Modern Movement Houses in the Colonial Capital City of Nairobi

23 Sep 2021 - Blog

Architecturally, Nairobi was never a backwater. Modern architecture in Nairobi developed in the context of the tropical climate design vocabulary of Otto Königsberger (1908-1999), Maxwel Fry (1899-1987) and Jane Drew (1911-1996), within a racially segregated plan. Ideas and ideals of Modernism came with refugees, migrants and magazines from many cultures and places including South Africa, Europe, the Indian sub-continent and the Americas. Projects by internationally renowned architects and planners such as Herbert Baker (1862-1946), Ernst May (1886-1970) and Amyas Connell (1901-1980) set high standards of design. The Garden City Movement, International Congresses of Modern Architecture (ciam), the Modern Architectural Research Group (mars), and the work of many others was influential.

Imperial ambitions: the early years

Nairobi is a 20th century city with its architecture rooted in political machinations of European imperial powers, the Raj and consequences of two World Wars. Imperial ambitions fuelled the British state-owned Uganda Railway, crossing East Africa from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria.1 31,983 Indian artisans, clerks and labourers were recruited to build the railway and construction started in 1896.2 The initial plan for Nairobi was conceived in 1898, when Arthur Church was commissioned to design a layout for the railway depot in an area the Masaai called Enkare Nairobi (cool water).3 There were no permanent buildings on this site and it was considered to be an open tabula rasa, 1,795 meters (m) above sea level. Church’s plan included an Indian commercial area (the Bazaar) and there was no designated area for Africans in Nairobi until after 1919.4 The authorities failed to prevent outbreaks of bubonic plague in the Indian Bazaar and Professor William John Ritchie Simpson (1855-1931) was sent out from England in 1913 to advise the authorities.5 His report assumed Garden City principals for planning towns and recommended racially segregated zones.6 Thus, the die was cast and Nairobi was to be developed on Garden City principles with separated zones for European, Asians and Africans.

Opportunity and oppression: Garden City roots
In 1920, the same year that Welwyn Garden City was founded, British imperial power had been consolidated and the Colony and Pro¬tectorate of Kenya established with Nairobi declared the Colonial Capital. The Colonial authorities commissioned South African architect and Professor of Architecture at the University of Cape Town, Thornton White (1901-1965), to design a Master Plan.7 Thornton White invited L. Silberman, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand and P. Anderson, a town planning engineer, to join his team.8 These three South Africans vis¬ited Nairobi three times to draw up the plan.9 The Garden City vision published in Thornton White’s Master Plan for Nairobi with a central Parkway and fountain are ideas virtually identical to Broadwater Park in Letchworth and Parkway in Welwyn Garden City.10 The spacing of the blocks embody the fundamental concepts of “sun, light, and air” of Modernism and green “lungs” of Garden City planning.

Modern Movement architects

Nairobi’s Modernism is not a second hand copy of what was going on in other parts of the world. Two leading proponents, Ernst May and Amyas Connell, designed landmark build¬ings in the capital. Ernst May, vice-president of CIAM, moved to East Africa in 1937 after his socialist experiments in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ended, and the fact that his mother was Jewish made it impossible for him to return to Nazi Germany. Connell, a member of the MARS Group, the British arm of CIAM, followed soon after the War when his practice folded.11 Both architects had experi-ence of designing in a tropical climate having worked in Tanganyika. The homes and studios they designed for themselves in Nairobi, incorporated many of the techniques they developed to respond to the Nairobi context of dust, glare and tropical landscape.

Ernst May’s Home in Kenya

Ernst May moved to Nairobi in 1937 and built himself a house and studio and set up in practice.12 His house was built on a hilly slope surrounded by trees.13 The plan of the house and studio shows a grand living and dining room with dramatic views out from a west-facing terrace, well protected by a thin projecting concrete shelf, typical of Indian Modernist homes in Nairobi. The veranda is an extension of the living room with views over the valley beyond. A separated curved wing, with two bedrooms (presumably for servants) approached from the rear; a weav¬ing studio and an open, covered workshop space, breaks away from the rectilinear block creating a turning area for vehicles. Above the living room two large bedrooms with a shared bathroom have an elevated view over the valley below. A third, north and east facing, bedroom with an ensuite, is located above the kitchen and linked by a long corridor on the east side of the house overlooking the drive. The architecture studio on the south side of the house was erected latter, in 1945. It is sepa¬rated from the house by a formal garden with terraces, a plunge pool and a dramatic pergola along the entire length of the connecting east wall. The entrance to the studio is across a small courtyard garden with a circular feature. The north-south orientation of the house and studio is not ideal for the tropical sun, how-ever the integrated outdoor garden spaces provide shade and breeze. The high altitude of Nairobi creates an ideal climate which rarely goes above 28oC in the day and solar shading and planting can easily mitigate the conse¬quences of a compromised orientation.

Amyas Connell’s Mile Seven House

Amyas Connell was finding it hard to survive as a Modernist in Britain and his practice Connell, Ward & Lucas ceased trad¬ing in 1939.14 Connell continued to practice as an independent architect and entered a competition for Auckland Cathedral with Harold Thornley Dyer (1905-1989), a fellow student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London University College, where Connell trained.15 Both Connell and Dyer found work in East Africa after the War. Connell was commissioned to design labourers’ and managers’ housing on a sisal estate in the village of Kanga, Tanganyika and Dyer was appointed as a Town Planning advisor to the Kenyan Government in 1946, at the time when the South African team under Thornton White were preparing their master plan for Nairobi.16 Connell, moved to Kenya when Dyer asked him to help with the designs the new legislative building in Nairobi.17 Soon after his arrival, in 1952, Connell built a studio and house for himself at Mile Seven in Roslyn, Nairobi. Free of the bureaucratic yoke of the British planning system, Connell designed a surprisingly eclectic home with decorative screens and pointed arched doorways. In a letter he wrote to his young assistant Simon Johnson in December, 1969, he eulogised Le Corbusier (1887-1965) but went on to deplore “the new Brutalist stuff … in which all sense of architecture has been lost,” in which “the emotional content has been drained away by an eclectic intellectualism.”18 According to Connell, Le Corbusier “lacked an understand¬ing of the meaning of ornament.”19 Mile Seven bears many of the hallmarks of Connell’s designs for the Nairobi Law Court and Legislative building designs, particular¬ly the use of buff geometric brise-soleil and dressed stone plinths. The facade of the house is orchestrated using golden mean and double square geometries to define openings and walls and there is a dynamic play of asymmet¬rical form with the placement of the entrance door and chimney stack. The white rendered walls provide a perfect foil for the succulents that were planted in the beds on the perime¬ter of the front elevation. Two raised planters mark the location of the steps that lead down to the main entrance door on a diagonal route. The pointed arch is not a reference to Islamic architecture – in my conversations with Connell he explained that the form of the pointed arch is to do with the human form.20 Connell’s use of random dressed stone as a plinth is a highly effective way of dealing with the mud and dust thrown up, either by torrential rain or drought conditions. His innovatory bedroom incorporated a sliding wall which came down to separate the marital bed in two so he could read late at night! The dramatic mono-pitched living room creat¬ed a large expansive space opening up sweeping views over a landscape which falls away from the living room and terrace. This latter device – probably borrowed from Marcel Breuer (1902- 1981), if not directly from Le Corbusier – was used by both Connell and Ernst May.21 Connell, like other Modernist architects in Nairobi, embraced the essential connection between nature and architecture as seen in Le Corbusier’s influential Pavilion L’Espirit Nou¬veau (1924-1925) and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and Richard Neutra (1892- 1970).22 Connell worked closely with Peter Greensmith (1911-1992) on several city projects including the gardens for the Legislative build¬ings.23 These landscape designs were strongly influenced by the works of Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994), with whom Greensmith had established a close friendship.24

Indian Modernism

Race was a determining factor in the alloca¬tion of land and what could be build. Most of the Modernist family homes in Nairobi were built on small plots for the Indian population. Europeans were allocated larger plots of land further away from the city center. Prior to in¬dependence there were few individually com¬missioned family homes by native Africans. The Indians in Parklands shunned the old corrugated iron roofed beaux arts colonial style and embraced concrete constructions with white clean lines, curved balconies and cantilevered awnings and brise-soleil as shading devices, similar to contemporaneous examples found in India.25 Some of these Indian Mod¬ernist houses were pattern book examples and others designed by practicing architects from very different training and backgrounds including Hungarian born Jewish architect George Vamos (1910-1999), Welshman Idris Davies and Kenyan born C. S. Thakore Many of their Modernist designs were published in the East African Institute of Architects Yearbooks. Inward-looking houses focused in on a courtyard, are a characteristic feature of Indi¬an houses in contrast with European designs as typified by Ernst May and Amyas Connell’s own homes that are outward-looking intothe landscape. An exception to this was the Modernist terrace housing designed by C. S. Thakore for the Ismaili community in High Ridge and Parklands in 1959-1961.26 The flat roofs and terraced design of the social housing for the Ismaili Community was more at home in Stuttgart or Frankfurt and completely novel to Nairobi – there were few private terraced houses like these at the time. The development is referred to as a new garden suburb in the souvenir brochure.27 The terraces were of concrete construction with metal windows, terrazzo floors, fitted kitch¬ens, formica worktops and thermo-plastic flooring. There were rear kitchen courtyards and a back “street” for services and servants.

Post-independence. Modernism legacy

Modernism in pre-independence Nairobi was a way of expressing a forward-looking vision. After independence there was a great shortage of skilled labour as many Kenyan Indians chose to migrate to Britain. For many, the Modern Movement style was considered to be too simple – not maridadi28 enough. There was a search for a new vocabulary and architects like Karl Nostvik (1925-1992) who designed the Kenyatta Conference Centre brought a new sensitivity to the architec¬ture of independent Kenya. The Modernist legacy is being rediscovered just as it is on the threshold of its destruction, but some Europe¬an houses further out of the city stand a better chance of surviving the ravages of time and economic exploitation. Little research has been done on these Modernist homes and their secrets have yet to be revealed.



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