On January 24th, the official opening of the Butaro Hospital, in northern Rwanda took place. It was a pristine, cloudless day, with the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and our friend and mentor Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners In Health there to officiate and hand over the hospital to the Rwandan Ministry of Health.
In the Summer of 2007 when Paul Farmer asked me - then a young architecture student - to move to that hilltop and accompany his infrastructure chief on the design and construction of a new hospital, my immediate realization was that 'Architecture' as we know it was not what this district required.
The site chosen was a military camp, nestled on a steep hillside and perched high above the valleys of Butaro, which eyes the final peeks of Rwanda before fading into Uganda. Transferring the military to the medical speaks to more than the confidence of a war ravaged country to demilitarize, it showcases the priorities of a government committed to deploying the symbolic resonances needed to serve its people better.
Like the hillside, the facility was a symbolic capstone to the infrastructure that the district demanded. An infrastructure not simply of roads, water and electricity, but of the laborers, economic opportunities, educational programs, and material markets required to make this hospital built completely of and by the district of Burera.
The priorities however, were greater than simply drafting a set of plans to hand off to a local contractor. It was the construction of dignity that was required to accompany this new Butaro hospital, and as Dr. Paul Farmer accurately mentioned in his speech on Monday, this was why on this hilltop that MASS Design Group was formed.
The story of the hospital is not simply about architecture or design, it is about the iron-clad will of a country committed to emergence, healing and rebuilding. When PIH started working in this district, it had one doctor serving 350,000 people. As PIH Country Director Peter Drobac said, “Succeeding there would mean the possibility that success was possible anywhere”.
A NEW MODEL OF PRACTICE
We realized that what was required was more of a holistic model of architecture. One that could accommodate the design of an appropriate, state of the art hospital while also fully choreographing the process of construction to employ and instill dignity in a district depleted of the most fundamental of resources: hope.
This project then, is the story of a team of masons who were trained to make a stonewall unseen anywhere in the country. Carpenters that built every door and every window using local wood with local craft. 3,500 Burera residents who were employed to excavate the grounds, and construct this facility during one of three shifts, orchestrated each and every day. It is also the story of the reverberant impacts that this facility will have on the community for years.
A REGIONAL IMPACT
As I drove into Butaro on Sunday afternoon, Sierra Bainbridge, our country director pointed out the electrical wires stringing from the new poles that lead into every shop on Main Street, Butaro. This means that the hydroelectric damn down the road is finally finished and that the region's first electrical power is soon to soon follow.
After Kagame officiated the hospital, he drove to a rally in the town of Kirambo to tell a crowd of ten thousand that this hospital will not only be about healthcare delivery but infrastructure improvement. He promised to personally deliver a new project that will turn the road from red to black, i.e. from dirt to paved. This infrastructural revolution will bring commerce, economy, real estate, and wealth to the numerous towns along the climb to the new facility in Butaro.
I can easily say, it was the most powerful day of my life. One of those rare moments where time pauses, the paradigm shifts, and a different future is laid bare in front of us to imagine as possible.
What was a remote, unknown village in Rwanda will now be a regional center of excellence, not simply for Burera District, but as the Minister of Health intimated on his tour of the grounds, for the entire East African Region.
This is just the beginning. The plans, the partnerships, the execution succeeded. MASS Design Group grew from a single idea and one employee, to a current team of fifteen architects (seven in Rwanda, eights in Boston) working to prove that architecture is once again relevant. Now that the Butaro Hospital is finished, the goal is to replicate this model across multiple sites and for a spectrum of clients. Working 25,000 pro-bono hours on the Butaro Hospital was only the beginning of this amazing team's commitment to proving that better design can reduce poverty and embed dignity into communities.
I want to send a special thanks to our Rwandan team of Sierra, Garret, Branden, Commode, Ebbe, Andrew, and Sarah for making this a reality, and to our founding team for envisioning a greater purpose for architecture. Alan, Alda, Marika, Ryan, David, Maura thank you.
The countless people who have given their time and guidance on this project deserve recognition. The most sincere thanks for Bruce Nizeye, Felix, Jean D’amore, Jean Luc, Adriane and the many builders who led the construction and guided us through this transformation.
To the PIH Team of Ted Constan, Peter Drobac, Ophelia Dahl, Perry Doherty, Victor, Odile, Naomi, Amanda, Melissa, Kate Thorson, Jim Kim, our friend Dr. Paul Farmer and the countless others, our deepest gratitude for recognizing that any discipline can contribute to the fight against injustice.
Mostly however, to all of our friends, supporters, and family, you have provided us the support that allowed us to envision a Model of Architecture that truly Serves Society.
With the deepest gratitude,
MASS Design Group
Click on the following links:
To see a slideshow of the Butaro Hospital.
To read about the opening in the Rwandan New Times.
To read about the opening in the South African Times.
To see the new article about MASS in Metropolis Magazine.
To learn more about MASS.