Tomà Berlanda: Building for education in Rwanda

This Italian architect is helping to pioneer a new model for early childhood development centres being built in Rwanda.

For Italian architect Tomà Berlanda, working in Rwanda has brought his interest in education full circle. He co-founded Active Social Architecture (ASA) studio in Kigali in 2012. It is a collaborative practice tasked by NGO Plan Rwanda to develop a new model for early childhood development (ECD) facilities in the country.

"If you enable a child from a very early age to be in a healthy, safe and secure environment, that child stands a much better chance, 20 years down the line, to have a successful career through higher education," explains Berlanda.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Berlanda and his team are actively engaged in developing the Department of Architecture at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, now part of the University of Rwanda. He believes that if you are invested in higher education within the disciplines of the built environment, you need to make sure you have good students. The foundation needs to be laid in early childhood.

"You need to make sure that early on in life they have chances – because it is too late to recriminate that students have come from a bad school when they are 20 years old," he says. "And so it really brings full circle a range of things that I've been interested in – how architecture as a discipline should practise and operate for everyone."

Good design should not be a privilege.

Over the past year ASA has been involved in a large-scale construction project for which it completed 20 buildings, most of them ECD centres. Working with local communities and international partners such as UNICEF Rwanda, it has developed and refined ideas on how to design and build ECD centres. It is a collective and interdisciplinary project addressing the interface between the ecosystem and socioeconomic environment at both community and national level.

ASA's design is an innovative model that learns from the processes and customs rooted in Rwandan society. It held workshops with the community to learn more about the techniques, local materials, traditions and culture related to the care of Rwandan children and the mother-child relationship. 

The model has two main features. A central open space functions as a catalyst for community gathering in a contemporary interpretation of the traditional "urugo" settlement pattern. A modular structure enables components to adapt to different terrains and situations that result in similar facilities organised around the central space. 

"A lot of school construction is based on the idea that the classroom is the only module that needs to be replicated," says Berlanda. "So there is no site planning, just endless repetition of classrooms. We decided to come up with a modular structure that, by means of its own geometry, carriers within itself the DNA of its aggregation. So hopefully it determines to an extent how the site plan is going to be generated and with a couple of mirrored elements, it deploys itself in one or two configurations on the site."

The studio also explored alternative construction methods that respond to the context. Instead of using the traditional reinforced concrete structure with brick infill, the buildings use a reinforced brick structure that is made of locally fired bricks bought from the community. They tried using clay-roofing tiles that were moulded and fired locally instead of importing iron sheeting. But both options had their pros and cons and according to Berlanda it is about finding a "break-even solution".

In conclusion, Berlanda shares his view on architecture for social good:

This notion of architecture for emergency, or architecture for doing good or pro bono architecture, is really almost irrelevant.

"Firstly, it should be sustainable business for everybody and it is just a matter of where your fees are relative to what is available. Secondly, designing for a refugee camp should be as normal as designing any high-rise tower in any practice in the world. It is not just this niche that you have to carve out and start branding with logos. This is a preoccupation that we tried to address indirectly through our practice here."