East Coast Connections: Merida to Mombasa

13 Jun 2005 - Blog

By Yasmin Shariff on 13th June 2005 Merida, Yucatan

Propelled by monsoon winds and sea currents there are ancient connection between the Americas, S E Asia and Africa which have transformed the ecology of these continents. Director, Yasmin Shariff explores these east coast connections and how they continue to have an impact on the lives of people, their architecture and ecology.

The most striking and obvious visual connections are the trees that line major roads. Jaracandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia, native to Brazil) line the capital cities of Mexico City (altitude 2,240m) and Nairobi (altitude 1,700m) and Flamboyants (Delonix regia, native to Madagascar) dominate the streets of the coastal towns of Merida and Mombasa. Food ingredients are another obvious area of exchange- maize, avocados, tomatoes, beans, chillies and most of the spices from coriander to vanilla and cloves are common in the Americas and East Africa mainly due to the early Portuguese influence.

Plants, People and Places

The connections between the east coasts of Mexico and East Africa are immediately apparent in the restaurants and trees that line the streets of the main towns and cities in both regions. Jaracandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia, native to Brazil) line the capital cities of Mexico City (altitude 2,240m) and Nairobi (altitude 1,700m) and Flamboyants (Delonix regia, native to

Madagascar) dominate the streets of the coastal towns of Merida and Mombasa. Maize, avocados, tomatoes, beans, chillies and most of the spices from coriander to vanilla and cloves are common to both areas mainly due to the early Portuguese influence.

Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope on his way to India in 1497 and the Portuguese lay claim to all the territories discovered by their explorers. Portuguese control gave way to the British and German powers after the mid-18th century. South American influence continued to play a major part in the East African economy particularly in the early part of the 20th century with the introduction of sisal. Towns like Tanga in Tanganyika were booming with wealthy sisal barons and the surrounding landscape dominated by spikes of sisal plants in regimented rows as far as the eye could see – identical to the sisal haciendas of 19th century Yucatan.

The sources and influence of food and trees are easier to trace than sources and influences on the built environment, however, there is no denying their similarity. It is like looking at close members of a family and the purpose of this lecture is to encourage research to find out more about the connections. The influences are perhaps best illustrated in Nairobi the former capital of British East Africa and later the capital of Kenya.

Architecturally Nairobi was never a backwater.  Internationally famed architects and planners such as Herbert Baker, Ernst May, Thornton White, Thornley Dyer and Amyas Connell set high standards of design.  Most architects were trained in Europe and returned on a regular basis.  They brought back ‘the latest architectural ideas’.  Fuelled with the ideals expressed at the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibition and the tropical vocabulary of climatic design similar to that developed by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, architects in Nairobi have created exemplary examples of modern architecture and 20th century urban planning.

Rulers, Railway and Regulations

The city Thornton White was charged with after the 2nd World War was essentially a railway town which grew out of a depot established in 1896 for the Uganda Railway. The railway line ran from the Kenyan port of Mombasa through the arid landscape of Kenya with its deep Rift Valley and Highlands to the land with the source of the Nile, Uganda.   In its embryonic stage the municipality was a staging post at the frontier- dominated by traders and inn keepers supplying goods or services to the increasing numbers of settlers and government officials en route to their newly acquired estates or administrative posts in the British Colony.   Settlers had to come to Nairobi to get their land allocation from the Land Office.

The Railway was under a separate administration to the civil government, reporting directly to the Foreign Office.  The British Government issued a directive that the Railway could be built over any land irrespective of ownership or occupation within a mile wide strip.  In 1898 Nairobi had been chosen as the future Railway headquarters because of the abundance of water and the flat gradient of the land.  The following year the Provincial Administration moved its headquarters from Machakos to Nairobi.  The railway town evolved with two nuclei: one around the railway and the other around the civil administration.

The influx of traders and settlers placed a great strain on resources and the duality of control caused many problems which were resolved by the creation of a third body – the Nairobi Township Committee.  The creation of the Nairobi Township Committee (with representatives from the Railway, Civil Government and Indian traders) and the publication of municipal regulations in 1900 marked the true beginnings of the municipality with jurisdiction over an area 3 miles in diameter.


The grid iron planning of the Railway authorities formed the beginnings of the town plan.  Buildings evolved from tents to corrugated iron shacks which later had classical stone facades added.  The declaration of Nairobi as the official capital of British East Africa in 1907 and the appointment of the Legislative Council secured Nairobi’s significance and permanent structures started to replace temporary shacks. The principal commercial roads- Government

Road (now Moi Avenue) linking the Railway Station to the Norfolk Hotel and Bazaar Street – the principal Indian trading area retain most of the neo classic, two story, stone and corrugated iron shops and offices dating back to the first two decades of the 20th Century (even the Imperial British East Africa Building survives).

The dual centres of power were architecturally expressed by the grand classic architecture of the Law Courts and the Railway Headquarters (both designed by Herbert Baker).  The wealth and power of the municipal authority was also well represented in the City Hall building, another classical essay in stone (by Sir Thomas Bennett).  At a time when most were erecting one or two-story corrugated iron shacks these stone edifices must have been imposing structures. Other major classical stone buildings included banks and the Khoja mosque.

The World Wars stimulated growth in Nairobi as it was used as a base for communications and supplies. Under Thornton White the Master Plan was drawn up for the City soon after the 2nd World War and it received its Charter of incorporation as a capital city on 30 March 1950, exactly half a century after the creation of the Nairobi Town Committee.


With the increase of anti-Semitism in Europe, the depression and the limited opportunities in War torn Europe many talented architects and planners sought their fortunes in the Colonies. In Nairobi, these architects and planners aspired to build a modern city not to continue the heavy classical forms of the prewar era.  European concepts of modernism were developed to suit local conditions.  Buildings like Kenwood House by Norman Blackburne are exemplary examples of this type of modern tropical architecture.

Ingenious methods of dealing with tropical climatic conditions were developed.  Sun shading devices, through ventilation and external finishes able to take the red dust ridden atmosphere were some of their prime concerns. Landscaping was an integral part of the design. Almost every street in Nairobi is landscaped and the City Plan has generous green belts, parks and gardens. Nairobi was blessed with its own Burle Marx- Peter Greensmith5, a naval officer turned landscape designer.  His skills turned the major highway from the airport to the Western suburbs into a tropical paradise. His own garden (on the grounds of his Langata house) is a masterpiece of modern landscape garden design.


With independence in 1963 and the demise of a racially segregated City many of the City centre plots became available to Indian traders.  Their aspirations to have modern European premises promoted modernism in Nairobi.  Architects/practices such as Ernst May, Amyas Connell, Idris Davies, Norburn Blackburne, Hughes & Polkinghorne, Cob Archer & Scammell, Mutiso Menezes, Dalglesh Marshall, Richard Hughes and Karl Nostvic produced an impressive number of modern buildings to exacting standards.  It could be argued that there are so many good examples of modern architecture in Nairobi that it has devalued their status and that is they are very much taken for granted.  The Parliament Complex6 and the University Campus provide some of the best examples of Nairobi’s modern architecture.

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)/ Internationalism/Out of Africa

The construction of the Kenyatta Conference Centre (designed by Norwegian architect, Karl Nostvic), the establishment of UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, and the release of the Hollywood feature film, Out of Africa secured Nairobi’s position on the World map.  Growing instability in surrounding African countries, the threat of socialism and instability in the Middle East made Nairobi strategically significant to Britain and her Western and American allies.  There are offices of the World Bank and most international aid agencies in Nairobi.  Vast amounts of international aid was given to the Kenyan Government- countries vied with each other for the privilege of being able to give aid and secure Kenya as a base for their ‘sphere of influence’.  Architecturally the impact of these international agencies and corporations has been phenomenal.

UNEP initially occupied the Kenyatta Conference Centre tower and then moved to a campus designed by Mutiso Menezes incorporating passive energy concepts and extensive landscaped areas.  This sensitivity to the climate and landscape is unusual for an international agency – in fact it probably was an aberration as the later extensions of UNEP are as their nickname implies ‘cow sheds’.  The requirements of most international agencies is for air conditioned glass towers.  The demand on resources of these types of buildings has put a great strain on existing services.  With most major investment being made by foreign companies the emphasis is on short term returns and not long-term investment.  The power of the City Council has diminished, and it lacks both credit and credibility.  The emphasis is on making a fast buck and no one gets rewarded for maintaining green belts or hampering developers especially those with foreign exchange.

Shared Future

Nairobi, 20th Century City, is straining with the pressures on land and resources.  The original garden city design has been strong enough to keep it a joy to inhabit but it is rapidly falling apart at the seams.  Traffic congestion, encroachment on green belts, an unreliable water and power supply are evident signs of decay.  Expatriates and wealthy traders can afford to install generators and buy water but at the base of Tiny Rowland’s glass Lonroh Tower children on the street pick over the putrid rubbish pile once again for scraps to fill their rumbling swollen bellies.  The only architecture they can hope for is a few cardboard boxes.  It is generally accepted that the urban slums are part of the problems of developing countries but there are parallels in the Western World. Sewage strewn rivers and beaches, traffic congestion and pollution are problems which have to be addressed by most 20th Century Cities not just those in the developing world.

Instead of mimicking the wasteful technologies developed in the North East African and South American could benefit greatly by sharing their expertise to make better use of their resources and build a better future for their communities. Building boards from sisal could revive the sisal industry and provide economic housing. Energy efficient design could substantially reduce energy and running costs. Modern day technology gives us the opportunity to communicate over these long distances more economically than ever before in history. This opens many opportunities for collaboration which could bring many rich rewards of cross cultural fertilization.

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