Architectural History of the Green City in the Sun (Part 2)

Lord Delamere was interestingly an indirect descendant of the first ever Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole. His family owned the Vale Royal Abbey which is a magnificent estate with some rich history of its own in Cheshire, UK. I tried to find out whether where the young Hugh Cholmondeley grew up had any impact on him but I’m yet to find that out. It seems he was less concerned with his own personal comfort and more with the affairs of both the settlers and the natives.

Vale Royal Abbey (Delamere Home)

Getting pictures or architectural information about the Soysambu ranch is difficult but I won’t give up just yet…Being extensively wealthy and the owner of huge chunks of land, it’s not surprising that he was known as the Cecil Rhodes of Kenya. Its believed that British settlers followed him both spiritually and politically. Such was his influence that he became president of the Colonists’ Association and a member in the Legislative council. Historians believe he genuinely was fond of Africans and particularly the Maasai. The Lord even entertained the British Under-Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill, on his maiden visit to Kenya. Well, I think thats as far as I will go about Lord Delamere.

A city of its size, Nairobi has a number of suburbs and areas. The colonials seem to have influenced, to this day, both the diversity and segregation of our suburbs as they are today. The British preferred the leafier western sections of Kileleshwa, Lavington, Highridge, Parklands, Gigiri and Runda although Kangemi and Dagoretti were exceptions, possibly workers who served the colonials were allowed to settle here. Picture this, if you were to look at say, Google Earth, viewing Nairobi, the West of the city happens to be much greener than the East! Try it… The colonials loved trees and wide picturesque avenues.

Meanwhile the Africans were handed settlements and estates in places to the east such as Dandora, Huruma, Pumwani, Kariobangi, Kariokor and Embakasi. Interesting to note, The East African Women’s League took it upon themselves to construct a Maternity facility for African women. They turned to the wife of the new Governor, Lady Grigg who formed a child welfare and maternity league and helped raise around Shs.17,000 for the Lady Grigg Maternity Home at Pumwani (now Pumwani Maternity Hospital) in 1928. This happens to be the reason why you may come across predominant industrial and mass market British architecture here.

The Asians ‘coolies’ who were brought to help construct the railway, mostly settled around what is today Starehe constituency, harbouring suburbs such as Southlands, parts of Parklands and Ngara. If you take a look at the architectural influence in these areas, you will see numerous oriental and ornate gables, intricately designed mosques, fabulous temples and a few shrines…

Much of what is today Lavington area initially belonged to the French Holy Ghost Fathers and was known as St Austins mission. Now you know why there are numerous schools or missionary-themed ammenities in the leafy suburb: Strathmore, St. Mary’s School, St. Austin’s School and Loreto Convent but to mention a few. The neighbourhood was quiet with a single shopping centre, Lavington Green, serving the entire area. The British settlers would commune there regularly over chat and brunch and the properties were modestly sized and characteristically renaissance themed Anglo Saxon brick structures with brown tiled roofs.

Danish author Karen Blixen migrated to Kenya in the 1910s and took on coffee farming. This was primarily towards the section of the city that is now Karen-Langata. There wasn’t much infrastructural development in that area, mainly because of the agricultural encroachment up until just after the second world war when the land was sub divided into 5 to 40 acre parcels of land and distributed to colonial government workers and ex-British forces. The Nairobi Urban District Council (now the City Council of Nairobi) attempted to impose building by laws in the area but they were aggressively opposed by residents who did not want to be told how to utilize their large tracts of land. After independence however, the newly formed CCN extended the boundaries of the city and Karen-Langata area came under by-law control. Nairobi begun growing at a rapid rate towards the 70s and 80s though, but this particular part of the city was experiencing slow development because of the large tracts of land residents owned: it also proved difficult and expensive to supply services over such huge distances. In order to spur growth, the City Council further subdivided the land making it more affordable for middle income Kenyans and increase its service charges.

Govt Rd (Now Moi Avenue) in 1920

The Central Business District of Nairobi arguably went through some of the most dynamic of changes. There’s usually a tussle about which was the most important of streets at the onset, but it seems Station Road (later to be Government Road) takes precedence, as the name suggests. Nairobi’s 3rd Avenue was another important street as it became the main artery way into the capital but was renamed Delamere Avenue in honour of one of the greatest of the Englishmen to settle in Kenya and even chair the Legislative council. An 8-foot bronze statue in his image was even erected at the avenue’s head, as his 2nd wife, Lady Gwladys became the first woman Mayor of Nairobi.

Kenyatta Avenue (Delamere Ave) as it was in the 1930s

There is also the notion that the entire city is centered around the ‘City Square’ which is basically enclosed all round by the Holy Family Basilica, the Nairobi Law Courts, City Hall, the Parliament Buildings and KICC. Did you know that what is currently the Bank or Baroda building right next to the ICEA building on Kenyatta Avenue used to be the Library for the East African Women’s League? The EAWL was led by Lady MacMillan. In the course of the research I undertook to begin the series, I discovered there is more and more that I would like to encompass and therefore in my next post I will cover Nairobi CBD solely, almost building by building…tell me what you think…

Click here to continue to Part 3 >>

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Architectural History of the Green City City in the Sun (Part 1)

For quite a while now, I have been perturbed by the questions…who influenced the design of Nairobi? Why does it look the way it does today? What were the architectural influences of the day and what gave the glorious Kenyan capital its prestigious pedestal among its regional peers. If you have as much interest in local history as I do, then delve with me into the world of the conceptualization of Nairobi, up until it all became a reality…

Nairobi in 1900

I won’t bore you with most of what you already know, so let me take a different perspective from what you are used to, what you are not used to and might not have known. Well first, at the earliest of times, at least historically possible, it is believed only Swahili people occupied much of what is today Nairobi. But because of the growth in trade and the emergence of the Bantu-speaking tribes and the Nilotes, they chose to move further East towards the coast, where they met the first foreigners ever sighted on East African soil. I’d like to imagine what the reaction was…how long it took our ancestors to communicate with the Portuguese…whether or not it was amicable. I came across something else that was interesting, I thought maybe tribalism might have been rampant then, but did you know that the Bantu-speaking Nyoro people were ruled over by an elite Nilotic Luo clan known as the Bito? I sure didn’t!

Well, the swahili tribes moved before they had any significant impact on the development of the area, and much later, around 5 centuries, most of modern Nairobi was occupied by three critical tribesmen: the Maasai, the Kamba and the Kikuyu. The three mutually co-existed up until the advent of British settlers in the late 1800s and with that, an over half a century struggle with colonialism begun. What you might not have known is that the Sultan of Zanzibar is the one who granted the British permission to foray into the interior of the African mainland. Mombasa was at first the capital of what was the British East African Protectorate (now Uganda and Kenya), but with the construction of the railway, a trading post and game hunting centre to the West and interior, Nairobi steadily took shape, albeit unplanned and haphazardly. The plague broke out in the prior settlement and much of Nairobi had to be burnt down and the town was again gradually rebuilt.

Most of the British settlers were encouraged to settle in the country, but a particular settler, Hugh Cholmondeley…more popularly known as Lord Delamere, and his wife, Lady Anne Cole, took interest in the area around Nairobi. By 1907, the country was already home to Lords Cranworth, Hindlip, Cardross, Howard de Walden and another well-known Lord, Egerton . Kenya quickly became the Monaco of that era…a playground for the rich. Lord Delamere and a group of his privileged friends dubbed the Happy Valley set, embarked on making the triangular area of Nyeri, Naivasha and Nairobi their playground  involving a number of vices though which made them notorious on an almost global scale. That’s however, an entirely different story…

Part of the Happy Valley Set

In comes a man who was passionate about making his dominion a rival to other more prosperous parts of the British Empire: Sir Edward Grigg, governor of Kenya. Here I thought that the ties between Kenya and South Africa were recent…boy was I gravely mistaken. Our architecture is more heavily tied with that of South Africa, (traversing our current shopping malls and apartment complexes), and we can thank a certain Sir Herbert Baker for that. The countries are truly sister cities, if heritage and infrastructure is anything to go by. Sir Herbert Baker was a British architect who grew up in Kent, England, and was profoundly influenced by Norman and Anglo-Saxon Renaissance architecture.

Originally, he had embarked for South Africa in 1892 to visit his brother, but he ended up being commissioned by the Governor, Cecil Rhodes to remodel one of the buildings there. He later on ended up designing and constructing such iconic South African structures such as the Union Buildings and Rhodes Memorial. Well, Sir Edward Grigg invited him to Kenya in 1925.

European Nairobi School

The Governor and Lord Delamere then gave him the task of designing a model European school on African soil, and loosely based on Winchester School which was back home in England. He came up with what is modern day Nairobi Primary School, which was Nairobi School (now on Waiyaki Way). I’ll talk about those a little bit later. In the long run, he left alot of his mark on what is modern day Nairobi…designing State House, Nairobi and Mombasa, the lighthouse at the Coast, All Saints Cathedral and Nairobi Primary School. (You can even see how All Saints resembles the Fairbridge Church he did in Australia). His assistant later became the chief government architect, Mr. J. A Hoogterp.

Fairbridge Church in Australia

Hoogterp designed numerous buildings on his own though, also leaving his mark on the city. The masterplan for Nairobi was at the onset based on a combined ideology of Washington DC, Paris, Capetown, Pretoria, New Delhi and Canberra, the capital of Australia. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll find out about the blue prints for the Central Business District and the designs of the estates that surround the city….tell me what you think…

Click here to continue to Part 2 >>