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Pedagogy: KIST, Kigali, Rwanda

Kigali Institute of Science & Technology sees an international faculty and 19 home grown students drive an african identity towards solving the social economic and development agenda in Rwanda

As of September this year, you might truthfully claim to be a home-grown architect in Rwanda if you are among the cohort of 19 graduating from the Kigali Institute of Science & Technology (KIST), having begun, as first-year students, in 2009.

This elite group provides a much-needed boost to the nation’s stock of professionals − recent figures suggest one architect per 220,000 general population. Also, according to the school’s head Wambete Soita, locally trained talent is the cornerstone of a long-term ‘solution to the social economic and development agenda of the country’.

And development is certainly on the agenda in Kigali, a city in the throes of change. The population of Rwanda’s capital has doubled since the late 1990s and current projections envisage a further doubling by 2020. International consultants commissioned to develop a masterplan would reinvent the city as Africa’s answer to Singapore: a regional ICT and finance hub complete with leisure complexes, shopping boulevards and waterfront resorts.


Many are excited by this provocative vision of transformation, but there is also disquiet. While the prospect of replacing Kigali of old (all but abandoned during the 1994 genocide) with a triumphant city of steel and glass may have political appeal, it risks pulling the rug from under local, emerging identities.

This ambivalence, between a past progressively displaced by a future approaching at breakneck speed, is played out in the familiar battle between regional culture and the architectural platitudes of global modernity. The task for Soita’s new generation of graduates is, he explains, to fashion a design language relevant to Rwandan identity despite the lack of ‘sufficient local examples’.

Also lacking is a pool of indigenous teaching expertise. KIST faculty are drawn mostly from abroad − an irony not lost on Italian academic Ilaria Boniburini. Reflecting on two years of teaching at the school, she speaks of the need to guard against unwittingly ‘becoming a culturalimperialist’.Boniburini’s wry observation chimes with the sentiments of colleagues including erstwhile teaching partner Killian Doherty, an Irish architect now based in Sierra Leone.


A real challenge facing KIST is a contradiction between the pedagogical emphasis on African identity and the globally mobile, largely European and American staff: between what is taught and those who teach. And yet this disjunction is not a barrier to learning. Rather, Boniburini continues, it is an inevitable dimension of the school’s character as a ‘work in progress’. The implication is that KIST is guided by a larger purpose: an orientation to philosophical questions with no easy answers.

For Boniburini, the school’s long-term objective is ‘to educate architects capable of consciously, ethically, professionally and innovatively intervening’. Echoing this, Soita cites the goal of developing student capacity for critical thinking. He envisages a generation better equipped to debate and to engage in the implementation of schemes such as the Kigali masterplan.

Positing an alternative to the masterplan’s development model, Doherty and Boniburini initiated a studio programme in 2012 which sought to emphasise regional identity by considering the character of local landscape: in particular the wetlands ecosystem south of Kigali.


A scheme for a community marketplace by student Theophile Uwayezu drew upon research into the livelihood dynamics of small-scale agriculture on the Rwampara wetlands. His analysis revealed the need to balance the investment required, by local farmers, to transport fresh produce to the city market − where prices are higher − against journey time and costs. By investigating subsistence patterns, rainwater harvesting and social forms of food production, the design approach optimised both the economic performance of the proposal as well as its environmental impact to reduce travel, manage water use and improve hygiene.

A fourth-year scheme by Emmanuel Rukundo and Seth Uwimana focused on the challenge with informal settlement in rapidly developing cities. They structured their proposal for the incremental upgrading of housing in the inner-city neighbourhood of Kora according to an intensive participatory process. They got to know local people, mapped the locale, and consulted with the community. They aimed to allow Kora to ‘breathe better’ by defining and enhancing an open space network.

Multi-functional community services and proposals for environmental management supplemented a framework for incrementally upgrading homes. By contrast with the motif of the remotely produced masterplan, disconnected from everyday life, these projects show how architectural solutions built on street-level engagement can generate cohesion and build citizenship among those typically displaced by urban development.


This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy

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