When war ravages a nation and tears its people asunder, starting over isn't easy. But a community of 300 women in Kayonza have a fighting chance thanks to the Women's Opportunity Center. Working with Women for Women International, Sharon Davis took inspiration from vernacular Rwandan design to create a two-hectare site about an hour's drive from Kigali that comes complete with a suite of educational, commercial and agricultural facilities. The center is carefully crafted to help the women rebuild their own lives with dignity and pride by working the land in a sustainable manner.
The 450,000 clay bricks used to construct the circular buildings were hand-pressed with materials found on site, providing a marketable, income-generating skill that also has a low environmental footprint. Modeled after the King’s Palace in Southern Rwanda, where dwellings were constructed with woven-reed, the circular structures on site celebrate an architectural tradition that has been swallowed up by modernity. “Our design draws on the delicacy of this vernacular Rwandan construction method with rounded, perforated brick walls that allow for passive cooling and solar shading, while maintaining a sense of privacy,” the designer’s said in their brief.
An on-site farm also allows the women to grow and sell their own food. “This Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative teaches women to produce income from the land through organic techniques geared toward commercial production,” Sharon Davis said. “Through compact, easily maintained animal pens and classrooms—cooled by green roofs and retained earth walls—women learn to raise pigs, cows, goats, and rabbits, along with food storage and processing methods that can be used to run their own food cooperatives profitably.”
Unlike conventional aid programs, the Women’s Opportunity Center prepares the community for long-term self-sufficiency, leaving them un-phased by the international pressures of capitalism or globalization. Water used to irrigate the plants is captured from rooftop harvesting systems and conserved by replacing conventional latrines with composting toilets that don’t require water and produce nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Local partners have also helped the center produce their own biogas and water purification systems.
“The Women’s Opportunity Center empowers 300 women annually to transcend a legacy of conflict,” said Davis. “As designers, it has empowered us to create an ethic of global collaboration—one that’s rapidly reshaping our practice. In the lives and stories of these women, we have found the locally inspired grounds for a globally resonant architecture of optimism.”
Images © Elizabeth Felicella