Dealing with the events that changed a nation, Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial, master planned by John McAslan + Partners, combines iconic forms with sensitive space-making
The 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide marked an important date for Rwanda. The commemorations that took place last April have been a significant moment for the country to mourn and remember, and to show the international community the impressive transformations that have taken place since then.
One of the central locations of the events has been the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi, established in 2004, and managed by the British NGO Aegis Trust on behalf of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. Even though it is only one among the numerous physical spaces devoted to the commemoration of those murdered in the genocide, it is definitely the most important. In the mass graves located in its gardens, over 250,000 bodies are buried, with plans to expand as more graves around Kigali are exhumed. The Memorial also houses the Genocide Archive Rwanda, and exhibitions on the history of the Rwandan genocide and of other genocides all around the world.
In a world where atrocities and conflicts continue to happen, there is a risk that the construction of memorials has become the occasion for rhetorical ceremonies, where declarations on the intention that such tragic events should not happen again sometimes are unable to address the causes. The strong emotional impact of such places that all share a will to remember, is, however, undeniable.
Sites of memory have long been the subject of architectural, anthropological and historical investigations. In particular one is reminded of the French historian Pierre Nora, whose Les Lieux de Mémoire describes places that ‘are fundamentally remains, the ultimate embodiments of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it’. According to Nora, sites of memory are artificial and deliberately fabricated. Their purpose is ‘to block the work of forgetting’ but there is not a univocal way of building them.
As Pat Caplan aptly puts it, in Rwanda ‘there is no single or “right” way of memorialising the dead of a genocide or of creating public monuments’. This might be why Aegis Trust and the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide consulted a team of international architects about how to deal with Rwanda’s central place of memory.
The masterplan, developed by John McAslan + Partners, for the entire Genocide Memorial Park represents an ambitious scheme, to be delivered over a number of years. In a fitting interpretation of how in Rwanda, the country of the thousand hills, every modification of the environment bears strong social significance, it conceives of a landscape design for the whole site. The emphasis is placed on a sequence of punctual interventions that will provide a new entrance, archive and educational facilities within a coherent framework, supporting the importance of the memorial as a national and international centre for peace and reconciliation. The first completed elements of the new framework, funded by donor countries UK, Sweden, Korea, the Netherlands and Japan, were inaugurated on 7 April. An amphitheatre, in the architect’s words an ‘open hand in a landscape of loss, memory, and new human and cultural possibilities’, and classroom spaces, quadruple the Memorial’s capacity to house students for peace-building education.
The scheme exploits the existing slope and invents its relationship with the ground. Below the classroom block, that acts as retaining wall for the car park, 18 rows of seating create a manmade landscape, a space ‘for commemoration and learning’, by means of terraced earth and the interplay of different levels, seats and stairs. At the centre of the composition is the stage, covered by a metal hemispheric dome, whose built form appears slightly more cumbersome than the original renderings, inspired by Rwandan woven baskets.
The whole faces the valley and wetlands, and the Nyarugenge central hill of Kigali in the backdrop. It’s an unassuming piece, where design does not detract from the site, which in fact remains the heart of the project, where topography, absence and memory are the protagonists. The different circulations are interestingly woven together, in a sequence of concrete ramps, steps and gravel paths that lead down from the parking space, mediating between the existing entrance to the compound, the path the leads to the mass graves, the new setting for the burning Flame, and the surrounding landscape.
Unfortunately there is a disconnect between the inherent simplicity of the scheme and the hastily completed work, that resulted in approximate tectonic finishing of the stone cladding and the concrete slabs for the seating surfaces. Indeed the unevenness of the quality of the built features does not take much away from the symbolic gesture of the open amphitheatre, but is a missed opportunity to achieve the silent precision that you generally associate with memorial sites.
Despite the difficult conversation between the pivotal function the Genocide Memorial plays and its architectural forms, the visitor is a spectator in the barren landscape of the amphitheatre, and is offered the opportunity to interrogate the multiple memories embedded in the site. Ultimately, the disciplinary problem which invites reflection is whether the memorial can give architectural answers to humanity’s tragedies. It is a question that appears ever more frequently, as structures that pay tribute to the victims of disasters and massacres increase in number, and to which the Genocide Memorial in Kigali offers an interesting solution, combining the iconic form of the amphitheatre with the abstraction and space-making strategy of its landscape setting.