Architectural Heartbeats For Nairobi in 2013

An artist's impression of the Villa Rosa Nairobi Kempinski

An artist’s impression of the Villa Rosa Nairobi Kempinski

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.

Impression of the JKIA Greenfield Terminus

Impression of the JKIA Greenfield Terminus

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.

Click here to read my piece on ‘Africa and her Parliaments’

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

Delta Towers, Westlands, Nairobi

Delta Towers, Westlands, Nairobi

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

Artist's impression of the interior of the Moroccan restaurant at the Villa Rosa

Artist’s impression of the interior of the Moroccan restaurant at the Villa Rosa

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.

Click here to read my piece on ‘Of Princes and Palaces’

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

JKIA Greenfield Terminal

JKIA Greenfield Terminal

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.

A Height Above The Rest in Africa…

Federico Garcia Lorca once said ‘There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscraper’s battle with the heavens that cover them’. It thus appears that man’s constant and consistent thirst to aid the ‘metal monster’ is certain to blot out the sky from the ground.

A show of might, in days long past, would have been wars fought on battlegrounds; with mighty displays of ammunition and combat tactics. But, in the world of today, supremacy is firmly stamped with rather convincing showcases of economic might and ideology.

The artificial rooftop of the globe, at first, may have been the famed pyramids on the Egyptian deserts, but this scope was swiftly replaced with both religiously and politically significant structures, such as churches and monuments.

The Washington monument for instance, cemented America’s significance to the world, towering over all other nations since its completion, for well close to a century before the European cathedrals, with their gothic and romanesque architecture, took the mantle of height.

Through the decades, the world’s superpowers, or those countries that sought their podium in the global arena, designed towers which subsequently matched their international position. North America, for instance, had a firm grip on Planet Earth, with her skyscrapers which majestically rose out of her prominent cities: Washington, Chicago and New York. To this day, and well into the future if predictions are anything to go by, the citizens of these bastions of glory, will delight in being residents of the world’s greatest cities.

The ‘Heavens’ on Earth

The roll of honour for the tallest structure on Earth, goes to the hungriest city of them all, Dubai, with its over 2700 foot Burj Khalifa, which convincingly towers over the rest of the globe from deep within the United Arab Emirates deserts. Here’s the video to prove it:

It’s dizzying to even mention this, but the Royal family of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, have approved construction of an EVEN TALLER building than the Burj Khalifa, in Jeddah called the Kingdom Tower. Initially designed to stand at a height of about 1.6 kilometers into the sky, it was scaled down to 1000 meters, majorly because the geography of the area would not allow the unrealistic height.

The Kindom Tower (left) in Comparison to other projects and the Burj Khalifa (right)

The ‘King’ of the African Skies

It is then apparent, by silent consensus, that the greatest countries on continents across the globe, are also home to the very tallest.

In Europe for example, the British capital, London, now boasts the Shard building, elevated to a grand height of over 1,000 feet: it is the tallest of them all on the continent. Designed by Architect Renzo Piano, the marvel was opened well before this leading global city hosted the 2012 Summer Olympics, the greatest spectator sport on earth.

Towering above them all in Asia is the 1,667 ft Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan, though South Korean is fervently working on completing what is set to become the continent’s tallest  building, the Lotte Super Tower 123 (I have no idea what the obsession with numbers is) which should be opened in 2014.

Designed by Kohn Pedderson Fox, the tower will comprise a hotel, shops, apartments and offices, not only being owned by those who commissioned it be built, the Lotte Group, but also signifying South Korea’s aggressive economy and its desire to be marked as one of the leading nations on Earth.

The Carlton Centre, Johannesburg. Currently the Tallest building on the African continent

The King of Africa’s skies is, rather predictably, located in the capital city of the continent’s leading economy, South Africa, but it doesn’t even make it to the list of top 100 tallest buildings on the globe (shy of about 50 metres even).

The Carlton Center in downtown Johannesburg stands at 732 feet but is poised to surrender its title to an ambitious project dubbed Centurion Symbio-City which is underway in the country’s administrative capital Tshwane (formerly Pretoria).

Centurion Symbio – City

If and when complete, Centurion will enter the league of the top 20 tallest on Earth, standing at a whopping 110 stories which is just ahead of the Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois US but shy of the Petronas Towers in the Malaysian Capital, Kuala Lumpur.

East Africa’s Tallest Mammoth

The New Central Bank Tower (also known as Times Tower) happens to be the tallest structure in Eastern and Central Africa and is served by 10 elevators, comprising a 38-storey office tower, a 7-storey banking complex and an 11-split storey car park. The estimated total area covered is 60,000m2, all in reinforced concrete construction. This iconic building at the heart of the region’s financial and communication hub was designed by Architect James Njuguna Gitoho of Triad Architects for the Central Bank of Kenya and was completed in May 2000.

The building was designed to resist earthquakes and to repel all forms of forced entry into it’s main vaults, which of course was important to the Central Bank of Kenya, which commissioned its construction. Foundations for this mammon comprise 2 deep basements sitting on a reinforced concrete raft varying in thickness from 0.9m to 3.0m.

A key feature of the design, according to Times Tower’s structural engineers Howard Humphreys (K) Ltd, was to assess the seismicity of the area and to generate loading data to enable a computerized time-history analysis. This resulted in a safe yet economical seismic design that bore the Kenyan landmark.

Times Tower

Interesting to note is that Times Tower would not hold this prestigious title had plans by the Moi regime bore fruit in 1989 to construct the continent’s then tallest structure, a 60-storey headquarters at the heart of Uhuru Park to house the Kenya Times newspaper. This was in addition to KANU’s KICC, which at 28 storeys high, was the tallest structure in the region at the time.

This was an ill-timed and ill-placed project by all means, as Kenya was ‘enjoying’ and annual economic decline of -0.9% between the years 1980 – 1989. British architects had already designed the blueprints for the tower which would be built of concrete and sheathed in imported glass, aluminum and steel. It would have definitely put the ‘Green City in the Sun’ on the world map for at least a decade to come. All this would have cost the tax payer in excess of $200 million (adjustments over time on the currency changes apply on top of this).

The One Nairobi

There had been speculation from 2010 to 2011 about the British-owned international development company, Dubai-based the First Group, working on Africa’s tallest building, the One Nairobi, which would have stood at over 70 stories high (though the Centurion has far overshadowed this), but plans are believed to have been shelved, at least for time being, as investors are approached.

The One Nairobi would have been located in the Upper Hill area of Kenya’s capital and and undoubtedly boosted the country’s profile. The First Group are working on the One Kempinski Abuja which is meant to be ‘the epitome of high end living’ in Nigeria’s brand new capital city.

The Skies Ahead

It is therefore pertinent for Africa’s lions to literally RISE up to the occasion of vertical splendour in the race for the tip of the horizon. While struggling for economical advancement is critical to any country’s future, displaying this new-found status could also be instrumental to self-assertion and progress.

Though with the relatively tiny nation of Qatar planning to complete at least 300 new skyscrapers by the time it hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where does that leave the African continent in the race?

Interesting to Note

Yemen had its very own ‘skyscraper city’ in the 2nd Century. Known as Shibam, each of the buildings were built from mud and rose on average to a height of about 8 stories each, mainly to protect the citizens from the desert raiders.

The Yemen ‘Skyscraper City’ of Shibam

Luxury Has a New Address

There’s no denying that there is the established luxury syndicate in any part of the globe, be it New York or Hong Kong, even right here in our beautiful green city in the sun, Nairobi. There may be three social classes: the recurrently poor, the sprawling middle class and the wealthy… but to the rich there are four classes: the servants (the poor), the pretenders (middle class), the detestable ‘new money’ who feel they have achieved this position of power and will stick there, as well as ‘old money’ from a long line of the elite.

I wasn’t much surprised then when I found out that plush and upmarket neighbourhoods such as Muthaiga don’t just let anyone into their back yard: you have to be from a long line of wealthy Kenyan citizens, in other words ‘old money’. As a result, it’s like we’re playing a new kind of colonial game. A resurgence of segregation not based on race this time, but on possession. Never in modern Earth’s history has materialism controlled human desire to such extraordinary extent.

I was recently reading an article about the 1971 Iranian Monarchy celebrations that took place over a period of roughly two weeks. Basically, the Persian monarchy was celebrating its 2,500th year of existence, right from the time of King Cyrus the Great’s rule, and was meant to demonstrate Iran’s long history and the extent of contemporary advancements the ’empire’ had achieved under the time of the then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Razah Pahlavi.

Aerial view of the Tent of Persepolis

The preparations for this historic event took well over a decade, as a remote city, Persepolis, was identified to host the modern milestone mainly because of security issues that would make it easier to monitor. The infrastructure of the city had to be extensively improved, including the upgrading of nearby Shiraz Airport and an additional highway for the anticipated number of high profile guests. The support staff and press were based in Shiraz as only the invited guests and dignitaries would be staying in Persepolis.

The Tent City of Persepolis (Photo: David Dorren)

The Iranian government flew in plants from France, and even hired the exquisite Parisian restaurant, Maxim’s to cater for the entire event (Maxim had to shut down its operations in the French capital for the duration of the celebrations). The Imperial household had elaborate uniforms designed for them as well and 250 custom made red Mercedes benz sedans purchased to ferry guests to and from the airport at Shiraz.

The venue of the Tent City of Persepolis was set on over 160 acres of land: luxury tented apartments adorned in the finest of gold and linen, all designed in a star shape around a graand fountain at the centre of the lay out. The inspiration for this was the 16th century Field of the Cloth of Gold that bore the Anglo-French treaty of 1514. In total, 600 guests, including a long list of Eurpoean royals and African presidents, dined for over 5 hours, making it a Guinness World record for the longest and most lavish official banquet in modern history.

The Persepolis Banquet

If you were wondering where the notion ‘the party of the century’ came from…well there’s your answer. There has never been such an extensively lavish and grand gathering, to date. President Jomo Kenyatta, Queen Elizabeth II and President Richard Nixon did not attend though, because of ‘security concerns’ though I would rather much bet it would have been Israeli influences and reservations.

Nairobi has its fair share of opulence when it comes to fine dining and accommodation. We have the ‘old money’ hotels that include the likes of what is now the Sarova Stanley, the Fairmont Norfolk and the Nairobi Serena, as well as the ‘new money’ creme that harbours the Sankara and the Tribe Hotel. It’s no secret that the middle class is growing, and the rich are getting richer, and with the city being a diplomatic and celebrity haven, we’re likely to see more ‘high end’ focussed offings taking shape.

Read my piece on Princes and (mostly) European palaces

It is also predicted that by just 2014, East and Central Africa’s financial and communication hub will see its bed space more than double, with international hotel brands, the Chinese and a plethora of local and international investors displaying their might. I’ve heard but rumours of Sheraton, Marriot and Hyatt even prospecting how and when they would set up shop in what is the Safari Capital of the World. And with news that Nairobi’s luxury property is a hot topic on a global scale, the only hinderance to this becoming a ‘wealthy and elite’ jungle is… time.

One of the avenues I think is most underutilised in Kenya is the fact that we are the only ‘Third World Country’ with a United Nations agency headquarters. According to the recently released Wealth Report though, experts were asked where they saw the world in the year 2050. A general agreement was that dominant global cities would be overtaken in importance and precedence by a group of cities networked.

Of course then in such a scenario, at the top of the list was Washington/New York/Chicago, followed by Hong Kong/Shanghai/Beijing. In the first scenario, the consensus was that the three cities would geopolitically become more important than the whole of the United States by then, also attributing this to the fact that when the Chinese premier Jintao visited, he not only went to the American capital, but also stopped by Chicago. The second scenario doesn’t need much convincing, as China’s global role perpetually continues to be ingrained.

The merger of the ‘Diplomats’ Geneva/Vienna/Nairobi

A series of groupings followed, including Berlin/Frankfurt, Istanbul/Ankara, Sao Paolo/Rio/Brasilia and Cairo/Beirut. The interesting addition was the mega connection that is Geneva/Vienna/Nairobi which Prof. Saskia Sassen, the writer of the section of the report, said was a critical mass generated by a combination of institutions devoted to social questions and justice for the powerless. She said the cities may have been long overshadowed by global finance and mega-militaries but they would emerge as critical actors in the global arena.

No wonder hotels like the Tribe, pride themselves as being at the heart of the city’s diplomatic street. Popular travel and leisure magazine show ‘Jet Set Extra’ was recently in the country to ‘experience Africa’ and here’s the brief clip and interview with the Hotel’s General Manager, Mark Somen.

Jetset Extra Visits Nairobi’s Tribe Hotel from Jetset Extra on Vimeo.

Is it surprising that Wikipedia defines ‘jet set’ as: a journalistic term used to describe an international social group of wealthy people.

Great cities like New York and London were built on the sweat of a dedicated generation that forged together with a general purpose of making their city the best…not for others, but for themselves.