By Mkala Mwaghesha
Ever wondered why all the new buildings in and around major urban centres look the same? Architects say it is because Kenya lacks architectural identity, something they attribute to clients’ obsession with things foreign.
Kenya is full of exciting, posh, exquisite and warm architecture for both residential and commercial purposes. But the architecture in most construction works that stand out can all be traced somewhere else — not Kenya.
At the Coast, architecture associated with Arabs is predominant. From Shimoni in the south to Kiunga in the north, houses are made in the Swahili way — with flat roofs, wooden curved doors and a clear separation of the sexes in the building. The architecture here was brought by Arab traders of earlier centuries whose arrival on the Kenyan coast can be traced as far back as 1st Century AD.
Residential flats in areas that had a huge European presence can be traced to the Western world. So are the commercial skyscrapers. So what design has the country come up with, or rather, is Kenya lacking in architectural identity?
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Experts seem to concur that the country lacks architectural identity and they cite several reasons for this.
“As a young nation, we have been in a transition from the traditional thatch-roofed and mud houses that our forefathers built yet many of us grew up into a modern and uniform identity. That is why we are borrowing from other cultures such as the Arab and Western world,” says Eric Kigada of B&A Studios, a private architectural firm.
According to Kigada, Kenya’s many communities and societies is one of the causes of lack of a common identity that would fasten an architectural identity.
“What I would build in Kisumu today would be different from what I would put up in Mombasa or Nyeri, because of the altitude, humidity conditions and even race. So we have to bear that in mind in our work,” he says.
Strong colonial influence
Francis Gichuhi of A4Architecture concurs, explaining that a strong colonial influence has helped perpetuate this lack of architectural identity.
“South Africa has an architecture based on the indigenous Boer and Dutch designs. The North is influenced by Islam designs while East Africa and some parts of West Africa are influenced by British and French designs,” he says.
For example, he points out, the slopes in the roofs are meant for areas prone to snow and the chimneys are meant for cold areas: “Those are just some of the designs we inherited and still have, which practically do not make sense in a warm area like the Kenyan Coast.”
Kenyans are known to be specific with residential houses. Interestingly, many houses look alike. Architects, in all the training and experience they have, are forced to work with people unwilling to experiment and experience innovations and fresher designs that can, in the long run, form an identity.
“All the current designs we do are the common residential houses that are somehow standard because we know they will be appropriate and people will buy,” Gichuhi says, adding: “Do anything out of the ordinary and people will instantly refuse the design. They want what they have seen and know.”
Architects have to eat, the reason why even the most innovative and futuristic ones ditch the passion for intricate and groundbreaking designs for the most common and feasible plans as demanded by clients.
But according to Musembi Mumo, the secretary of the Architectural Association of Kenya and the proprietor of Innovation 360, Kenya has a distinct architectural identity that a majority of Kenyans are not aware of.
“Look at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Bomas of Kenya and many other convention centres that were constructed with the country’s image in mind; they all resemble a hut. Though traditional, a hut is distinct as most of us in Kenya can relate it with what we have in our indigenous homes,” he says.
Mumo, however, despite his objections to the claims of a lack of a Kenyan architectural identity, acknowledges that there has been stagnation in innovativeness and architectural redesigning.
“Many Kenyans are not open to new ideas. Architects are trying hard to come up with fresh ideas but clients, who dictate terms, are reluctant about embracing them. Even if you come up with an interior masterpiece that resembles a hut on the outside, the client will think about the outside appearance and not what is inside,” he says.
He explains that considerations like how the different sexes and relations should sleep, how relations relate and the need to privacy has made innovative designs a hard sell.
“In most African traditions, the man of the house and the mother-in-law cannot sleep in adjacent rooms. As an architect, you have to put that in mind lest you spend resources coming up with designs that will never see the light of day,” he notes.
Clients are the main reason why the country has remained ‘colonised’ in regards to architectural identity, architects argue. 50 years after independence, the probability of an entire neighbourhood having the same design of a modern house with difference in specification is much higher than it was in the 1960s.
With small changes only coming in the differences in the size and other small utilities, most bear the same design, with others known to tell architects to ‘make me a house like my neighbours’.
“Kenyans are still suffering from a state of mental colonisation. Many Kenyans think the existing houses are ‘cool’ and resist any attempts to convince them otherwise,” says Gichuhi, noting that older generations, especially those above 50, are the most rigid on existing designs.
“People between 30 and 50 years of age are split between accommodating fresh ideas and having the current designs. The young people are the best bet of a generation that will redefine the architectural plan for the country,” he adds.
Kigada concurs, adding that self-realisation, especially with efforts like the GoDown Centre’s Nai Ni Who, a project aimed at identifying the people of Nairobi and what they represent, will lead to the development and adoption of an identity.
“Once we know who we are in terms of culture and identity, we will have distinct designs,” he adds.
The architects Home and Away spoke to concur that they have more freedom to experiment and be innovative when coming up with commercial buildings than when working on residential construction projects.
They say commercial projects clients go for the basics: use of space, availability of utilities and more units are replicated in all commercial buildings. Unlike residential houses, commercial buildings are more distinct, depending on the client and the need by owners to create an impression by having a landmark.
“It is easier to come up with commercial building as clients are flexible and due to the fact that offices have different type of users,” says Kigada.
With only a number of buildings that can be classified as Kenyan in existence, the country has a long way to go in creating a distinct identity.
With customers calling the shots and architects forced to survive amidst the lack of innovations, experts are giving Kenya another 50 years to start seeing a change in the architectural mindset.