primary urban hub for business and service industry in East Africa.

Our pioneering master planning work and research on sustainable neighbourhood design proposes high density efficient settlements that respect traditional Rwandan living patterns. The work is an opportunity to integrate all of our research and experience in sustainable practice into a system based approach. We deal not only with energy issues but integrate rainwater harvesting and low impact development landscape design strategies. These combat water scarcity and reduce vulnerability to storm water damage. We collaborated with Arkansas University Community Design Centre project: “Building Neighbourhoods” to create economic prosperity. We are concerned with the quality of the external spaces between the buildings - the streets, courts and parks. Above all - we propose efficiently planned and walkable mixed use and vibrant communities - a mix of all incomes, neighbourhoods that offer opportunities for livelihood creation and facilitate social cohesion (Batsinda 2 - Master Plan for RSSB, MINIDEF, Horizon Group and the City of Kigali).

The work context of Rwanda is exciting. Despite facing huge challenges - this small country with limited resources and capacity has managed to prioritise and successfully implement ambitious development policies. Our role as practitioners is not so much as a commercial office but as a partner with likeminded and energetic people in government and academia. 

Recently we have been pleased to be involved in capacity building at a district and ministerial administrative level and recent policy work with the Rwanda Ministry of Commerce - MINICOM - has helped spur a national strategy to vastly expand local building material production.

It is an invigorating context - working with people who have a dedication and drive that should be an inspiration to other countries across Africa. Let us all be inspired - and like Rwanda try to face the difficult and challenging future head on.


Cultural Heritage as a way of communicating Africa’s genius

In summary - The study, appreciation and translation of lessons learnt from the African vernacular laid the foundation for our work. The opportunity to tell the stories of previously marginalized and suppressed people (post South Africa’s 1994 democracy) on real projects gave us the opportunity to apply these ideas in a new democratic context. The successes of real projects such as Aksum and Mapungubwe gave us credibility.

Now we face new wonderful and exciting opportunities - with contracts on projects that are both local, National and part of African World Heritage Cultural landscape:

Laetoli Hominid Footprint Museum, at Ngorongoro in Tanzania, (the site of 3.6million year old footprints of our hominid ancestors).

The Kanniedood Griqua Museum at Kranshoek, Western Cape, South Africa; the Sam Nzima Iziboko Museum and Gallery, Hazyview, Mpumalanga, South Africa and the Amazwi Womens Museum in Natal, South Africa

Together Peter Rich Architects and Light Earth Designs rigorously pursue projects which contribute to bringing the story of the genius of Africa’s past and present, to the attention of the World.



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