Modernism in Kenya: Facades of Fortune

15 Jan 1993 - Blog

By Yasmin Shariff on 1993 International Architecture and Construction

The colonial history of Nairobi and its attraction as an international centre have led to a curious blend of architectural styles. Yasmin Shariff traces the development of the twentieth century city. Nairobi was declared a municipality in 1900. This 20th century city houses a heady style of beaux arts designed colonial buildings, a modernist parliament by the leading British Modernist Amyas Connell; flats by the famous German modernist, Ernst May; and an iconic conference centre by the Norwegian architect Karl Nostvic. Written in 1993 the article captures the architectural character of the city prior to its transformation through Chinese investment and construction.

Nairobi, declared a municipality in 1900, is a unique example of European architectural and planning idea of the twentieth century. Its development before independence was dictated by European politics – initially by European territorial ambitions in Africa (commerce and Christianity) followed by British colonial policy with the formation of British East Africa in 1884.

After independence in 1963, Nairobi became strategically important to Britain and her allies in the face of increasing instability in the neighbouring countries, the threat of socialism and the Middle East Crisis. The city’s architecture expresses its growing international significance and the political ambitions of its allies.

Architecturally, Nairobi was never a backwater. Internationally famed architect and planners such as Herbert Baker, Ernst May, Thornton White, Thornley Dyer and Amyas Connell  set high  standards of design. Most of the city’s architects were trained in Europe and returned on a regular basis, bringing back the latest architectural ideas. Fuelled with the ideals expressed at the 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 second world war was essentially a railway town which grew, out of a depot established in 1896 for the Uganda Railway. In its embryonic stage the municipality was as a staging post at the frontier, dominated by traders and inn keepers supplying goods or services to the increasing number of settlers and government officials en route to their newly acquired estates or administrative posts in the British Colony. Setters had to come to Nairobi to get their land allocated from the land office.

The railway was under a separate administration to the civil government, reporting directly to the foreign office. Whitehall had issued a directive that the railway could be built over any land irrespective of ownership or occupation within a mile wide strip. At 1898 Nairobi had been chosen as the future railway headquarters because of the abundance of water and flatness 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 the resources and the duality of control caused many problems. These were resolved by the creation of a third body – the Naibobi township committee. The creation of the Nairobi Town committee (with representatives from the railway , civil government and the Indian traders) and the publications of the Municipal regulations in 1900 marked the true beginning of the municipality with jurisdiction over an area three miles in diameter.

The Pioneer capital

The gridiron planning of the railway authorities formed the beginning of the town plan. Building evolved from tents to iron shacks, which later had classical stone façade added. The declaration of Nairobi as the capital of East Africa in 1907 and the appointment of the legislative council secured Nairobi’s significance.

Permanent structures were now starting to replace temporary shacks. The commercial roads- Government Road (now Moi Avenue), linking the railway station to the Norfolk Hotel, and the Bazaar Street, the principal trading area – retain most of the neo classic, two storey, stone and corrugated iron shops and officesdating back to the first decade of the twentieth 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 were also well represented in the city hall buildings, another classical essay in stone (by Sir T Bennett). At a time when most were erecting one or two storey corrugated iron shack, these stone edifices must have been imposing structures. Other major classical stone buildings included the banks and the Khoja mosque.

The world war stimulate growth in it was used as a base for communications and supplies. Under Thornton White a master plan was drawn up for the city soon after the second world war. It received its charter of incorporation as a capital city on March 30, 1950, exactly 50 years after the creation of the Nairobi town committee.

The Advance of modernism.

With the increase of antisemitism in Europe, the depression and the limited opportunities in the Europe at war, many talented architects and planners sought their fortunes in the colonies. In Nairobu these architects and planners aspired to build a new city and not to continue the heavy classic forms of the pre-war era. European concepts of modernism were developed to suit local conditions. Buildings such as 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, thorough 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 a Burle Marx: Peter Greensmith, 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.

Aspirations and the dawn of independence

With independence in 1963 and the demise of 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 and practices such as Ernst May, Amyas Connel, Idris Davies, Norburn Blackburne, Hughes & Polkinghorne, Cob Archer & Scammell, Mutiso Menezes, Dalglesh Marshall, Richard Hughes and Carl Nostvic produced and impressive number of modern buildings to exacting standards.

lt could be argued that there so many good examples of modern architecture in Nairobi that it has devalued their status – that is, they are very much taken for granted. The parliament complex and the university campus provide some of the best examples of Nairobi’s modern architecture.

Rise of internationalism

The construction of the Kenyatta Conference Centre (designed by Karl Nostvic), the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme’s headquarters in Nairobi, and the appearance of the film Out of Africa made Nairobi more prominent internationally.

Growing instability in surrounding African countries and the threat of socialism and instability in the Middle East made Nairobi strategically significant to Britain and her Western and American allies. Also giving it international importance are the offices of the World Bank and the number of international aid agencies .

Much 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.

The United Nations Environment Programme initially occupied the Kenyatta Conference Centre tower and then moved to a campus designed by Mutiso Menezes, incorporating passive energy concepts and extensively landscaped areas. This sensitivity to the climate and landscape is unusual for an international  agency –  it probably was an aberration, as the later extensions of UNEP are nick­ named ‘cowsheds’.

The requirement of mos t international agencies is for air – conditioned glass towers, and the demand on resources of these 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 on 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.

A shattered dream

Nairobi, ‘Twentieth Century City’, is suffering from 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 Lonrbo tower, children on the street pick over the rubbish pile 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 West. ‘Cardboard City’ at Waterloo Station, sewage-strewn rivers and beaches, traffic congestion and pollution are problems that have to be addressed by most twentieth century cities, not just those in the developing world. All of these issues need long-term investment and commitment. The development of a city cannot be left to the private sector whose emphasis is on quick returns.

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