A city is as vibrant as the intricacies of its society; the very basic way in which its culture, its populace, its recreation … and most of all its architecture interwove. In addition, the built environment has a subtle, yet omnipresent effect on the attitudes of its citizens: delicately yet comprehensively influencing the motion, mood, magnificence and mould of both nature and the artificial within the space.
The Europeans mastered the art of creating little ‘heavens on earth’ with cities which the rest of the globe envied for centuries. From the wealth and opulence of Paris, Florence and Monaco to the seemingly organic and monolithic yet pristine aisles of Barcelona and Athens. These bastions of the human populace held the batons of progress and development.
With the advent of the new world, the Americas, immigrants sought to replicate, and better, the places they called home by coalescing to create the ‘greatest nation on Earth’, the United States of America, and with it, the rise of globally enviable economic and commercial centres like New York, Chicago and Washington. This was of course enshrined in the never-ending reach for the skies which these buildings competed in with dizzyingly tall skyscrapers.
With the advancement of technology, came in the art and craft of innovation and what seem to be gravity-defying structures. And with the digital age came the rise and rise of Asia and the Middle East, pushing the envelope of the limitations of cities and their structures (while eliminating the restraint of money) to show the world that artificial wonders can indeed be created. That, coupled with the wealth, industry and ingenuity of its leaders and citizens, led to the establishment of cities such as the daring Emirate Dubai, the salacious Shanghai and tech savvy Singapore.
With the evident rotation of bragging rights for cityscapes, surely it’s time for the African continent to own a peace of the prime real estate? In a recent survey by the African Development Bank on the state of the continent in half a century, it was predicted that the population will have doubled to an estimated 2 billion people, overtaking the population of China or India: The highest fertility rates would be recorded in two regions: North and East Africa.
The billion shilling question then would be: what will the characters of our cities be in the future if we continue along a path of unplanned certainties and limiting mindsets. Cities are definitely here to stay, and with the same report predicting that the urban population of the African continent would most likely be around 80% by 2050, it’s a frightening thought to imagine what sort of metropolis’ will dot the African savannah from Cape to Cairo if the future isn’t well thought out.
Let’s put it into perspective for a moment – imagine informal settlements, haphazard systems of sewerage, water and electricity forging endlessly to create a mammoth mess of masses and muck. We’d see a grossly unplanned mess of a city of Nairobi, Kisumu or Mombasa which would soon grind to a halt simply owing to the fact that there was no foresight put in. There’s no way that a metropolis which seeks to position itself as not just a continental, but global, centre of prosperity should still be suffering under the whims of a mediocre transport system, sub-standard stadia and recreational facilities as well as ineffective governance.
In spite of all these flaws, the Kenyan capital is embracing its duty to its citizens with a barrage of developments adhered to making it a city of the future. Pundits may argue that Nairobi has quite a long way to go to match the flexing cities of the West, but if the Asians and Middle-Easterns could manage, and surpass what the Europeans have achieved in centuries (and the Americans in just over 200 years) in a barely a quarter of that time, then surely the African lions must roar their way out of the bushes into the concrete ideological and physical jungle.
The same AfDB Report 2011 sites key pillars of development as touching on the avenues of transport, infrastructure, healthcare and policies. Tied into this is the emergence of a hungry middle class with an insatiable economic appetite that could be the key to unlock not just the city’s but the country’s potential.
Shopping malls like the Junction, Westgate, Greenspan and Ridgeways have sprouted out of once upper class echelons, which are now middle class suburbias of Nairobi, creating focal facets of commerce which the city needs to replicate and enhance. The city opened its first railway station, Syokimau, since the pre-independence period and completed its first world-class super highway, Thika Road, a musingly mellifluous motorway that would make any Nairobian proud.
As 2013 begins, I’d like to highlight some of the architecturally marvellous projects which have got me excited to be a part of the shaping of our future:
Delta Towers, Westlands
The Green City in the Sun can now boast its very own Twin Towers, majestically rising over the once height-restricted electric avenue host of the capital. These solid concrete siblings are named ‘Delta Corner’ in what its aggressive Indian investors hope will be a leading address in the city.
The impression has already been made, with these imposing structures blanketing the entire West district of Nairobi while adding an idiosyncratic stamp of authority on what was before its inception, modest low rise buildings in earth shades of brown, white and beige. I cannot reiterate that the grey behemoth that is Delta Corner is both imposingly and honestly frightening, yet utterly impressive in its scale.
Offering about 18 floors of premium office space, each with floor-to-floor glass and conservative modern architecture, the Twin Towers are destined to be the talk of the town on launch.
Villa Rosa, Kempinski Nairobi
Driving out of the city along Waiyaki Way, you’d be forgiven to think that the gigantic pink Florentine tower to your right just past the East and Central Africa Standard Chartered Bank building is a colossal mansion by some billionaire. Well, the truth of the matter is, Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group has come knocking, with the planned opening of this 10-floored 200 room and suite exotic monster.
It’s a tribute to continental European architecture, with Ionic pillars and gentle Italian arcs beautifying a characteristically rich facade which overlooks the plush suburbs to its immediate environs.
Within its marbled and wallpapered walls, the Villa Rosa will also host a penultimate Presidential Suite on its top floor and feature restaurants and cuisines from at least three continents. It will be interesting to see what this five-star offering will pull off, against the likes of neighbouring jewel princesses Nairobi Serena, the Sankara Hotel and the Sarova Stanley.
Terminal 4, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
As with any other global conduit of air travel and economic indulgence, Nairobi seeks to spread the wings of its largest airport with the expansion of the region’s leading air hub.
Initially envisioned to be part of an ‘Airport Sub-city’ by some Qatari visionaries, equipped with hotels and other world-class amenities, presumably budgetary limitations made the idea comfortable with a fourth stretched out terminal and an enormous car park wing. This of course would be constructed in segments so as not to interfere with one of the region’s busiest airports.
Proposals for a Greenfield Terminal to help ease the millions of passengers that sail through the JKIA were approved by the KAA and if in fruition soon could add a smile and a tinge of relaxation on the commute: what with modern and glassy features meant to maximize the use of daylight, as well as cutting edge technology and monitoring systems to make the JKIA enviable yet again.
The expanded airport should be able to accommodate almost twice the number of aircraft it currently can… that’s 43 against 23, as well as offer improved lighting, delicate upgrades of other subordinate buildings as well as space for about 1,500 vehicles.
Other Best Laid Plans
World renowned British architectural firm Mackay & Partners are rumoured to have been contracted by Mara Properties to design a four star hotel overlooking the city’s most prized possession; its national park. Nairobi boasts being the only capital on the globe with the entirety of a national park in its environs and this new project could add a new stem of tourism, with proximity to the equally luxurious Ole Sereni which is based on a similar concept of game-watching right at the threshold of the airport.
The re-development and rejuvenation of the railway transport network should also serve to revive what was a struggling colonial structure, which while critical to any metropolis, seemed defunct. But with modern trains and stations part of a blueprint plan by Kenya and Rift Valley Railways, the burden on Nairobi’s narrow roads could be eased.