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After the genocide

Hannah Lawson

How do you design a setting for memory and reconciliation after the horrors witnessed in Kigali?

To put the words genocide and architecture together creates a cacophony of ideas, images, and meanings. How does an architect give form to the facts and memories of the deaths of those killed during ethnic or cultural cleansing? How do you design a place of potential reconciliation, rather than one which bitterly magnifies the human loss sustained? 

Our involvement with the Kigali Genocide Memorial began in an unorthodox manner. In 2008, John McAslan’s daughter (also Hannah) used her thesis at the LSE to examine the way the world’s media had portrayed the genocide in Rwanda. Her dissertation ‘Can Journalism Kill?’ assessed its failure to engage at a human level with the unfolding tragedy in Rwanda in 1994. She travelled across Rwanda and visited the Kigali Memorial site as part of her research. She met survivors of the genocide and representatives of the Aegis Trust – the charity entrusted with the organisation of the site and its development. This visit, and the people she met, marked the start of the project and JMP’s engagement. Working with Studio Landmark in Kigali, JMP drew up a masterplan for the site and its key elements, the amphitheatre marking the completion of Phase 1 and commemorating the 20th anniversary of the genocide. 

The context for the project could not be more appalling: in less than four months during 1994, hundreds of thousands of people were killed. A monolithic approach to the design of this particular place of memory might have seemed more like a morbid full-stop than a dynamic point of change. It became clear that the land itself, and the dead buried in it, would form the most potent source of memory, and support emotional and cultural evolutions. So our scheme was conceived as a memorial landscape that would be accepted as a place of gathering, grief, respite, and dialogue. Not just a landscape, but a place where facts of the genocide could be set out in respectful and instructive ways. 

Kigali amphitheatre
Kigali amphitheatre

The context for the project could not be more appalling: in less than four months during 1994, hundreds of thousands of people were killed

To the north of the site, forming Phase 2, will be an archive, genocide museum and educational building designed by MASS Design Group of Boston. Our overall masterplan includes memorial features such as the Forest of Memory, Stream of Tears, and Lake of ­Reflection to be set in a newly formed and planted landscape. Broadly speaking, the northern half of the site provides information about the genocide, the southern concerns contemplation of loss and reconciliation.

Between these two segments lie the terraces of mass graves, and the new amphitheatre. I felt that a gathering place of physical openness, which shared the language of steps in the terraces, would bring past and future together constructively, and create a very particular atmosphere. 

This physical closeness adds meaning to this perhaps crucial element of the memorial site: the silence of the terraces, next to the gatherings and activities in the amphitheatre; the presence of absence; the unspoken and spoken, together. It is said in Kigali that the genocide began with words, and only words can end its very dark shadow. We hope the Genocide Memorial Amphitheatre will make Kigali an internationally recognised place where a new language of acknowledgement and recognition can be spoken collectively. 

Hannah Lawson is director (culture and education studios) at John McAslan Architects