Kenyan architecture in search of an identity to call its own


NAIROBI, KENYA: A week ago, architects in Kenya marked their 50th anniversary since the inception of their umbrella body, the Architectural Association of Kenya. 

The anniversary, was a moment of soul searching, coming at a time when the built environment has been beset by a myriad of problems and a crisis of identity.

“Apart from Nanyuki, which looks like it has some well-designed architecture in an attempt to creating its own architectural identity, 50 years on, we have no city or town which can be identified from its own unique architecture, more importantly, identifying with our own Kenyan culture,” says Emma Miloyo, the president the Architectural Association of Kenya.

Much has been said about building designs locally, with many decrying a ‘copy and paste’ culture where local structures ape from other regions without reflecting the reality on the ground.

Sustainable building advocates have, for instance, pointed to the use of glass facades as a style uniquely unsuitable to a tropical climate as they create a ‘greenhouse effect’ in these buildings.

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

Ironically, such new trends perform dismally when placed against traditional African building practices like those that went into the design and construction of the mud hut that is, unfortunately, being phased out fast even in rural areas.

But is it a question of perceptions and misguided understanding of progress?

In a previous interview with Home & Away, celebrated Burkina Faso architect Francis Kere said people were skeptical about his designs: “People thought I was crazy. They wondered, ‘How could I go to Europe to study architecture only to come back and tell them to build using mud?’ They wanted glass and stone buildings but I was taking them back to the primitive age.”

Kere uses materials like mud, baked bricks and wood extensively in his designs. Back home, the recent past has seen the construction of decidedly iconic buildings.

Yet even in these top infrastructural projects, there is little in the way of inspiring a local architectural identity. Most are dominated by the Western and Asian designs that reflect little of Kenyan culture.

According to Miloyo, it is sad that among the most outstanding projects in Kenya, only a few reflect a little bit of our Kenya Heritage. These iconic structures include the Boma Hotel, which has a circular design derived from the African round hut that dominated the African building culture.

“Kenya has never had a specific identity in architecture as it is in other parts of the world. What we have largely identified with is the old aged Swahili architectural designs in the coastal towns which do not reflect our multi-cultural Kenya and are devoid of our own Kenya bearing in mind the Swahili culture is spread all over the Eastern Africa coast,” Miloyo says.

Other outstanding buildings are the Kenya International Convention Centre and the Don Bosco church in Nairobi’s Upperhill. KICC, which was a result of a presidential directive and was designed by architects David Mutiso and a Norwegian Karl Henrik Nostvik, has a domineering amphitheater, which reflects African artistry.

It remains the country’s most recognisable icon to date.

“All what we have is buildings with architectural designs that are borrowed from the diverse African culture but no one structure that we can has stood perfectly to represent us like the KICC, Boma hotel and Don Bosco,” Miloyo says.

An Aerial view of Don Bosco Catholic Church at Upper Hill, Nairobi. PHOTO:WILBERFORCE OKWIRI

George Arabbu, a registrar architect and director of an architectural firm, the Site Scape Studios says that what we see in most of our designs is not Kenyan in any way.

To bring out the real Kenyan identity into mega projects like Konza techno city which is an upcoming development of even a bigger magnitude than the SGR, indigenous architect should be brought on board to help in coming up with what looks like Kenya.

“Most of the big infrastructural development would be a big representative of what Kenya is. However, it is unfortunate that many are a copy and paste of cities like Dubai which in no way represents our Kenyan identity,” Arabbu says.

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

“We should not miss opportunities for cities like Konza which will give the Kenyan imagery in future,” Arabbu says.

“If we happen to come up with even a single Kenyan city that identifies with our diverse culture, it will be easy for somebody somewhere in Europe with a privilege to have visited the city identify it with Kenya and not mistake it with Dubai city,” Arabbu says.

He says that architectural identity comes with colour, architectural character in shapes sizes of buildings, which is all a product of proper background planning.

And while some argue that Kenyan architects lost an opportunity to present to the world a purely Kenyan product made for Kenyans - this is the Standard Gauge Railway, more specifically, the stations that dot the line - the architects reponsible beg to disagree.

The Nairobi SGR terminus gives the feeling of a modern airport, but architects argue most SGR stations borrow heavily from local cultures (PHOTO: FILE)

Jerry Ndong’ of Edon Consultants International Limited, an architectural company part of the  brains who played key role in designing the stations says that it is hard for many to notice the Kenyan themes in the SGR’s architectural designs since the inside is dominated by the contemporary architecture which is universal, and this is what many see.

However, he argues, there is a lot of Kenya in the design of the project. “The function is the most important aspect in architecture. In the SGR, when we made our input to the Chinese, we ensured the stations theme was Kenyan in all manner covering all the stations,” Ndong’ says.

According to Ndong’, If one has had an opportunity to travel with the SGR to get a glimpse of its stations, they will see local influence on the project.

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

The Miasenyi station on the other hand has taken the shape of the Zebra and Mtito Andei stations is a clear show of the meticulous Mount Kenya.

“The modern feeling will never miss in our architectural designs since the contemporary architecture determines the design. I mean a dining room will always be a dining room as well as the kitchen. Above all, if you check through the Mombasa station you will see it has taken a concept of a tall lighthouse with enough lighting in it, which is a classic example of what modernist architecture is today,” Ndong’ says.