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The virus’ mortality rate can be as high as 90%. According to the WHO, the current outbreak has a mortality rate of 55%.

Architecture and Ebola

Rwanda has been preparing itself for a possible new outbreak of Ebola for months. Following the W.H.O.’s declaration of an international state of emergency on 17 July, preventive measures were intensified. These included preparing Ebola Treatment Centres (ETCs) in the country.

Since the building of the first ETC in Sierra Leone in 2014, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved in the creation and transformation of a new building type, a highly necessary yet extremely complex design marked by the need to reduce time spent in high risk zones while at the same time giving patients the chance to be visited by relatives during their quarantine periods or prior to their death.

ETCs have numerous spatial and technical requirements: zoning according to risk levels, multiple one-way, uninterruptible movement flows, water supply networks with different levels of chlorine, etc. The design programme is demanding in itself, not to mention the added complication of having to build the facility during a state of emergency.

I remember how one doctor colleague working on site described it: “Make no mistake, Vero, an ETC is a place for segregating people, and where most of them are going to die”1. That day I realised that, as an architect, my job was to ensure that apart from being safe for the people who work there, the place would also be a dignified, comfortable environment for its patients.

Today I visited a health facility in Rwanda that’s been converted into an ETC. My job is to identify possible shortcomings and improve the centre before the first patients arrive. Even from afar, the architectural quality of the building is apparent, with good proportions and attractive rhythms. Someone decided to convert it into an Ebola treatment centre before it had even been inaugurated.

The adaptation is a complete mess.  Over and above the ignorance underlying the decision to reuse an existing building as an ETC, the refurbishment work already carried out reveals a lack of elementary knowledge about both architecture and Ebola.

This case exemplifies two things that are worrying for architects. First, a lack of awareness by humanitarian organizations that spatial and technical programmes can only be implemented successfully under emergency conditions by professionals. Secondly, a widespread lack of recognition and respect for quality architecture as an efficient tool with which to improve people’s lives.

I can easily imagine someone, probably with the best of intentions and buoyed up by having read some manual about ETCs – but nevertheless totally inept, walking around the building giving ill-considered instructions about what needed to be done: a corridor here, a door there, another washbasin here… The result: confused movement flows, unclosed circuits, serious flaws, uncomfortable spaces, danger spots and many more mistakes which, far from exploiting the strengths of the existing building, have turned it into a problem for its future users.

That said, I enjoyed the freehand mapping out of the design. It allowed me to confirm the good things about the building; to understand the origin of that beauty characteristic of all good architecture, that rationale that leaps out at you as you pass your pencil over the plans; to perceive the hours of hard work and dedication that were needed to design and execute the project.

I also suffered as I recorded the damage caused, the vulgarity introduced and the unnecessary wounds that will leave the building scarred forever.

Architecture has to build solutions to society’s problems, and society has to demand and defend such architecture. Otherwise, it won’t be architecture.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Notas de página

The virus’ mortality rate can be as high as 90%. According to the WHO, the current outbreak has a mortality rate of 55%.

Arquitecta desde 2004, ha desarrollado su trabajo como profesional independiente en urbanismo y arquitectura. En 2007 centró su actividad en Ayuda Humanitaria, donde ha trabajado con diferentes organizaciones tanto en desarrollo como en emergencia. Es máster en Proyecto Avanzado de Arquitectura y Ciudad, y se ha especializado en Agua, Saneamiento e Higiene en Cooperación Internacional y Emergencias y en Desarrollo de Asentamientos humanos en el Tercer Mundo. Durante estos años ha compaginado su actividad profesional con la docencia y la investigación. Actualmente imparte clases en máster y cursos de posgrado en diferentes universidades. Ha llevado a cabo diferentes investigaciones sobre asentamientos humanos y campos de refugiados, y escribe su tesis sobre Diseño y Construción de Centros de Ébola. Desde 2004 dirige el Taller CuatroESCALONES junto a Óscar Valero, especializado en el proceso de proyecto. En 2011 funda n´UNDO, junto a Alejandro del Castillo, lo que supone un posicionamiento en la manera de hacer arquitectura.

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