Where we lost the plot in architecture

Last week we looked at some of the greenest buildings in the country, today we take a look at a different aspect. Experts put the 1960s to mid-1980s as the golden years of local architecture, then everything changed post 1985. Today, the industry is putting up structures that contribute more to global warming, writes AUSTINE OKANDE

With its unique skyline, Nairobi stands out as a magnificent “concrete beauty” in the region. A city cluttered with glass architectural imprints, which experts say are unsuitable for the local climate.

Local architects are being accused of drawing building designs that have little or no consideration of the climate, in an era of environmentally friendly architecture.

Musau Kimeu, Chairman of the Environmental Design Consultants Chapter of the Architectural Association of Kenya, says “on our architects’ drawing boards are fresh sketches and proposals of buildings that have little or no respect at all for human thermal comfort of the user”.

In an article titled, Green Building Design Strategies in Tropical Climate, published recently in The Architect magazine, Musau writes that today’s architect is busy thinking about the external appearance of his new building, and is least concerned that his sketches will evolve into the next energy intensive building town.


Maurice Akech, the General Manager of Research, Business Development and Capacity Building at the National Construction Authority, says factors in building designs such as aesthetics are increasingly being given a more significant consideration than some other traditional factors like the physical environment. As a result, he says, there are now many buildings that are utilising curtain walling (glass) and thus not resonating well with the local tropical climate.

“There has been an increase in recent times of the number of buildings coming up without proper consideration for energy efficiency and this, too, has an impact on the overall lifecycle cost of a building when it comes to maintenance,” says Akech. He notes that building designs are informed by varied factors such as the environment, availability of materials, cost, aesthetics and soil conditions.

“Designers should endeavour to attain green structures because global warming and climatic changes have become major concerns,” says Akech.

Statistics indicate that buildings today account for over 50 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions globally, making them the main contributor to global warming.

Modern buildings are increasingly using glass on their façade, a practice that was unpopular during the building boom of the 1925.

Experts argue that buildings erected then were built with great keenness and consideration of the surrounding climatic conditions.

Some of best-designed buildings in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu were erected between 1960 and mid 1980s.

“If you examine Nairobi today, you will not fail to notice that the city’s best buildings were put up between 1960 and mid-1980 and since 1985 to date, we are witnessing buildings that are not suitable for Nairobi at all coming up one after another,” says Musau.

Janfrans van der Eerden, an architect, on the other hand, says that the current architectural designs in most parts of the country are largely inspired by imported styles.

Imported styles

“Buildings and structures from the 20th Century are disappearing,” van der Eerden observes. “Contemporary buildings, town planning and architecture are widely inspired by the collection of then imported styles and fashions of the period, rather than the traditional styles and architecture from Kenya. To understand our world in Kenya today, you need to see the connecting factor. And that factor is now rapidly vanishing.”

Van der Eerden notes that every style used worldwide since 1800 can be found in Kenya. He describes the architectural transformation in Kenya thus: “First, there was the conservative rural and romantic style by the pioneers, then an anachronism of a classical style, connected to authority, wealth and arrogance. There after, the art deco and modernism.”

Aref Adamali, another architect, on the other hand, argues that no city’s architectural landscape is ever static — it changes as a city grows.

“This is a good thing. 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 shape the structure of the city, they also reshape its identity.”

The neo-classical buildings of the 1920s and 1930s include the AG Chambers, Parliament Buildings as originally designed, Office of the President, BP Shell House (present day office of the Deputy President), Reinsurance Plaza, Electricity House, IPS Building, ICEA Building, University of Nairobi’s Great Court Buildings (Hyslop Building, Education Building and Gandhi Wing).

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