The construction of a small single-family home twenty kilometers north of Kigali, Rwanda is now complete. The building is demure: three small bedrooms, a modest living room, and a space for cooking. Poor material availability and financial limitations meant that practicality was its primary design muse. The house is the prototype for a series of homes that the designers, GA Collaborative, will build in Masoro for members of the women’s cooperative l’Association Dushyigikirane. With the project’s uncommon building method—earthbag construction, the first of its kind in Rwanda—GA Collaborative intends to empower its clients with knowledge of an inexpensive and speedy construction technique that requires little training and no prior construction experience.
Earthbags are just one of the Masoro Village Project’s expedient departures from architectural norms. Common distinctions between the studio and the site, or among project stakeholders such as client, designer, and contractor, are virtually irrelevant here. The designers took on the role of fundraising for the project and brought an aesthetic sensibility to the task, envisioning StitchWorks, a series of prints and fabrics inspired by African textiles. As a cost-saving measure they also assumed the responsibilities of contractor, which enabled them to undertake a complete redesign after construction began, once budget and material availability updates were made on the ground. Assisting the designers on site were four students from the nascent architecture department at the Kigali Institute of Science & Technology (KIST), who also designed for the project a mutable piece of furniture (turning from a bed into a chair, then into a table). Also doubling as construction crew were clients, members of l’Association Dushyigikirane.
The Association (Dushyigikirane is Kinyarwanda for ‘cooperation’) was formed in 1995, a year after the Rwandan genocide, by a group of women widowed by the conflict. What began nearly twenty years ago as a grassroots microfinance co-op is today a 600-member group operating a range of economic activities from the production of food to crafts, and social enterprises like orphanages, libraries, and banks. The aim of the co-op’s activities is social and economic empowerment for its members and the greater community of Masoro.
GA Collaborative got involved with the women’s co-op five years ago when cofounders Yutaka Sho and James Setzler traveled to Rwanda on a grant to study the country’s urbanizing policies vis-à-vis its women genocide survivors. A young US-based non-profit, the Collaborative aims to bring quality design and construction to disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. Its non-profit mission statement refers to cooperation among project stakeholders as process, and the practical mediation between architectural design and the broader context of society as fieldwork. The group has subtly revised the implications of each of these two terms, relative to common usage: process, typically indicative of formal procedures and iterative design practices, is placed in a pluralist light; fieldwork acts as a geocultural imperative for the globalized practice, as a design strategy for working in developing countries where spatial practices differ from Western norms. GA Collaborative’s overarching project is about the civic efficacy (or the public capacity) of the architectural project, which it sees not as a finished product, per se, but as an open-ended, communitarian process of design negotiation among a range of constituents both animate and inanimate: client, designer, builder, culture, economy, gravity, site.
Sho considers the public realm the foremost design challenge that young Rwandan architects will face in their careers. However, true public space may not happen in Rwanda for decades; governmental suppression of civil liberties discourages public debate. While Rwandan civic spaces exist, they function more symbolically than operatively. Sho believes that in the current vacuum of public space the domestic sphere is the best venue for communal discourse. The home is often positioned as a conceptual antithesis to the public sphere. Yet the very qualities of domesticity—opacity, privacy, security—also shelter personal liberties. In practice, public and private spaces are enmeshed: contained within the public space of the city are private spaces that, in turn, contain other, more familial, public spaces. Embedded in the Masoro Village Project is a social liberalist thesis that the Rwandan house can represent a kind of public space (and thus a political space), where individual empowerment results in communal good.
This proposition had a spatial influence on the design of the Masoro house prototype. To counteract earthbag construction’s tendency to create insular, bunker-like compartments, the designers opened up the front of the house with a long public/private veranda that serves as a covered, open-air entry and circulation space among rooms. Steel roofing structure (wood drying times exceeded the tight project timeline) further lighten this space because, while earthbags columns are feasible, the assemblies are bulky. These spatial implications are important for house’s post-occupancy performance, but it is the procedural aspect of the Masoro Village Project—the accessible and participatory nature of its construction method—that best serves GA Collaborative’s agenda of making architecture public.
A South African earthbag consultant, Riaan Hough, led an initial three-week training session for the construction crew, but the dissemination of earthbag building techniques to the general public was an important goal for the designers. They envision an open-source construction manual (currently under development) that describes the method step-by-step. The document is another architectural tool for engaging the public, and another indication of the pedagogical current that runs through the entire Masoro Village Project. The manual will feature both Kinyarwanda and English, but rely heavily on photographs because many of the women of l’Association Dushyigikirane do not read or write. Many architectural drawings, particularly axonometrics, beloved by architects, are too abstract for this public. Only one out of thirty co-op members was able to sketch a plan of her existing home as a part of the pre-design process. While the clients had a certain visual literacy—they could draw their house’s front elevation, for instance—many were embarrassed to draw floor plans. That this was a cultural and semantic hang-up rather than a spatial one is evidenced by a novel collaborative drawing method that GA Collaborative student interns from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) developed. This para-graphic technique consisted of an architecture student using sheets of paper to represent rectilinear rooms and arranging them on the ground according to a co-op member’s narrative description. Once the organization matched her vision of her home’s layout, the student would interpret it as a two-dimensional sketch.
Design and Global Membership
Along roadsides across Rwanda are suburban-style single-family houses capped by towering roofs, either pitched or hipped, some with slopes as steep as Swiss chalets. An unintelligent form for an equatorial climate, and not used as attic space, these roofs are literally hollow. Yet they are brimming with rhetorical value: Rwandans often desire rectilinear plans, steep roofs, and the use of corrugated sheet metal and fired brick precisely because these qualities reference Western architecture. These quotations may appear like caricatures, but the anthropologist James Ferguson notes that, for Africans, architectural ‘Westerness’ is important as an index of global membership. 
Similarly, GA Collaborative explains that in Rwanda there is a fine line that designers must walk between formal experimentation and the communication of mainstream Western architectural forms. Formally provocative earthbag projects, such as the Konbit Shelters built in post-disaster Haiti by the artist Swoon, exploit the malleability of the material to create curvilinear forms, invoking curvature’s integral lateral stability. While structurally logical, curvilinearity is not structurally obligatory for earthbag construction: the Masoro house plan is rectilinear and has a planar roof; interior walls act to buttress the perimeter. The local rejection of vernacular Rwandan spatial typologies such as the round house, organic materials such as thatch and reeds, and locally harvested and naturally passive construction materials is lamented by Western architects for whom such practices represent, beyond obvious environmental benefits, the potential of preserving local cultural identity despite the homogenizing influences of modernization. The Western architect in Rwanda balances her desire to represent local cultural identity and the client’s demand for global assimilation by inventing architectural hybrids that combine current architectural trends and vernacular building practices. The result is a mixture of zeitgeist and genus loci attitudes, an effort to be both contemporary in regard to history and historic in regard to place.
As the Masoro Village Project demonstrates, however, the use of local materials (earth) and building practices (plaster, woven screens) is as much evidence of economic expediency as cultural concern, echoing Ferguson’s diagnosis of certain examples of African ‘cultural resistance’ as no more than economic oppression, “where a ‘traditional African way of life’ is simply a polite name for poverty.”  One wonders how GA Collaborative and its Masoro clients would represent Rwandan domesticity given an American-sized budget. Ultimately, though, their project is less about the politicization of architecture than the ‘architecturalization’ of the political—a subtle semantic distinction, maybe, but one that shifts the importance from the built project to the project of building, from noun to verb. While the Masoro Village Project prototype has yet to be tested by habitation, the process and fieldwork involved in its realization have demonstrated that designers can deploy design and construction procedures politically (and cheaply), to serve an underserved global public.
 Ferguson, James. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. (Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2006), 19.
 Ferguson, Global Shadows, 19-20.
- Designers: GA Collaborative, with Killian Doherty KD|AP, consultant
- Location: Masoro Sector, Rulindo District, Rwanda
- Design Team: Riaan Hough, earthbag consultant from EarthKaya / Eternally Solar; Scott Howard, compacted earth floor consultant from Earthenable; solar lamps provided by Great Lakes Energy.
- Contractor: GA Collaborative
- Area: 86 square meters
- Year: 2013
- Photographs: Riaan Hough, Alex McInnis, James Setzler, Yutaka Sho
Tyler Survant is a designer currently residing in New York City, whose Kentucky pavilion was featured by ArchDaily in December, 2011. He visited the Masoro Village Project site in July, 2013.