Is a Building’s Design a Reflection of the Society?

A view of Nairobi

A view of Nairobi

I once read something written by Bob Moorehead; He said that, ‘The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints.

‘We spend more, but have less, we buy more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.

‘We have learned to make a living, but not a life. We have added years to life not life to years. We have conquered outer space but not inner space. We have done larger things but not better things. We have cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We have conquered the atom, but not our prejudice.’

So I started thinking, how true are these statements to the architect?

Architecture, I am told, requires that material, technology, light and shadows are manipulated in the most creative manner, in order to produce buildings and physical structures that are the cultural symbols of the places they are built. And this is true. Ask any archaeologist and they will tell you that the ruins of an ancient city are indispensable.

Roman Aqueduct | AKEONOS GROUP

Roman Aqueduct | AKEONOS GROUP

That reminds me of ancient Rome’s aqueducts and its latrine system, which is irrevocable proof that the Romans valued their hygiene. I wonder what our descendants will think of us a few centuries from now when they’re digging up our remains and find non-biodegradable paper-bags full of feaces: They would probably think the packing of feaces was quite fashionable then.

I daresay I would turn in my grave if my descendants misinterpreted our culture as such. However, 200 years from now, I think they would be shocked at the economic inequalities that exist in our current age. The paper bags would just be proof. I digress…

Click here to read the piece on gentrification in Nairobi

Architectural history is full of examples of man conquering the severest of odds to achieve what Vitruvius stated in the 1st Century AD: The principles of a good building are firmitas, utilitas and venustas (by the way I just put that in to impress my editor); the words are latin for durability, utility and beauty.

So clearly, buildings, as long as architects shall live, will continue to be more durable, more functional and more beautiful. Is this the condition of the people who use, live, design or work in these buildings? Is your personal legacy more durable? What is your gift to the World? Are you more useful? Are you more beautiful?

The American architect Louis Sullivan once said that “form follows function” (of course you may be aware that the statement is often credited to Horatio Greenough, but it was Sullivan who said it) and that statement is now a principle in architecture. It is also a principle (that should be) in life: just the same way that the shape of a building is based on its intended function or purpose, so should one’s life. Life should be shaped by purpose.

I like what Fidel Castro once said (he wasn’t referring to buildings) he said that “the ever more sophisticated weapons piling up in the arsenals of the wealthiest and mightiest can kill the illiterate, the ill, the poor and the hungry, but they cannot kill ignorance, illness, poverty or hunger. Man by nature surmounts complexities;

KCB’s Kipande House was the tallest building in Nairobi when Gurdit Singh designed it in the 1930s. 38 years  later, Solel Boneh & Factah completed the KICC, a building which gave a 360 degree panoramic view of Nairobi in 76 minutes.

Click here to read ‘an architectural history of the green city in the sun’

I will freely tell you this though: the same view of poverty, desperation, disease, inequality and crime that existed in 1935 is the same view that we now see from the KICC; it’s just at a different angle.

 

| The article is a guest post written for A Chiselled Cornucopia by my best buddie, Joseph Kongoro @josekongoro

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The Significance and Magnificence of Buildings often Ignored

The Kenyatta International Conference Center | MY DESTINATION

The Kenyatta International Conference Center | MY DESTINATION

Robertson Davies once said that a truly great book should be read, in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age; as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.

I personally reckon a great building should be like love; exciting when it is new; dazzling when it is mature and satisfying and permanent when it grows old.

A great building, wrote Louis Kahn, must begin with the immeasurable, must go through the measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.

Let me first state here that I am not an addict of buildings; I am more of an unwilling enthusiast. My passion however, is history, and buildings are simply history cast in stone. You see if you look at any building; you can easily see the aspirations, the hopes and the achievements of a society; the Arc de Triomphe (in Paris) for example was commissioned in 1806 after Emperor Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.

Buildings glorify what a society deems to be glorious. In ages past,for instance, buildings immortalized conquests; ancient buildings like the Al Hambra remain testament to the Muslim domination of Europe. Today buildings like the Burj Khalifa try to recapture the Islamic renaissance. In today’s world, where wars are not fought in battle fields but in stock markets and through trade, has it ever occurred to anyone that banks tend to have some of the most imposing and elaborate buildings? London’s tallest building, the Shard, is owned by a consortium which includes the Qatar National Bank, QInvest and the Qatari Islamic Bank.

The Shard in London

The Shard in London

 

If you look at the list of the World’s tallest buildings it will occur to you that a majority of them have a relationship with banking, trade and finance.

Click here to read more on some of Africa’s, and the World’s, tallest buildings

Buildings also play another role; they tell you what a society considers moral or religious. A lot of buildings of note in ages past tended to be places of worship; Islam gave us Charminar and the Shah Mosque – Egypt gave us the Pyramids which played a religious role, Greece was decked by elaborate temples. Christianity provided numerous medieval churches; Isn’t it strange that brothels, for instance, have always been located at the dingy, dark areas since antiquity?

In short, what society is ashamed of cannot be cast in stone, meanwhile every city you can imagine has a tomb to an unknown soldier to celebrate virtues such as bravery or sacrifice.

Mount Rushmore is a sculpture that was intended to represent 150 years of American history; of those years, only Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were chosen to have their faces on the rock; could you imagine the catastrophe if someone like George Bush Jr. was cast on that mountain?

The Taj Mahal in India | SANTABATA

The Taj Mahal in India | SANTABATA

 

The Taj Mahal was built during Shah Jahan’s empire and it was the high point of the Mughal dynasty, and it was attribute to the love of his life; his wife Mumtaz, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. Do you think he would have built it for some mistress?

Like Aldous Huxley once said – ‘Marble, I perceive, covers a multitude of sins.’

 

| The article is a guest post written for A Chiselled Cornucopia by my best buddie, Joseph Kongoro @josekongoro