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Is Nairobi’s Storied History Quietly Disappearing?

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If distinctive architecture marks a great city, then, Nairobi, chief among the great capitals of the continent, has plenty to appreciate. Unfortunately, faced with the urgent needs of development, the preservation of its historical buildings has often been overlooked. 

Nairobi, as some may know it, presents a bewildering range of architectural styles. Influences conflict from religion and the decadence of imperial culture to the studied modernism of post-independence and the synthesized futurism of late.

Yet, even in this dazzling array of constructed expression, the city’s architecture will not be recommended by many, if any, of its locals.

One might notice that a lot of the older buildings, some survived from the colonial era and others erected in the fleeting euphoria of post-independence, are taken for granted. Their relevance now narrowly defined by current occupants and not by what they were and how they came to be.

Nairobi Kenya architecture. Picture: Getty

The more anonymous international-style towers made of glass and steel that define the city skyline enjoy more frequent limelight, locating the ambitions of a modern African city in an increasingly globalized world.

This attitude has been explained by a popular theory frequently offered in the niche but studied debate within Kenyan architecture. One that often dominates any headline to do with the designs of the capital.

Evelyne Wanjiku, an aficionado of African architecture and co-author of a book on the history of Nairobi’s buildings, lambasted the tastes of her fellow countrymen as a crisis in the city’s property fashions.

“Buildings in Nairobi are a testimony to the influences of various industrialized countries. A walk around the city reveals buildings of British, Indian, and even Dutch influence,” she notes in a particularly disgruntled article in one of the papers of record, Daily Nation.

Beyond the alien persuasions of the Nairobi skyline, she says that even the well-to-do homeowners in the country reinforce this pattern through the “Victorian houses or fancy Tuscany structures” that they have built for themselves.

The assertion is heavy. Kenyans as, consumers of architecture, are all too willing to be swayed by those of an ‘imported culture’.

The reality, however, is a lot more complex.

In just a number of decades, Nairobi has spread, from its traditional center, to a sprawling network of settlements. In this frantic urbanization, the designs of architecture have been subordinate to the needs of development; conditions that the discipline has traditionally tried to avoid.

This phenomenon inspired a tangent in a conversation with Dr Bitange Ndemo, a popular newspaper columnist and professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

“The beef I have… is that once we are all dead, nobody will say that architecture existed in Kenya!” he laments.

To those new to the argument, the beef is two-fold.

Nairobi’s history is quietly disappearing. Some of it claimed in a recent spate of demolitions such as those of the colonial-era bungalows in and around the neighborhoods of Kileleshwa and the famous Kariokor Estate, home to the African porters of the ‘Carrier Corps’ during the first World War.  

Their replacements, brutally modern apartment blocks, allegedly erected for immediate commercial return that the professor, and other proponents, maintain, do not redefine these areas in any language but instead deprive them of all identity. Worse still, with average rental prices per month averaging upwards of $800, only a small slice of the city’s inhabitants can now afford to call these places home.

Nairobi, often dubbed as the ‘green city in the sun’, has a storied history which is told rather vividly through its buildings.

Founded at the turn of the 20th century, as a depot on the Uganda Railway, it quickly rose to prominence as a trading post in what would become British East Africa. It was the industrial center of the country’s colonial economy – the main artery in the trade of coffee, sisal and tea. Eventually, in 1907, it was declared the capital of that region of the British Empire, a title furtively snatched from the bordering town of Machakos.

As such, Nairobi’s architecture cleverly accommodates the country’s diverse indigenous and settled cultures along with their individual histories.

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Even today, monumental buildings, commissioned by the colonial government of the day, show a pride in Kenya’s position within the empire. Designed by a ‘rebel’ architect from the British School of the Arts in Rome, Parliament House, the home of the country’s legislature, is not a carbon copy of its archetype as was intended. Instead, it is a cheerful interpretation of Westminster, showered by the equatorial sun and in constant conversation with the towering palm trees around it.

The South Asian community, among the city’s early settlers, is responsible for a large part of the architectural kitsch. Forming the  bulk of Nairobi’s established merchant class, they have left an indelible stamp in the Art Deco styles prominent in some of the older downtown blocks such as Nanak House, which resembles a distant cousin of London’s Commonwealth House on New Oxford Street. An example of the generous extravagance of 1930s design, it is today better known for the upmarket hair salon on its first floor, than the conditions that inspired it.

While overshadowed by a clustering of modern towers, Jamia Mosque, in the center of town, is a beautiful specimen of Islamic architecture in the Arab tradition typical of the period of its construction, the first decade of the 20th century. Now a central place of worship for Nairobi’s sizable Muslim population, it is also well known for the businesses that have sprung from it, including an eponymous shopping mall several yards away.

Even as antiquated foreign fashions identify some of its streets, there are vernacular interpretations of them shrouded in the edifices of Nairobi. The Catholic Parish of St. Austin’s, at the edge of the middle class Lavington suburb, is a glorious showpiece of Gothic Revival with an African accent.

With its colossal mabati (corrugated iron) and timber roof trusses, it is a firm favorite of Ndemo.

“I get satisfaction from good architectural design… and if you go inside [the church], you can feel that someone put their thoughts together to do this,” he says.

The preservation of these Kenyan relics is not a recent concern. There is, in fact, a government agency dedicated to this crucial mandate at the National Museums of Kenya. However, for many of these buildings, the costs of safeguarding them for posterity far outweigh those of constructing anew.

Perhaps no one in the country is more aware of this conflict than the Head of the Directorate of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments, Dr Purity Kiura. While adamant that the task of preservation, in an effort to conserve history and memory in Kenya is important, she insists that there are other factors that weigh the equation.

“There is agriculture, there is education, there is health…and all of these are competing with other needs for the nation so monuments are not a priority,” she says.

She does admit that attitudes are slowing changing. With so many of the buildings in need of protection poignant reminders of a difficult period in the country’s past, the need to conserve them is often set against embittered sentiment.

A younger cosmopolitan population, a few generations removed from that time, lends a more sympathetic ear to the obligations of architectural conservation.

 “We are starting to see a more positive response… they seem to be understanding their history and accepting that history,” she continues.

Outside of public office, there has also been, in response, a modest movement building. Sometime in 2013, the Architectural and Heritage Advisory Committee (AHAC) was convened. The group, comprised of an eclectic mix of brand name architects, lay enthusiasts, a prominent journalist and an architect-turned-photographer, set out to protect Nairobi’s built heritage.

Its architect, an economist by trade, Aref Adamali, was compelled to organize it after returning home in 2008. Having lived in some of the world’s great architectural cities, among them New York and London, he was met with a fast-changing metropolis in the midst of a property boom.

To him, these developments were not convincing evidence that it was heading in the right direction.

“We were losing older buildings… not just old colonial buildings made of stone but [some] from the ’60s and ’70s with post-independence modernist architecture and even cool buildings from the ’80s… that we could [never] recover,” he recalls.

After a number of conversations, Adamali began the initiative that would form AHAC. Looking to avoid the taxing listing procedures of the National Museums, they took their campaign to the interwebs.

“Listing can be contentious [so] we decided not to take the regulatory approach… our interest was in casting our net further than the city center and into the neighborhoods that were quickly changing,” he explains.

The result was an online poll open to all of Nairobi and a blog cataloging the capital’s aging architectural gems. After a period of voting, AHAC compiled a list of 50 of the city’s most treasured historical properties informed by a broad spectrum of its residents. They also collaborated with local artists and photographers to immortalize these structures in exhibitions that appealed to the greater public.

The committee is still contemplating a longer term approach but they do have a few ideas.

Nairobi Kenya architecture. Picture: Getty

“We’d want the owners of these buildings to be, in effect, the unofficial custodians of them,” Adamali proposes.

Some of the buildings that feature on the list include some of Nairobi’s most photographed landmarks like the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

Inspired by the vernacular structure of an African hut and constructed using locally-sourced materials, it was designed by Norwegian, Karl Henrik Nøstvik, in close consultation with the country’s first architect, David Mutiso, in 1968.

The exercise was a particularly important one for Nairobi. As the architectural debate blares on, in local newspapers or in intellectual salons, along with its interpretations of identity, it remains far removed from the wider Kenyan public.

Offering locals and laymen an opportunity to locate and share their own ideas of the city’s heritage gives the preservationists some support and a lasting shot at success.

Nairobi is host to not just one but a cornucopia of cultural connotations through its buildings. Each making conversation, in the language of design, about their origins and place in the city. Taken for granted as they are, these monuments of old will continue be lost without memory by the modernizing nation around them.

As Adamali insists, this cannot be allowed to happen.

“We’ve got to appreciate what we’ve got and together try to do what we can to preserve them for future generations,” he says.

-Marie Shabaya

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