Kenyan architecture in search of an identity of its own

Shella in Lamu County. (PHOTO: WILBERFORCE OKWIRI)

NAIROBI, KENYA: A week ago, the architects of Kenya celebrated their 50th anniversary since the establishment of their coordinating body, the Architectural Association of Kenya.

The anniversary was a time of soul-searching, coming at a time when the built environment was beset by a myriad of issues and an identity crisis.

“Apart from Nanyuki, which appears to have well-designed architecture with the aim of creating its own architectural identity, 50 years later we have no city that can be identified from its own unique architecture, more importantly, in identifying with our own Kenyan culture, ”says Emma Miloyo, President of the Architectural Association of Kenya.

Much has been said about building design at the local level, with many denouncing a ‘cut and paste’ culture where local structures mimic other regions without reflecting the reality on the ground.

Defenders of sustainable construction have, for example, pointed out the use of glass facades as a style particularly unsuitable for a tropical climate because they create a “greenhouse effect” in these buildings.

It also results in a cascading effect with residents requiring mechanical interventions to make their space habitable.

Ironically, these new trends work miserably when opposed to traditional African building practices like those that were used in the design and construction of the mud hut which, sadly, is quickly disappearing even in areas rural.

But is it a matter of perceptions and misunderstanding of progress?

In a previous interview with Home & Away, famous Burkinabe architect Francis Kere said people were skeptical of his designs: “People thought I was crazy. They wondered, “How could I go to Europe to study architecture and come back and tell them to build with mud?” They wanted glass and stone buildings, but I was taking them back to the early ages.

Kere makes extensive use of materials such as mud, fired bricks, and wood in his designs. Back home, the recent past has seen the construction of decidedly iconic buildings.

Yet even in these top-notch infrastructure projects, there are few ways to inspire a local architectural identity. Most are dominated by Western and Asian conceptions which hardly reflect Kenyan culture.

According to Miloyo, it is sad that among Kenya’s most remarkable projects, only a few reflect our Kenyan heritage a bit. These iconic structures include the Boma Hotel, which has a circular design derived from the African round hut that dominated African building culture.

“Kenya has never had a specific architectural identity like it does in other parts of the world. What we have largely identified with are the old Swahili architectural designs of the coastal towns that do not reflect our multicultural Kenya and are devoid of our own Kenya, knowing that Swahili culture is prevalent all over Africa’s coast from the east, ”Miloyo said.

Other notable buildings are the Kenya International Convention Center and Don Bosco Church at Upperhill in Nairobi. The KICC, which resulted from a presidential directive and was designed by architects David Mutiso and Norwegian Karl Henrik Nostvik, has a towering amphitheater, which reflects African art.

He remains the country’s most recognizable icon to this day.

“All we have are buildings with architectural designs borrowed from the diversity of African culture, but no structure that we can have perfectly resisted to represent us like the KICC, the Boma Hotel and Don Bosco” , explains Miloyo.

An aerial view of the Don Bosco Catholic Church in Upper Hill, Nairobi. PHOTO: WILBERFORCE OKWIRI

George Arabbu, Registrar Architect and Director of an architectural firm, Site Scape Studios, says what we see in most of our designs is by no means Kenyan.

To bring out the true Kenyan identity in megaprojects like the techno city of Konza, which is an upcoming development on an even greater scale than the SGR, an indigenous architect should be invited to participate in the creation of what looks like the Kenya.

“Most of the major infrastructure developments would be a big representative of what Kenya is. However, it is unfortunate that many are a cut and paste of cities like Dubai, which in no way represents our Kenyan identity, ”Arabbu said.

He says cities like Konza should be built with public participation where available designs are presented to Kenyans in random spheres, like online platforms, where they can vote for the best. Then later upgrades are made to selected cities based on what Kenyans have said to come up with modern cities that look Kenyan.

“We should not miss the opportunities for cities like Konza which will give the image of Kenya in the future,” Arabbu said.

“If we happen to find a single Kenyan city that identifies with our diverse culture, it will be easy for someone somewhere in Europe with the privilege of having visited the city to identify it with Kenya and do not confuse it with the city of Dubai, ”says Arabbu.

He says architectural identity comes with color, architectural character in the shapes and size of buildings, all of which are the product of proper substantive planning.

And while some argue that the Kenyan architects lost an opportunity to present to the world a purely Kenyan product designed for Kenyans – this is the standard gauge railway, more specifically, the stations that dot the line – the architects officials do not agree.

Nairobi’s SGR terminus gives the impression of a modern airport, but architects argue that most SGR stations draw heavily on local cultures (PHOTO: FILE)

Jerry Ndong ‘of Edon Consultants International Limited, a mastermind architectural firm that played a key role in the design of the resorts, says it is difficult for many to notice the Kenyan themes in the architectural designs of the SGR since the interior is dominated by contemporary architecture which is universal, and that’s what many see.

However, he argues, there is a lot of Kenya in the design of the project. “Function is the most important aspect of architecture. In the RMS, when we made our contribution to the Chinese, we made sure that the theme of the stations was Kenyan in all ways covering all the stations, ”Ndong said.

According to Ndong ‘, if we had the opportunity to travel with SGR to get an overview of its stations, we will see the local influence on the project.

He says that closer examination will show that Mariakani station is a model of palm trees, Emali station has a Maasai Manyatta theme, and Kibwezi station borrows from the leaves of the plant to signify that its shelter capacity is sufficient for all of us. .

Miasenyi station, meanwhile, took the form of Zebra and Mtito Andei stations, clearly showing the meticulous Mount Kenya.

Modern feeling will never be lacking in our architectural designs since contemporary architecture determines the design. I mean that a dining room will always be a dining room as well as the kitchen. Especially, if you look at Mombasa station, you will see that it has adopted the concept of a large lighthouse with sufficient lighting, which is a classic example of what modernist architecture is today ” , explains Ndong ‘.

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