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 >>

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11 thoughts on “Architectural History of the Green City City in the Sun (Part 1)

  1. I love the Nairobi Primary School. Can’t wait to get a camera (the ones used by professionals) and have it preserved in either a blog or somewhere. The best architecture must also be the YMCA halls, Norfolk Hotel and of course, the Railways Station. Great way of learning history of the city we love. Great work dude.

  2. Thats a nice post, especially on the relations of Sir. Baker who has put up those iconic structures. I would also recommend this for a History student. Insightful.

  3. Wow! This is brilliant! All Saints has always fascinated me. Thanks for shedding some light on it.

    Can’t wait for part two. Especially the design of the estates. Tackling East lands? Interesting history right there.

  4. Nairobi,our heritage rich aweesome Nairobi.Love my city man.
    A really insightful article.I dont think even the history we got taught in school bout the city got us to know this much.
    Its amazing how folks could co-exsist with harmony at the time.no tibalism and all that ish.
    hehe land was in abundance imagine sai.we come a long way

  5. Cool stuff, Nate

    Wish you were at TEDxNairobi (were you?) if so I’d love to hear your thoughts on Eric Kigada’s talk on Nairobi. The video will be up in a few days.

    I can’t wait for part 2 either 🙂

    • hey Mark…thanks alot for the comment. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to TedxNai, I was out of Nai at the time…care to share abit of what he said or tell me when the link is out, thanks

  6. Hey Kev,

    I finally read it and I am indeed impressed, by its structure, its simpliciy and readability and the quality of research, as I have said time and again; you were born to write

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  8. Pingback: Kipande House, The tallest building in Nairobi (Sort of) – Third World Architecture

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