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

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

The Genesis of the Gentrification of Nairobi

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (now) | AUTOPORTAL

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (now) | AUTOPORTAL

Unlike a plethora of the greatest cities on Earth, the origins of the ‘Safari capital of the World’ Nairobi, may not entirely lie in industry and smog. However, much like the Industrial and revolutionary eras of  early century European progenitors such as London and Paris, or parts of the immigrant-rich North American cities of Chicago and New York, the industrial section of Kenya’s capital is as critical to the intrinsic fabric of its existence, as is the agrarian progress to the country’s Central and Western highlands.

There so happens to be a silent global race taking place; in which cities of the generally developed world are so actively participating, and one in which it seems African cities are, in a remarkable twist of fate, being left out of: a marathon of regeneration. Much like the basic principle of the penultimate race is, what matters isn’t just how fast one is, but coupled with how consistent, in order to get to the finish line.

The for-long dominant West knows that its capitals, which have generally weathered countless revolutions, two World Wars and centuries of  religious, social and economic feuds – are becoming intricate behemoths, rapidly spiraling out of control. These monsters hence need to be trimmed at the edges, with new urban policies geared at keeping them in check and on-track for sustainable development.

These progressive governments of developed, and developing economies, have realized that policies such as adopting economic and social structure competitiveness, developing dynamic and responsive governance structures and fusing cultural heritage and technological advancements which act as catalysts of change and progress, should transcend theory, into practice. With ingenious innovation taking root, such as constructing world class golf courses on top of land fills in Tokyo, rejuvinating the Central Business District of Athens using a ‘green belt’, to embracing minimalist yet functional housing in New York, the creme of global cities are adapting to futures that are seeming more and more certain.

The African continent, which happens to be at the center of the world map, generally appears most oblivious to the fact that urban dwellings are metamorphosing – and with this stark reality comes the intrinsic necessity that progress and growth ought to be coupled with liveability, structure and convenience.

Nairobi is no different to the changing global geo-economical climate. The city, and country, have the blessing, and the curse, of being highly consumer-driven, albeit with increasing disparities between the elite and the impoverished. Access to basic needs such as water, electricity, and what is already a basic human right in some European countries, the internet, remains a preserve for certain quarters of the capital and her territories.

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (then) | ANONYMOUS

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (then) | ANONYMOUS

In so much as the economy of Kenya is a beacon among her peers, consistency remains elusive, particularly because of political factors that have come into play since the introduction of multi-party democracy. Even further back, the social structure of Nairobi was demarcated along racial lines, in part thanks to the colonialists, as well as tribal sequences. Slums cropped up on the peripheries of almost each and every affluent neighbourhood in the city: Lavington, Muthaiga, Kilimani, Moutainview and Karen.

Gentrification, which is basically displacement of a certain class of society for the sake of development, will almost certainly experience accelaration as a result of Nairobi’s hastening stance towards globalisation. Take for instance the Kilimani residential neighbourhood, which was a sleepy and sultry suburb through most of the 80s and 90s: stretching from the neatly tucked corner of Valley Arcade, to the commercialised Hurlingham area, Kilimani was characteristic of low-rise buildings and bungalows with large backyards.

Click here to start my series on Architectural History of the Green City in the Sun

With the advent of a consumer-hungry mindset fully embraced by the City Council, shopping malls such as Prestige Plaza, the Junction, Greenhouse and commercial buildings like KRep Center, Saachi Plaza, Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Center and a crop of other medium and large-scale high-rise developments have turned the neighbourhood into a bustling cosmopolitan consumer section of the city. Having sacrificed its once reserved residential soul for glistening skyscrapers and offices, Kilimani is well on its way to competing with Upper Hill for the interests of multi-nationals and growing companies.

Further West, what was once a shunned slum area of Kawangware – Kangemi, now boasts banking halls of leading Kenyan financial institutions and established businesses, not forgetting the booming construction which has been taking place; converting tin shacks into urban two-bedroom apartments.

The Disparities of Nairobi | MUUNGANO SUPPORT TRUST

The Disparities of Nairobi | MUUNGANO SUPPORT TRUST

To the East, the Nairobi River belt once stunk with putrid smells of sewerage and waste from the Industrial area, but following the Michuki-era and the revitalisation of the Environment Ministry, coupled with the efforts of the Roads Ministry, the Ngara waterfront and the general Globe cinema roundabout area have been transformed into a modern, multi-laned (straddled with a lengthy flyover) picturesque ride.

The Thika superhighway has elbowed out not just traffic, but a sense of disorganization, moulding that melee which was prevalent from Ngara to Juja, into one of the pride and joy’s of the city which has set its sights on African dominance.

There have been some ‘failures’ however, including the rennovation and expansion of Muthurwa Market which was initially meant to decongest the Central Business District of the city from a hawking ‘menace’, but steadily degraded into ill-maintained stalls, facilities and hastily designed support structures such as a haphazard-looking pedestrian bridge that links the market with the Machakos Country Bus station and the other section of the city.

Nairobi, a leading luxury property market on the globe

Professors around the world have constantly decried the effects of gentrification, split by theories that such changes are often necessitated by legal and technical policies which starkly ignore social structures. These voices may however be drowned out by the vivacious hunger with which rapidly developing cities such as Nairobi devour ‘under utilised’ segments of themselves, in the endless push for development.

The future may see areas like Langata’s middle class housing swallow up lower class sections of Kibera slum, disproportionately displacing high density areas and handing them over to fewer occupants. Such scenarios may result in either slums springing up in other areas, or a resurgence in urban to rural migration as living standards sky rocket. The fact of the matter is that the middle and upper classes of Nairobi are growing, and the need for residential space will exponentially increase.