Designing for Gorillas
Have you ever considered what it would be like to design for gorillas in their native habitat? Recently this opportunity became a reality for me.
Previous work with the San Diego Animal Park and Hubbell and Hubbel Architects’ extensive experience designing with alternative green building materials lead to an email from Bill Toone, director of the non-profit EcoLife Foundation, a foundation whose mission is to preserve natural habitats throughout the world (www.ecolifefoundation.org). He asked if Hubbell and Hubbell would be interested in meeting with the directors of Conservation through Public Health (CTPH), an NGO based in Uganda, Africa. They were looking for an Architect with our skills and experiences to help design a Gorilla Research Station in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (http://www.ctph.org). I did not have to think long before I answered “Yes.”
In October of 2009, Bill and I flew to San Francisco to meet Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and Lawrence Zikusoka, the directors of CTPH. Their foundation’s mission is to “achieve gorilla conservation by enabling humans, wildlife and livestock to coexist through improving primary healthcare in and around Africa’s protected areas” (http://www.ctph.org/about_method_ctph.php). This goal is accomplished “by using a multi-disciplinary approach which promotes sustainable animal and human health services, advocacy, education, and research.” Due to the genetic similarity of humans and gorillas (98% of their genetic makeup matches ours), diseases are easily transmitted between the local human and gorilla populations. Thus, CTPH focuses mainly on studying and preventing the spread of diseases between humans, livestock, and the fragile Mountain Gorilla population. There are approximately 700 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, and they all live in the two forests which border Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Eastern Africa, making CTPH’s work crucial.
The meeting went well and I sent CTPH a proposal to visit Uganda and then create design drawings from which they could begin a fundraising campaign to build the new research facility. By March of 2010, I was given short notice to plan my trip to Uganda and visit the project site in Bwindi. I quickly acquired all the right shots, visas, and gear and set off on April 24th for 24 hours of travel to Uganda and the beginning of my ten-day African Adventure. After a brief stay in Kampala, the capital city, we headed off in a CTPH Range Rover with 7 other members of the design team for a ten-hour drive to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda. Construction and very rough roads made the going slow, but this allowed many opportunities to view the indigenous building of the Ugandan countryside, which consisted mainly of adobe, wattle-and-daub, and brick-constructed walls with corrugated tin roofs.
To break the long drive up, we stayed overnight at the Simba Lodge, a rustic facility located in the Savanna Planes within the boundaries of the Queen Elizabeth Nature Preserve. A lot of wildlife surrounded the lodge—including lions, elephants, and gazelle. We headed out early the next day searching for a pride of lions but had no luck. However, along the road to Bwindi we encountered large groups of monkeys, baboons, water buffalo, and many exotic birds.
In Bwindi, we were able to stay at the Gorilla Research Campground in permanent tents nestled within the Impenetrable Forest. This steep, mountainous rainforest is in fact one of Africa’s oldest habitats because it survived the last ice age. Working with members of the design team, we analyzed the site, and surveyors created a boundary and contour map of the site. To help us determine appropriate methods of construction, we researched indigenous building materials and methods, and we learned about their cultural traditions. Also, the design team visited and studied the tourist lodges surrounding the National Park for their design influences, use of materials, and different themes.
Early in the morning of my last day in Bwindi I was lucky enough to join a gorilla tracking tour that consisted of five guides and five visitors. Each person in the group seemed to be there for interesting reasons. Two women had come from Finland—a journalist and a photographer—to prepare a feature story on the Mountain Gorillas of Uganda. The other two trackers were women from Germany who were working in the Democratic Republic of Congo for an NGO assisting in rebuilding their roads and utilities. The Park Ranger guides provided training and laid out the specific guidelines for tracking and viewing the Mountain Gorillas. Setting off, we knew that once we found the gorillas, we would only be allowed one hour to view them. The Ugandan government limits human contact with each gorilla family so they do not become too accustomed to humans.
The Mountain gorillas live in family units of 5-25 members. There are 10 groups throughout the 3 countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and Dominican Republic of Congo. We headed off to the location the Rhaga group of gorillas was last seen to pick up their trail. Having grown up in arid Southern California, being in a rainforest was a thrill. The lushness of the undergrowth, the size of the trees, and the limited light penetrating through the forest all added to the experience. We hiked up and down steep, slippery hills, forged a river, and had to cut our way through the jungle with machetes.
We finally saw a group of three gorillas laying down, two females and a baby. They looked at us with little concern of our presence. A few times they would look directly into my eyes–I felt a strong connection, something unexplainable. Our friends at CTPH told me that often people are moved to tears when they make this connection with the giant Mountain Gorillas. Being in the presence of these animals made me aware of how similar they are to human beings (98% of their genetic makeup matches ours).
One of our guides came running over to our group and said the rest of the family was climbing down from the giant trees they had been resting in. First came the Silverback, the dominant male gorilla, known for their gray backs. They checked the situation out and motioned for the others to follow. What came next was a show of different Gorillas, from little babies to teens to mothers. The little ones slid down large hanging vines like firemen on poles. The larger ones took their time hanging from limbs and resting along the way. We felt very lucky to experience the group in such varying forms of activity. The gorilla groups are often found among the low bush only while eating and do not move much during the 60 minute period we are allowed to observe them.
Our time with the gorillas ended too soon for all of us. Back at the Gorilla Camp, we packed quickly to set off for our long trek back to Kampala.
My task now was to take the programmatic requirement presented to me by the CTPH staff and create a master plan for their new site which overlooks the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. Our goal is to use the local materials such as stone and hard woods to create a building that “grows out of the land”, rather than sits on top of it.
~ Drew Hubbell, August 2010