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What buildings say about us

By Peter Theuri | September 24th 2020 at 08:00:00 GMT +0300

Kenyatta International Convention Centre building in Nairobi. The architect said it was inspired by a donkey’s phallus, sending Kenyans into a new wave of excited debating.

Buildings talk, says architect Moses Okemwa.

They talk about the society’s culture - which can be seen in how spaces are programmed to accommodate traditional beliefs, and privacy requirements.

They talk about the social values, how common spaces are organised to achieve human interactions or to prevent these interactions.

“For example, very high boundary walls and heavily grilled windows portray insecurity in a given locality,” says Mr Okemwa.

Buildings talk about technological advancements - tall buildings, complex building forms and advanced construction techniques.

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They talk about the economic status of the society, seen in proliferation of high-rise buildings, use of high-end materials, fittings, machinery and other building equipment.

An example of how loud buildings can talk is seen in the debate that came about in 2019 about the design of Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC).

Nairobi’s most famed edifice and arguably the city’s most outstanding landmark, KICC was built in the early 1970s.

Architects David Mutiso, the first African member of the Architectural Association of Kenya, and Karl Henrik Nøstvik are credited with the design that has been discussed for eons, with some saying it symbolises a hut.

But Mr Mutiso, in an interview a year ago, said the architecture was inspired by a donkey’s phallus, sending Kenyans into a new wave of excited debating.

“The president (Jomo Kenyatta) wanted something personal so he required us to get instructions directly from him,” he said.

“We started sketching a simple four storey building, but over time the president kept revising his vision of the eventual building and wanted something higher and higher.”

But what did a donkey’s phallus symbolise?

In neoclassic architecture, phallic tombstones, obelisks, buildings and other monuments represented male sexuality, which was a fascinating obsession.

Phallic architecture metaphorically symbolised “force, male fertility, and masculine violence”.

Other iconic buildings have come up to grace Nairobi skylines.

Throughout the night, a massive red eye blinks atop Britam Towers, East and Central Africa’s tallest building, almost as if it is watching over the sleepless city.

During the day, standing at an impressive 210 metres in Upper Hill business district, the building brings out the appeal and majesty of the city in an unprecedented way.

And although it is over 600 metres shorter than The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Dubai, Britam Towers has set the pace for the city - and has been feted for it.

In 2017, Emporis, a firm that awards skyscrapers for “excellence in both aesthetic and functional design” globally, ranked Britam Towers 10th on their list for the year.

Britam Towers became the first skyscraper from Africa to get the nod in the 20 years the award has been running.

The 31-floor building showed Kenya is taking the continental lead in architectural creativity and proficiency. It was designed by GAPP Architects and Urbanists and drawn by Triad Architects.

Its construction began in 2013 and four years later, it was opening doors to the public.

In recognising the building, Emporis noted that Britam Towers “features a unique prismatic shape”. It also pointed out building’s turbines on the roof that generate power - contributing to the tower’s sustainability features.

The nearby 163-metre tall UAP Old Mutual Towers, whose construction was completed in 2016, had earlier taken the mantle of the region’s tallest building.

Kenya is morphing into a representation of architectural prowess at its best, at least in the region.

A look into the algorithms used to rank the buildings tells that architects have to be on the very top of their game to stand a chance of claiming such an accolade.

Okemwa says although the client has a significant say in the building’s appearance, the ultimate look is the responsibility of the architect.

After all, it is not uncommon to see people eager to know who designed a building, with the client not a primary point of interest.

“The design ideas can purely come from the architect but for the building product to be deemed ‘successful’, there has to be a balance between the ideas of the architect, those of the client and in some cases the user,” Okemwa told Home & Away.

“At inception, the architect needs to do more listening than talking so as to fully understand what the client has in his or her mind. Then the designer can fully capture the intentions of their client in form of drawings.” 

According to the architect who, at the time of working with Arprim consultants, designed the CBK Pension House in the heart of the city, the ideas of the buildings’ users also determine the space of creativity an architect is allowed.

And the architect takes the wheel in the instance where the client is clueless about possible designs.

“Where the client is not certain in any aspect of the design, then the architect can present a number of options in form of sketches or images so as to ease the process of decision-making,” Okemwa said.

“In short, design can be said to be a decision-making process between the designer, the client and the users.”

According to I M Pei, a legendary architect famed for his creations in decades of architectural excellence, mostly seen in The Louvre’s glass pyramid which he designed, architecture is the very mirror of life.

“You only have to cast your eyes on buildings to feel the presence of the past, the spirit of a place; they are the reflection of society,” remarked the Chinese-born superstar architect.

Mr Pei designed the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, also a masterpiece, and in paying tribute to him when he died aged 102 in 2019, The New York Times described him as “one of the few architects who were equally attractive to real estate developers, corporate chieftains and art museum boards.”

To be an architect that will manage to draw plans for a diverse clientele and satisfy their desires is a taxing job, but one that distinguishes the very best from those not quite so.

Okemwa says that buildings ultimately communicate the ways of the people living in an area, and could determine who settles where.

While an architect broods over the pros and cons of a plan, they have to advise the clients accordingly because not every imagination can be converted into a reality.

An architect has to always look beyond just meeting the client’s need for functional and appealing buildings but also seek to give a solution that is cheaper to run and maintain.

“The architectural solution should strive to minimise the number of resources consumed in the building’s construction, use and operation. This can be achieved by approaches such as use of locally available materials, local labour, solar power for lighting and water heating and designing for natural cross-ventilation instead of mechanical ventilation systems,” says Okemwa.  

“Another key point to consider is the constructability or ‘buildability’ of the proposed building. Some building forms may be too complex for the local labour force or may require complex construction equipment or specialised engineering solutions, which could end up making the architectural solution too expensive to realise.”

While the architect is thus bound to pay close attention to, and align the design with, the client’s needs, there are factors that ultimately consider how the building will eventually look.

First is the geographical context, such as the site terrain, the vegetation, the soil type and also the local climatic conditions such as solar radiation, temperatures, humidity, wind, and precipitation.

“The architect has to also consider cultural values, technological advancements and religious beliefs of a given society,” says Okemwa.

“The client’s requirements (both functional and aesthetic) have to be weighed against the budget as well.”

In addition to these, local planning regulations which give constraints as to building heights, ground coverage, overall or total built-areas and the standards of the materials to be used, have to be taken into consideration.

But after all is said and done, a lot of what is presented in the final product depends on just how good the architect is.

The architect’s level of imagination and creativity in addressing the aforementioned factors, balancing to remain within the set regulations while crafting an edifice that will be a marvel, is the difference between an attractive building and one not quite appealing.  

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KICC Real Estate Housing Architecture Britam Towers Iconic buildings AAK
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