Catalyst Perspectives: architecture, erosion and creation care
After studying abroad in the late 1990s, Johnny Ngunza felt called to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to help his country develop. Now an experienced architect, teacher and volunteer with his national movement, Johnny is committed to designing buildings and spaces that glorify God and are good for the environment. In this Catalysts Perspectives blogpost, he raises a question that goes beyond the architecture profession: how can we all live out our faith by caring for and improving our environment? Read on to find out how his LC I project is helping students and residents in his city to take practical action against erosion.
Growing up in the DRC, I always admired my father’s friends who were building and public works engineers. I told myself that in the future I would do similar work to them. I went abroad to study in France and Morocco and began training as an architect. It was through my involvement with a student group in Morocco – part of the IFES family – that I felt called by God to return to my country and contribute to its development.
Today, I seek to do this through my work as an architect and also as a teacher at a university that I founded, which is called Another Sound of Africa (ASAf). ASAf trains Chrisitan men and women in sustainable development, community development and environmental conservation.
Through my work at this university I was already unconsciously engaged in a dialogue between faith and science. But when I joined the Logos and Cosmos Initiative in 2021, the training I received prompted me to completely rethink my commitment to the university and my profession. I’ve learned to consider my two occupations (architect and teacher) as priesthoods. I can express my faith through my architecture and be a witness for the Lord on my campus and through my profession.
God as architect and gardener
The bible describes God as an architect of creation and more specifically of the heavenly city described in Hebrews 11:16 and Revelation 21:2. God is also described as a gardener. In Genesis 2 we learn that “the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden” and that God gave humans the mandate to care for and cultivate the garden.
The question that has arisen for me in recent years is: how can we inhabit the earth in God’s way and care for our garden, the earth?
As an architect, I believe that one of the ways we can do this is through bioclimatic architecture. This type of architecture takes into account the local climate conditions in order to reduce the building’s environmental impact. It is architecture that helps to reconcile humans with their local environment.
What kind of habitat do I think there will be in heaven? I think it will be close to bioclimatic architecture.
As an architect, I have taken up the challenge of introducing questions about our habits and customs in terms of so-called “modern” construction in my city, Beni. For example, in the past, in most traditional societies in Africa, houses were designed in harmony with the local climate and environment. They were often well designed for hot climates, for example by being integrated into their environment and having vegetation all around the house to provide natural ventilation. They were built using locally available materials – a wood or bamboo frame dressed with raw earth – making it possible to build extremely fast with a very limited volume of materials.
But nowadays, everyone wants to have a “modern” house. Most so-called “modern” constructions are not adapted to our local environment. Modern housing has created a real gap between humans and their environment and can even contribute to the destruction of the natural environment.
I am not arguing that we move away from modern methods to return to traditional construction methods. But I believe architects can borrow certain concepts from traditional construction, and we can use things like ceiling height, use of appropriate materials, building orientation and vegetation to make houses more comfortable for residents and better for the natural environment.
Tackling erosion: a scourge in my city
My interest in bioclimatic architecture led me to conduct research on landscapes and how they contribute to the development of peri-urban spaces (where town meets country) in my city, Beni.
Beni is a city with less than one million inhabitants. Most people make a living through agriculture and we have an equatorial climate with a long rainy season. Like many Congolese urban agglomerations, the city has expanded over the years but it has done so in an uncontrolled and unplanned way. The drainage networks and basic infrastructure have not kept pace in the new neighborhoods on the edge of the city.
Natural vegetation is removed during the development of these new quarters, making the bare soil more vulnerable to water erosion, which then leads to pollution, soil degradation, habitat loss and human property loss.
My LCI project mobilizes Christians to fight erosion using innovative, green techniques. It involves a demonstration project on my university campus. The goal is to enhance the soil, improve the quality of the space and raise awareness about low-cost, sustainable methods that could be adopted city-wide.
Over the last year, I have selected and trained 20 students from the local IFES national movement and involved them in a team that has been implementing a range of anti-erosion measures on campus including bioclimatic architecture, landscaping and construction, and planting vegetation to stabilize the soil.
Through a series of workshops and innovation sessions, students have discovered and developed ideas, experimented and then used their new knowledge on the demonstration sites on campus. For example, they have built retaining walls and landscaped five gardens: an orchard and also market gardens planted with vanilla, cabbage, sunflowers, soy and passion fruit. Student volunteers in the project will receive part of the proceeds from the sale of these crops and the rest will be re-invested into small processing units for the university, for example to produce juice from the passion fruits and to make sunflower oil and soy flour.
We are landscaping to fight erosion but all of this work is underpinned by the “cultural mandate” given to us in Genesis 2:15 to be wise stewards of creation. Through simple and practical actions, students have discovered that the gospel is not only about humans. It is about the whole of creation.
It’s been a valuable opportunity for the students because before my project began, staff at the national movement told me they were committed to help their students get involved in creation care, but without practical programs in place, students often did not know where to start.
In January, the students have been doing outreach among 30 families in three neighborhoods near the campus to help popularize our approach to erosion. This outreach culminated in a conference on January 28 in which we shared our approach with local residents and political and administrative authorities in the city.
We want to invite others to discover God through creation, nature and architecture.
Although we are only passing through this earth, this should not prevent us from reflecting on our way of life and our relationship with the environment where we live. This is part of our calling as Christians to take care of the earth and through doing this, it will also strengthen our witness to others.
So I ask you to consider: as a Christian, how can you improve the quality of the space in which you live, drawing inspiration from the Bible?
Find out more:
- Watch a 3-minute video of Johnny discussing his project (video is in French, but English subtitles and transcript are provided)
- Follow Johnny’s progress with his project on his personal blog (in French but use your browser’s auto-translate function)
- Read about all 18 of our Catalysts’ projects on our project webpages