A section of Nairobi skyline                                    PHOTO: Standard

BY AUSTINE OKANDE

The term identity crisis has always been reserved for snide comments about wayward teenagers, but Nairobi is not a teenager, at over 100 years, many would expect the capital to have established its identity, but has it?

Last year, the Godown Arts Centre embarked on a project themed around the concept of Nairobi’s identity christened Conversations About Nairobi. This year the Nai Ni Who project came about, again championed by the Godown Arts Centre.

While these forums are more about identifying what makes Nairobi tick, the conversations of identity of lack thereof, are unavoidable, and experts say Nairobi has a rhythm to it. From the magnificent quasi-European architectural designs of the imposing Railways headquarters, Kipande House on Kenyatta Avenue, to the modernism of the defining silhouette of Kenyatta International Convention Centre and Co-operative House among others. The unique art decor in modern and ancient buildings in Nairobi have accorded the city with a distinctive skyline.

According Aref Adamali an architect and architectural heritage advisory committee member: “Nairobi’s unique contemporary architecture and aesthetics borrows a lot from the architectural designs in the colonial period.”

He describes the city’s contemporary architecture as one that exudes lightness, buoyancy with buildings exhibiting high quality construction designs that has incorporated modern technology, environmentally friendly architectural designs that are a representative of the British colonial masters’ regime.

Through a historical and architectural journey of Nairobi, from its dawn, when railway workers set up a supply depot in ‘Nyrobi’ as it was formerly called, to the present day Adamali posits: “The city plan has a strong European influence and so are its iconic buildings, which came into existence as a direct result of the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway.”

However, the importation of skilled labourers from India did not only pave way to construction of the country’s inaugural railway line, but also sparked the incursion of Asian architectural designs in the city.

The Asian architectural designs according to city’s architect, are still manifested in areas around Parklands, Ngara and streets along River Road; areas which were inhabited by Asian settlers in the post-colonial period.

Asians’ Eastern CBD

The eastern Central Business District (CBD) holds gems of Eastern architecture designs, glaring in the array of shops, building along Ronald Ngala Street formerly Duke Street, and the Asian Bazaar situated between the present Tom Mboya Street and River Road. In these areas, buildings have an underlying identity; they display Indian style balconies and intricately curved designs on doors, windows that serve as both commerce and housing estate.

According to Adamali, Asians architectural designs by the Indian business community was a clear manifestation of their desire to break away from an English tradition and assert their identity. 

Northern end

“The architectural language in this area is oriental in design, detail and general ambience, complete stubbed with gem oriental: Arabian-design mosques and a variety of Hindu temples,” posits Lydia Muthama in her book Nairobi In Pictures Political Icons 1899-2000.

This area hosts the oldest surviving mosque in the city, the Khoja Mosque built in 1920, which is prominent in its antiquity. Jamia Mosque, which is a splendour of Islamic art, believed to have been built (1924-1933) is situated in the same locale.

Colonial architecture

Buildings like the Supreme Court, Town Hall, McMillan Memorial Library, Nairobi Gallery and the Railway Station headquarters and other buildings constructed in the colonial period, are also referred to as ‘colonial architecture’.

Muthama in her book argues: “British harnessed architecture to politics in their imperial expansion. They used a specific style in public buildings — a style, which we could call colonial architecture to proclaim imperial rule.”

The book goes on to say: “The public buildings in Nairobi-Government House, Railway Headquarters, City Hall and the High Court (now Supreme Court) are rectilinear and of post-beam-pediment construction and with the exception of City Hall all have six columns on their front facades.”

These buildings also had a unique characteristic of roman arch doorway and windows.  “British rule was made physically tangible by scattering classical architecture over the CBD,” says Janfrans Van Der Eerden, an architect.

The modern face

The Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) stands in glaring contrast to classical colonial architecture. As opposed to buildings in the 1960s, in 1974, KICC which doubles as a cultural and political statement, paved way to the modern tall buildings in the city.

The 26-storey office tower with no fitted air conditioning system uses natural air flowing from the ‘fins’ to subsidise on the latter.

Other buildings include Lonrho Africa situated on Standard Street, constructed in 1986 and consisting of 20 storeys with offices, shops and three floors of car parks.

I&M Bank Tower, on the other hand, is   82 metres high to the roof and 99metres to the antenna, and currently listed as the fifth tallest building in Nairobi.

It is constructed in a dynamic shape to allow easy flow of wind, reduce turbulence and wind noise. It was  built using a blue, heat-reflective glass cladding system.

Upper Hill is also known for its modern structures the likes of Geminia Insurance Plaza constructed in 2008. The Coca Cola building, also found here, is known for its advances in environmentally friendly features, such as rainwater harvesting system, solar heating, power conservation gadgets and a green roof garden, which doubles as means to minimise the heat gain from the roof and a recreational space.

On whether Nairobi is losing its architectural identity, Adamali says: “No city’s architectural landscape is ever static — it changes as a city grows. As citizens, we enjoy the products of new design thinking and construction technologies that can contribute to the dynamism of a city as it develops. As new buildings contribute to the structure of the city, they also reshape its identity.”

“Contemporary buildings, city’s planning and architecture are widely inspired by the collection of then imported styles and fashions of the colonial period,” adds Janfrans Van Der Eerden.

He traces Kenya architectural growth: “The initial architectural design in the country was a conservative rural and romantic style by the pioneers, then an anachronism of a classical style, connected to authority and wealth.  Then later, the art deco was introduced as elsewhere in the world.”

He adds: “The style called modernism is stronger in Africa than in Europe or America, and represented a new era and independence.”

“The growing population within the city has also spurred demands for storey apartments, thus seen the reduction of public space such as playing grounds, pavements, lanes, market places, parks and gardens,” says Eerden.

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