Designing Architecture That Makes a Difference

The Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda designed by architect Sharon Davis for Women for Women International (Photo by Elizabeth Felicella).
The Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda designed by architect Sharon Davis for Women for Women International (Photo by Elizabeth Felicella).

By Annette Hinkle

As a form of artistic expression, architecture possesses the power to evoke strong emotion in those who live, work or visit a space. A beautifully designed building has the capacity to accomplish any number of goals — from enlightening and educating, to comforting and inspiring.

But for architect Sharon Davis, architecture is most meaningful when it has the ability to change lives.

Ms. Davis and her team at Manhattan-based Sharon Davis Design work on all sorts of projects, from residential and commercial construction to public buildings and spaces. But at the core of Ms. Davis’ philosophy is a deep commitment to architecture that serves people in the developing world thousands of miles away from New York.

This Friday at 6 p.m. Ms. Davis will take part in a discussion at the Parrish Art Museum entitled  “Pro Bono: Architects Who Serve Humanity.” The session will be hosted by the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Peconic and moderated by architect Maziar Behrooz. The focus of the talk is on architects, like Ms. Davis, who lend their time and talents to charitable causes. Also taking part in the talk will be artist/philanthropist Jane Walentas, founder of the non-profit Jane’s Carousel who oversaw the restoration of the historic carousel in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.

For her part, Ms. Davis’ first foray into the world of charitable architecture was realized with the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda. The project came to her by way of the Washington D.C. based non-profit group Women for Women International — a humanitarian NGO (non-governmental organization) that helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives.

“It was the first time I delved into this sort of project,” explains Ms. Davis. “I had been working on a big project that had been put on hold the week before. The phone call came in asking if I would work with the donor on the design of the project.”

“It was karma,” she adds.

The center, which opened in 2013, now serves as a community gathering place for female survivors of the Rwandan civil war and genocide of the early 1990s. Designed as a series of round buildings (round, because women typically sit in a circle when they gather to meet) and constructed of bricks made by hand by local women, it is a focal point of the community — both an educational center where women can learn business skills as well as a marketplace where they sell their textiles and other wares.

The Women's Opportunity Center in Rwanda (Photo by Elizabeth Felicella).
The Women’s Opportunity Center in Rwanda (Photo by Elizabeth Felicella).

“Women are making a living and are contributing to their families,” explains Ms. Davis. “They learn from the organization about their human rights, their reproductive system. They’re pretty empowered in comparison to many women still living in rural Rwanda.”

For Ms. Davis, designing the center was a defining moment in her career. She came to the field relatively late in life, returning to school as an older student and graduating with an architectural degree at the age of 45. Though she envisioned following the typical path of interning for three years at a firm where she would be “doing the grunt work” while learning the business, as the mother of four children, that wasn’t an option.

Then she was approached by Women for Women International.

“No one in the U.S. would let me go and build this center,” she says. “People need things there and they need a creative design process — and people like us can bring it to them.”

“Now we’re doing affordable housing for this community – it’s a challenge,” adds Ms. Davis whose firm has gone on to work on other humanitarian projects in places like Kosovo and Nepal. It’s the kind of work she has made a focal point of her firm.

“What’s happened, and it’s happened really just organically, is that most of the work I’m doing now is for non-profits in developing countries,” explains Ms. Davis. “I also work with other partners on this who are engineers and landscape architects.”

Balancing the need to maintain private clients at home while finding the ways and means to build architecture that serves humanity abroad is a huge challenge. To that end, in addition to working with NGOs, Ms. Davis’ firm has created its own 501 C3 for projects they want to pursue.

“We just received a Ford Foundation grant to do this project I’m really passionate about,” she says.

That project involves the transformation of a small Rwandan church where 5,000 people were massacred during the genocide into a place that memorializes the victims while educating visitors and school children about the history.

While designing architecture for humanity will remain a top priority for Ms. Davis and her staff going forward, a bigger question remains: Is this something other architects are now focusing on in their own work? Is it even possible, financially speaking, for them to incorporate these sorts of projects into their design businesses and stay solvent?

“This is something that has been talked about in the architectural community for the last five or six years and there are four or five examples of firms doing work like we’re doing,” says Ms. Davis, who points to a new magazine, Public Journal: Design + Humanity, as one specifically focused on this issue. The magazine featured the Rwandan women’s center on the cover of its second issue.

“For me, I was so excited to see this magazine come out. It’s gotten us to the next level and is making a statement on how architecture can save people’s livelihood and worlds,” says Ms. Davis. “I see it becoming a big buzz word and something a lot of architects are interested in doing.”

“I think it’s incredible and most architects, if you asked them, would love to do this,” she adds. “I was lamenting the fact I hadn’t gone the traditional route as an architect, but then someone said, ‘You built that center in three years.’”

“Pro Bono: Architects Who Serve Humanity” is Friday, January 23, 2015 6 p.m. Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. Offered with the support of AIA Peconic, the conversation with architect Sharon Davis and artist/philanthropist Jane Walentas will be moderated by Maziar Behrooz. $10. 283-2118.