The Dilemma of  Architecture in Rwanda

Eric Chen
Bachelor of Architecture

Advised by:
Sarah Rafson
Jonathan Kline
Heather Bizon

Studio Coordinated By Heather Bizon and Sarah Rafson

Themes: Industrialization | Crafts | Cultural identity


    Our decision making process is not entirely determined by rational thinking. This is particularly true for our tastes and preferences, which are detrimental to our behavior. The influences to our tastes and preferences begin very early in our lives, through toys when we are still young children, and through various forms of media when we grow older. As a result, when we are not provided with sufficient information or are reluctant to find them ourselves, we often make judgments and decisions based on stereotypes, many of which we have unconsciously picked up from the influencers of our tastes and preferences. This is particularly true for consumer behavior, for instance, by labeling a product with its country of origin, consumers often conveniently visualize images associated with that country, instead of laboriously evaluate factual information regarding that product.

    Both on an individual and collective basis, economic power translates to political influence, and the ability to influence consumer behavior is essential to maximize economic power. Products that are marketed with story-based narratives are more likely to appeal to consumers. By exploiting their tastes and preferences, these narratives often allow the products they market to outshine their true value. Due to historical reasons, most of the existing narratives that influence people’s tastes and preferences originated in the west. This puts Rwanda in a disadvantage, where attempting to create alternative narratives would be wrestling against the existing vocabulary of hidden messages, which consumers worldwide are familiar with. However, in order to allow Rwandan products to be sold at prices they deserve, this is a challenge which Rwandans must accept.
    My project, on a macro scale, is a project of story building, which I, as an architect, would deliver through creating buildings and spaces that produce this potential. I believe that by creating desirable buildings and spaces, consumers in the future would associate Rwandan products with desirable images.

    My thesis begins with a nine-point manifesto that underpins the theoretical foundation of my thesis topic, followed by a series of short essays that elaborate on those arguments. The second part of my thesis would be the implementation of these theories on a specific site.

    When reading my thesis, you may find the sequencing of my arguments a little schizoid. However, given the complexity of the theoretical basis of my argument, I believe this is the most holistic articulation of my thoughts. You may find a similar writing style in Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Kitaro Nishida’s An Inquiry into the Good. You may find both complexity and contradiction in my arguments, which would certainly make my argument less defensible. However, since I am not looking for complete answers to open-ended questions, I am willing to embrace this difficulty instead of taking a more obvious position.



We recognize that modern science,
although originated in the west,
must be seen as a universal body of knowledge rather than a Eurocentric concept,
and Rwanda must fully embrace it.


We recognize that our project may face obstacles,
given that it may conflict with the interests of existing powerful nations,
and since Rwanda is still a candlelight in the wind,
we cannot afford too many strategic mistakes.


We are aware that Rwanda’s image has been tarnished by the genocide,
and it may take another few decades to recover.


We recognize that Rwanda must fully industrialize and diversify the products we produce,
and when eventually the quality of our commodities are on par with those produced by the west,
we must market our products as distinguishable,
within the context of culture and heritage,
from those western counterparts.


We believe that the prices of our products must be determined by their quality,
while we are also aware that the Eurocentric marketing machine
and the Eurocentric psyche of people’s minds may undervalue what we deserve to earn.


We recognize that our project may take decades, even centuries, to realize,
and it must be implemented incrementally.


We should look to our roots for inspiration, but not be limited by them.
We believe the new architecture of Rwanda must celebrate the country’s industrialization,
and the diversified industrial base would provide new sources of inspiration to the country’s architectural vocabulary.


We acknowledge the need of capital to fund our project,
but would avoid speculation seeking immediate returns.


We hope that hundreds of years later,
couples around the world will no longer see Europe as their first-choice destination for honeymoon,
and the old buildings in Rwanda will be respected as much as those in Europe.

Our Story, Their Story

“ No industry, no history.
   No history, no story.
   No story, no identity.”

    Skyscrapers in New York City and Chicago are a product of America’s industrialization and its consequential economic boom. Skyscrapers in Dubai, on the other hand, are merely follies for vanity, as the economy of the UAE is largely dependent on oil and lacks an indigenous industry base. Architecture must not confuse the cause and symptom of social and industrial development. Amusement parks like the Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi are certainly lucrative in generating profits. However, given that Ferrari is an Italian car manufacturer, the theme park is irrelevant to the country’s own industrial history.
    Historically, Venice was a city of trade and commerce. If we understand the city as an organism, then Venice has long been dead, given that it no longer functions the way it was designed for. In fact, unlike carefully planned cities of today that take shape under general guidelines from a single planning body, Venice, like many other ancient cities, evolved incrementally and sporadically over a span of centuries. However, the tourist value of Venice is deeply rooted in its past rather than its present. This distinguishes from tourist attractions designed and built solely for tourism, most notably Disneyland.

    Architecture is deceptive if it attempts to imitate another society’s development rather than its own. Post-industrial architecture, for instance, would not be appropriate for Rwanda, since the country is just beginning to industrialize. A city’s fabric must be evolutionary based on its social context. It should take shape by drawing inspirations from the society’s past and aspirations for society’s future. Most European cities have evolved this way. This is the very reason why they attract tourists from all over the world.

The Problem with Roots

    In Black Skins, White Masks, Frantz Fanon uses his knowledge and experience in psychoanalysis to describe the mental state of many Africans following the decolonization of their homelands. He described their behavior as “destined for ‘the Other’ (in the guise of the white man / woman), since only ‘the Other’ can enhance his (her) status and give him (her) self-esteem at the ethical level.” He observed this type of mentality not only among ordinary Africans, but also among African scholars at his time: “At the root of this decision there was therefore the preoccupation with taking its place on an equal footing in the universal arena, armed with a culture sprung from the very bowels of the African continent...Very quickly, however, this Society proved incapable of handling these assignments and members’ behavior was reduced to window-dressing operation such as proving to the Europeans that an African culture did exist and putting themselves against the narcissism and ostentation of the Europeans...In order to secure his salvation, in order to escape the supremacy of white culture, the colonized intellectual feels the need to return to his unknown roots and lose himself.” Likewise, Slavoj Žižek also made a similar comment on Malcolm X: “Malcolm X had an ingenious insight which was at the top of contemporary philosophy. Namely, he wasn’t playing the Hollywood game, roots. The greatest honor for you blacks’ desire is to find some tribe in Africa...But this X paradoxically opens up a new freedom for us...We, black people, have a unique chance to be more universal.”
    The scientific and intellectual achievement of the west in the past few centuries has allowed western countries to create a world order favoring their own interests. This is achieved through not only military conquest, but also cultural hegemony as well. In Fanon’s words: “All colonized people - in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave - position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e. the metropolitan culture.”

    In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler borrowed the geological concept of “pseudomorphosis” to describe attempts of radically superimposing foreign influences to a society in an unsustainable way. In geology, pseudomorphosis refers to damaged crystals where their cracks allow their interior structure to be eroded overtime, and following volcanic eruptions, their hollow inner structure is replaced by molten masses, which eventually crystallize. This results in the crystal’s interior structure to be a different material from its exterior surface, where its appearance is deceptive. The composition of Russian society and its culture, in Spengler’s opinion, is a pseudomorphosis. In his own words “Moscow had no proper soul. The spirit of the upper classes was Western, and the lower had brought in with them the soul of the countryside. Between the two worlds there was no reciprocal comprehension, no communication, no charity.” Spengler also noted how the pseudomorphic characteristic of Russian society is reflected in Russian architecture: “In Tsarist Russia there was no bourgeoisie and, in general, no true class-system, but merely, as in the Frankish dominions, lord and peasant. There were no Russian towns. Moscow consisted of a fortified residency, the Kremlin, around which was spread a gigantic market.”