Architecture students at the Ellen Degeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
Photo: Scott Marble

A Local Perspective, Globally Realized

A Local Perspective, Globally Realized

School of Architecture students recently explored one of the world’s rarest ecosystems to study how architecture can simultaneously protect the environment and elevate human community.

During spring break, the Design and Research Studio taught by Michael Murphy, the Thomas W. Ventulett III Distinguished Chair in Architectural Design, and Jade Yang went to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, home of the endangered mountain gorillas.

As the protected gorilla population grows, the park must expand. However, this expansion displaces local agricultural communities, and the Rwandan government must build communities and provide services to support the displaced population.

That's where Georgia Tech student architects come in.

“When we were at the example model community, we were talking to people that live there, and what we heard is that more than half of them are actually willing and glad to make the transition because they are getting services that they didn’t otherwise have,” Scott Marble, School of Architecture Chair, said. “But the communities that we saw weren’t thoughtfully designed.”

“That’s what the students are working on, to make a really dignified and desirable place for these displaced people to relocate.”

Architecture students on the African Leadership University campus
Photo: Scott Marble
Michael Murphy, right, in red shirt, discusses the African Leadership University campus, a MASS Design project.

Designing for a local community in Rwanda requires a local perspective, though, and students in Atlanta cannot hope to gain that perspective in a semester on their own. Fortunately, the Ventulett Chair gives the School of Architecture the invaluable opportunity to hire nationally prominent architects to come to the School and teach, Susan Sanders, Director of Development, said.

“Having such recognized architects teach our students enlivens the studios and raises the level of their work.”

The Thomas W. Ventulett III Distinguished Chair in Architectural Design is made possible by a generous endowment created by Tom Ventulett (Arch ‘58) and TVS, a prominent Atlanta architecture firm with a global client base and reputation.

Part of the intention of the Ventulett Chair is to develop significant initiatives that heighten the critical importance of design in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, nationally and internationally.

“The Ventulett Chair has also become a much sought-after position nationally and when invitations are extended for the position, they are immediately accepted,” Sanders said.

Marble agreed. “It’s our flagship endowed visiting faculty chair in the School of Architecture, and over the years, it’s brought in some of the most well-known and noteworthy practitioners internationally.”

This year's Ventulett Chair, Michael Murphy, is founder of MASS Design Group, whose largest branch is in Rwanda.

“MASS Design Group is one of leading and most respected design firms in the U.S.,” Marble said, “and probably internationally. They just won the AIA Firm of the Year award, one of the most prestigious awards given in the U.S. for design firms.”

“MASS is a nonprofit, so they’re a mission-driven organization, not profit-driven. Everything they do has to be in alignment with their mission,” Marble said.

Architecture students visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
Photo: Scott Marble
Architecture students visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund

“When they started designing projects in Rwanda, they could not get contractors in to build the projects properly, so they started a construction firm. They developed an architecture education system, training locals in different craft traditions.”

“I see their work as design as a starting point for building community, which involves not only the buildings, but the social part, the economic part, the job creation part. They’re quite holistic in how they think about their work, and that’s the kind of unique experience the students were exposed to.”

During the trip, students met with local farmers who now live in the model communities and presented their work to local officials in Kigali. They were also the first international students to visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which was a MASS Design project.

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