- Issue July 4th, 2018
Why Design Matters
By Angela Shyaka
We spend around 90% of our lives in the built environment; from the shelters we call home, to schools we get educated in, arenas, stadium and malls we go to for entertainment, to bridges, parking lots and gardens. Design is quite literally everywhere. But how often do you stop and think about the spaces that you go through and live in? Have you ever thought about their impact on your life? More specifically, their influence on our health and well-being?
It may surprise you at first, but it is true. We have a rich and well documented portfolio of architectural examples and research that show the positive impact of good design as well as the negative impact of bad design on human beings (as well as plants, and other living beings- but for the sake of this not turning into an infinite complex debate and volume-worthy entry that while I would happily entertain the idea of writing, I would rather not; let’s stick to our species).
Pruitt-Igoe is an example of a good initiative gone wrong. This 1950s housing complex designed by Minoru Yamasaki followed the contemporary architectural principles and aimed at urbanizing social housing by accommodating hundreds of working-class families in Northern St Louis, Missouri. But the bland, plain regular design (which, if you look at it, has no contextual cultural root) resulted in increased crime rates, vandalism, and ultimately was vacant. Result? It was demolished in 1972.
But you can as well look around for examples. Imagine you’re in a 25 metre square room that only has one 0.04 metre square window that provides light into the room but is too high for you to look through. The walls, floor, and ceiling are painted grey.
Now, imagine yourself in a similar room, half the walls are painted a light orange, and the other half made of glass, such that the garden outside is now visible. Which room would you prefer to spend time in? Why?
The darker room creates a sense of seclusion and dullness, the lack of stimuli will likely bore you or even go as far as tire you, while the brighter room not only gives you access to the exterior through the openings, but the colors are engaging and vibrant. The condition and nature of our surroundings affect us emotionally. If you feel a difference in the way you’d feel in a space in the span of an hour, imagine how much the different spaces you frequented throughout your life impacted you.
What makes you want to walk down the long road in Nyarutarama, the one that goes through tennis club, wanders around and hides you from the world under the umbrella of its trees lined up on the sidewalk? The little touches and attention to detail such as maintained sidewalks, roads and vegetation make a difference.
Everyday on my way to work, I pass by a commercial building, the Centene Plaza, composed of an 18 story office building adjacent to an 8 story parking lot, right off of the sidewalk. The Plaza parking garage is my favorite structure in the area. Why? Because of its facade. The utilitarian space which doesn’t do anything more than serve as parking lot ( (and house several coffee shops and restaurants on the ground floor), wears an installation by artist Ned Kahn; a kinetic facade that responds and interacts with the weather. In doing so, it makes its presence known and captures attention of passersby. I was immediately captivated by its movements on windy days, and look for its otherwise subtly hidden bright columns behind the screen when the sun sets.
Inherently, there are some design elements that we are able to discern instinctively. Whether it is the comfort through color, how well-lit a room is, a push door that pulls, or that set of stairs between the living room and the dining room that you keep tripping on (which, must repeatedly frustrate you in a space that is supposed to make you feel relaxed and comfortable). In these cases, which are a few of many more, are not cases that should be solved by an ihangane. Why should you just bear with these mistakes or neglected details when you can avoid them?
So this is where you come in. I want you to realize that you deserve good architecture. You deserve to expect more and better from the spaces you are occupying every day. You have the choice to decide what you get influenced by, because, quoting Winston Churchill, “we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us”. While some of us go to school to learn how to design spaces for our clients, this will not be effective until every crucial party of a project (clients- users, engineers, architects, developers, etc.) are on the same page. Architecture is so much more accessible to us today, and I think that basic architectural awareness has to become ubiquitous. There is so much to gain from thinking about architectural knowledge the way we think about , say, medical knowledge. Just think about how much you know regarding mental health, fever, stomach infections, or other symptoms and illnesses, and how wide spread the word is. This is knowledge that was either passed on to you by your family, friends, teachers or knowledge you sought. Your physical and mental health is so important that you ought to be aware of your body and what it’s doing to be able to know what to do. And just in case, you have professionally trained individuals (also known as doctors, nurses and physicians) who can further guide you towards good health. What if architects worked similarly? If architecture has so much effect on who we are, our health and basically our development, shouldn’t we be more informed about the nature and impacts of design?
We are living in an exciting time where the design philosophy and accessibility is changing. This movement towards a more attentive and human-oriented architecture has been picking up pace worldwide, including Rwanda – which is very exciting! I am thrilled to see the amazing projects that are arising in different part of Rwanda and the importance and impact of design is getting momentum. In fact, several architecture firms are dedicated on generating a healthy and positive impact through their design while promoting innovation. Mass Design Group’s Umubano Primary School aims at promoting learning through design through a hierarchical clear organization, stimulating range of colors and choices between interior and exterior learning environments. Active Solar Architecture (ASA for short) is another firm dedicated, as its name wonderfully iterates, to improving people’s lives and strengthening communities through design. Their Hospital in Nyabihu is informed by Rwandan traditional hill hierarchy of activities (the chief’s abode sitting atop hills, with slopes and valleys used for crops) to promote the importance of healthcare. Sharon Davis Design has worked on several projects in Rwanda, including the Women’s Opportunities center, which not only creatively optimizes natural ventilation through its meeting spaces, while perforating the bricks. More recently, you might have heard of the opening of the first Rwanda Cricket Stadium. Designed by Light Earth Design, this structure uses local materials and labor and its design, while inspired by Mediterranean constructions, compliments the local landscape. All these projects use locally-sourced materials, employ local labor and hence create a connection between the community and the building, and use the geo-climatic information to propose the most suitable solutions.
The responsibility of building our future environments to the best of our abilities falls on… well, everyone. I hope that after reading this, not only do you feel inspired and excited for what our cities, country, and world will look like in the near future, but that you also take responsibility for that future as fellow citizens of the world. You are the user, you are the client, you are the architect. Whatever your role is, you have the right and the power to seek what is rightfully yours: good, positively-impactful, sustainable design.
Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied. — Dale Carnegie