The Norman Foster Foundation’s prototype drone port must negotiate the context of Rwanda’s hyperreal ‘Vision’
At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the Norman Foster Foundation presented a prototype bay of the drone port for Rwanda, a project Foster refers to as a form of aviation architecture and social infrastructure. This will be the world’s first drone port with Foster’s design – a constituent part of the Red Line Afrotech-EPFL think-tank that focuses on the application of advanced technologies in and across Africa – and will service hospitals with medical supplies such as vaccines and blood across difficult-to-reach parts of Rwanda.
The proposal itself is a simple array of structural arches formed out of compressed earth-cement ‘Durabric’ tiles, using hand-pressed local soil rather than cement to reduce construction costs and avoid the transport and carbon footprint of importation. The result, the Foundation claims, is a structure that costs less than the construction of a petrol station. Stability is given to the tiles through the hand-machine presses, eliminating the need for stability from the wood-firing processes that in turn contributes to deforestation. The elegant catenary vaulted form is achieved by tiles being laid and bonded over a prefabricated formwork that is assembled quickly on-site. The construction technology is part of a long line of structural vault designs by Dieste, Gaudí, Rafael Guastavino, Peter Rich and Light Earth Designs – a firm based and building a similar structure within Rwanda.
As the smallest, most densely populated country in Sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda presents a massive challenge for food supply, industry and infrastructure. Collective claims to territory are inseparable from a history of conflict across the Great Lakes region, the extent of which has played out since pre-colonial times with the consolidation of ethnic territories during the colonial periods. The vestiges of these territories are indistinct yet remain embedded in Rwandan society and as such politically inform and influence all postwar redevelopment. In Rwanda, ‘development’ is otherwise referred to as President Paul Kagame’s ‘vision’ – having liberated Rwanda by military force during the 1994 genocide, Kagame was officially elected into office in 2000.
‘Rwanda is an all-embracing process captured by the government’s integrated development plan called the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme’
The drone port follows a number of Western-based architectural practices – MASS Design Group, Sharon Davis Design and Architecture for Humanity among others – who have designed and completed buildings in Rwanda, and a number of other European notables such as David Adjaye have designs pending. Such architecture has contributed significantly to the positive narratives surrounding Rwanda’s postwar physical and social reconstruction. ‘Development’ in Rwanda is an all-embracing process captured by the government’s integrated development plan called the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (the English translation for ‘Umurenge’ means ‘administrative sector’). National unity and a desire for a globalised economy are at the root of the intention behind Kagame’s ‘vision’, one that claims to reduce poverty through rural growth and social protection. This vision is indeed a supported one in the universal sense that it is the logical reaction to the 1994 genocide, yet it is not entirely transparent exactly how democratic it is and who will benefit due to the internal fear, suspicion and distrust within Rwanda’s political system. Rwanda’s power struggles are often evident in the public sphere, yet many international rights groups claim fear is continually exploited as a means of administrative panoptic control towards achieving Kagame’s vision.
So how does this project and its advocacy for this technology contextually sit within the political context of Rwanda’s heavily governed Vision?
The President’s Vision draws from the redevelopment template for Singapore, hoping to economically transform a predominantly low-income agricultural base into a middle-income knowledge-based society. It has elicited reform across all government sectors in tandem with innumerable reconstruction projects across Rwanda, with the growing capital city of Kigali being remodelled with a dense inner-city core with financial facilities, giving a rather generic CBD quality to what was once a small provincial town that sprawled over hills and valleys. Rwanda’s countryside is composed of scattered settlements and rich, yet limited, natural resources that have been collectivised, reorganised and intensified through economic development policies and programming.
‘The rapid ease with which modernisation has unfolded, has made Rwanda the paragon of African development’
This transition from a country that was decimated by war to the Vision, and the rapid ease with which modernisation has unfolded, has made Rwanda the paragon of African development. Responding to the visual immediacy of clean streets and social-welfare reform, Rwanda is continually likened to Switzerland – appropriate considering this is where the EPFL drone project originated. Yet these same comparisons also highlight inconsistencies that suggest that much of the Vision is a simulation.
Such contradictions are most visually disparate at ground level, between the way many of the urban poor in Kigali live and the land cleared for new monofunctional building developments. Several high-rises do indeed stand, yet they are often surrounded by empty parcels of land that urban farmers have reclaimed, albeit temporarily. Many informal practices of farming and trading within the city run counter to the trajectory of development. In 2015 Human Rights Watch discovered the ‘unlawful’ detention of homeless street children, sex workers and informal vendors that were systematically rounded up by the Rwandan police and held in what the government refers to as a ‘transit centre’.
This year Kagame amended the local constitution extending his second term to a third, and potentially up until 2034 – an extension presented as a response to public support. This support, however, was supposedly the result of information gathered through a government petition the President stated he was unaware of, which has since been contradicted by reports of intimidation and coercion.
In 2012, the Rwandan government passed a law allowing it to monitor and intercept email and telephone exchanges. Since then, several journalists and musicians have been jailed based on the content of private conversations (over Skype and WhatsApp) that were intercepted and construed as collusion against the government. Such accusations against the Rwandan government sit alongside a host of reports, in the country and beyond, of assassinations, disappearances and incarceration responding to political opposition to the ruling government. Open criticism of government politics is taboo in Rwanda, and in journalist and author Anjan Sundaram’s recent book Bad News, Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, he refers to Rwanda under Kagame as an Orwellian regime, where criticism of the government is contained by the government’s control over open speech and debate.
‘This is not to wag the finger at Foster’s project, one that appears to respond to many of the physical and social challenges that Rwanda presents architecturally’
A complex network of surveillance and communicative control has long operated in Rwanda through a system of broadcasted bureaucracy passing through a hierarchy of socially administered units. During the pre-colonial days of Rwandan kingdoms, the hill was regarded as the basis for socio-political unit, divided into neighbourhoods with a sub-leader, under command of a hill chief. Today the village is the smallest administrative unit in Rwanda, yet an undeclared smaller unit of 10 households overseen by non-salaried yet official representatives unofficially exists. There are an estimated 14,876 villages across a population of 10.6 million people in Rwanda. By way of comparison, neighbouring Uganda, a country nine times the size with a population of 40 million people, has 6,255 village units. An essay by the African political scientist, Andrea Purdeková, on the extent of Rwanda’s state control suggests that the spread of suspicion, fear and distrust has been compounded by the genocide. The administrative segmentation, she states, ensures that Vision 2020 Umurenge policy or well-being is effectively implemented, but that it also permits the government a panoptic view of all events, across scales of the province to the private space of households with the ability to spread a form of despotism that can also disempower.
This is not to wag the finger at Foster’s project, one that appears to respond to many of the physical and social challenges that Rwanda presents architecturally. The vaults depicted in the rendered images seem to forge a visual identity with Rwanda’s physical geography and the project greatly benefits socially from using drones, not least in increased access to healthcare. Foster’s drone port is one of a number of drone projects planned within Rwanda. Questions on the operational use of drone technology have been aired, certainly by architects, and were recently articulated at the Biennale by Forensic Architecture’s room simulating the impact of a drone strike.
Rather, this is about humanitarian architecture that is paradigmatically prone to being heavily narrated out of context, particularly the political context, and in a manner that distorts a view of the charged spaces of development as neutral. Humanitarian architecture emerges from the same dichotomy development faces – a philanthropic base of empowerment and emancipation that is always a disembodied process of intervention and imposition. The Congolese philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudimbe considers the African continent as a perpetual space of colonial improvement as an invention of the West. Colonial history, as much as we don’t like to talk about it, is linked to development and informs the manner in which we perceive and relate to ‘Africa’. Cultural distance is built-in to the processes of intervention and therefore how context is evaluated, responded to, reflected and re-represented. The origin of the drone project as described by Foster at the Biennale, titled ‘Reporting from the Front’, emerged from ‘a concept of the continent’ as suffering from a lack of infrastructure, high population growth and with ‘little hope of catching up’.
A reduced context, one in which architecture disengages from the political, is an ongoing crisis architecture faces. Architecture can rarely bite the hand that feeds it. Kim Dovey calls this contradiction ‘the silent complicity of architecture’, where real control of the programme is ‘ceded to the commission of the client’. Yet the humanitarian spaces of intervention are fraught with more power struggles with interests displaced across many ‘stakeholders’ and ‘beneficiaries’.
Foster’s drone ports are planned for three locations to give coverage of 44 per cent of Rwanda. One of the drone-port locations is a Rwanda-DRC border town called Cyangugu, not far from an area of conflict where human life is caught between rebel (pro-Kagame) fighting and the illegal trafficking of high-grade mineral resources, some of which pass through the town. As binding matters of law are often circumvented in the interest of the public good, there is little to suggest that the aviation laws governing drone technology are beyond official reach. In neighbouring Kenya, for example, a 2014 drone-flight project by Red Line was postponed due to local government fears following recent terrorist attacks.
‘Rwanda’s transformation encapsulates the complexity and contradictions of development and more so the Janus-faced paradox of modernity’
These are not easy discussions to have, as they require, to some extent, you to assume the worst. Rwanda’s narrative of hope universally aspires to overcome one of the darkest periods that humanity has witnessed, and to take up a critical stance towards architecture as part of development is unpopular, as continually thrust into the moralising dualities of good/bad, development/regression that are crippling and self-perpetuating.
Rwanda’s transformation encapsulates the complexity and contradictions of development and more so the Janus-faced paradox of modernity – a space in which humanitarian architecture has found itself stuck. The arguments for and against ‘development’ seem fought along the lines of winners and losers, with (neo)liberals and cultural relativists fighting over technology or the preservation of tradition – discussions as exhausting as they are exasperating. Obstacles that make it harder to examine the role of humanitarian practice in the non-neutral spaces of development. Architects working in ‘development’ should not give up on Aravena’s suggestion that beauty and craft is pitted against the challenges humanity throws at us. But to do so we have to come to terms with the profound contradictions that exist within the political contexts architecture invariably finds itself working in.
What is most seductive about Foster’s project is the positive deployment of drone technology for ‘saving lives’. Yet when the drone port is situated within the political context of Rwanda’s hyperreal Vision, a transformation controlled by an opaque system of governance that limits freedom of speech, the use of the technology, and consequently the project’s intentions, seems less favourable.
When architecture is decontextualised from the political contexts of power that shape society, it can present a distorted view that, despite its best intentions, has the innate ability to depoliticise and dehumanise conditions. In Rwanda, such issues are already at the peripheries of our vision, and so ‘the social’ in humanitarian architecture if anything needs to bring these contextually back into view.