Illustrated plan of the Fossey Center

Seeding a Wilder Future

A new gorilla conservation campus by MASS Design Group and TEN x TEN is a laboratory for reforestation.

By Timothy A. Schuler

Aerial photo of Fossey Center showing landscape and low-lying buildings with green roofs.
The experimental landscape at the new Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund headquarters features plant communities that are critical to mountain gorillas’ survival. Photo by Iwan Baan.

The plan was ambitious, even by MASS Design Group standards. For the headquarters of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the world’s foremost mountain gorilla conservation organization, the designers envisioned a series of lily pad-like buildings nestled into a landscape made up of plant communities drawn almost exclusively from the gorillas’ native habitat in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

The landscape would regenerate the former agricultural lands, provide outdoor educational and interpretive opportunities, and serve as a critical laboratory for reforestation efforts along the national park’s eastern border. The only problem was that a local nursery trade dealing in endemic species was “almost nonexistent,” says Therese Graf, a senior landscape designer with MASS, who helped lead the project from Kigali, Rwanda.

Once predicted to be extinct by the year 2000, the mountain gorilla population now exceeds 1,000 animals. Approximately 600 of those live in the national park. As their numbers have grown, conflicts between gorillas and villagers have also increased, “which is dangerous both for them, from a zoonotic disease transmission point of view, but also for humans, in that there can be more physical conflicts between the two,” says Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a senior principal and managing director at MASS.

Illustration of plan of the Fossey Nursery
Plan courtesy MASS Design Group, TEN x TEN.

To expand the amount of protected habitat available to the gorillas, the park is being expanded by nearly 25 percent, with a buffer zone of about 25 square miles. Officials have yet to answer the question of how to reforest all that land, Bainbridge says, which is where the Fossey campus comes in. “Part of the goal [was to] test different methodologies of how that border will be expanded,” she says. “What [do] reforestation and rewilding look like? Is it a process that happens over time with some small inputs, or is it something you do full-scale?”

Paid for in part by a substantial gift from the Ellen DeGeneres Fund—the center’s official name is the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund—the 12-acre complex includes purpose-built space for research, education, and storytelling.

The site design derives in part from a desire to maintain and frame views of the park’s iconic volcanoes, says Rachel Salmela, an associate at TEN x TEN, which was brought on to help design the landscape. Another foundational concept was to re-create, to the extent possible, the ecosystems found throughout the national park, both for research purposes and to educate visitors about how gorillas live in the wild.

Photo of site with many plants in the early phases of growth.
An on-site nursery helped grow the native plants sourced from the Rwandan countryside. Photo courtesy MASS Design Group, TEN x TEN.

The team worked closely with Fossey’s researchers to develop the ideal plant list. But without a network of native plant suppliers, the team had to propagate the project’s 268,000 plants themselves. More than 100 species were collected from the Rwandan countryside, then grown in a nursery on-site.

Joe Christa Giraso, who oversaw construction as a site landscape architect for MASS, says the process taught the team which species could survive the transition from a mountain ecosystem to developed areas. That knowledge is now informing a series of on-site experimental reforestation plots, which will be studied to guide future rewilding efforts.

In the meantime, the landscape already has become the teaching space the landscape architects imagined. “Seeing kids going all over the campus and learning—I never had that kind of opportunity when I was young,” Giraso says. “Knowing that the work I’ve done is being used by so many kids, that is the rewarding part.”

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