Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hauptstadt von Ostafrika

On the same April weekend that I passed through Nairobi Airport's ill-fated terminal, I had a few hours to walk around Central Nairobi during a busy Monday. This was only my second visit to the Kenyan capital, and I don't know much about the city's history or its architecture, and I don't have time to research them enough to write a post equal to an equatorial Urban Trawl. But I so enjoyed wandering around the center of town that I wanted to share a few pictures of the city (which I couldn't narrow down to much fewer than 40). 

Moi Avenue at Tom Mboya plaza, with Stanbank House at right.

Nairobi is one of the most important cities in Africa and the hub of a large multinational region of nearly 200 million people. Like many a 20th century metropolis, it has its origins as a frontier railroad junction. Today the city sprawls southern California-style across an area where drier savannah meets greener hills, however the heart of town is a relatively small and compact grid, reflecting the colonial ordinance of more than a half-century ago. At independence it was a city of 250,000, and the population of the entire country (about 8 million in 1960) was closer to the population of greater Nairobi (over 3  million) today. 
Moi Avenue looking south from City Hall Way and the Hilton,
 the Ambassadeur Hotel at center.

While Kenya's economy has been growing rapidly in the past decade, along with much of the Africa, and its importance as a regional hub burgeoned simultaneously, Nairobi, like its airport terminal, retains a distinct air of the immediate post-colonial period, with striking examples of English mid-centuryism. While central Nairobi has constantly added large buildings in the 1980s, 1990s, and the past decade, and office towers are sprouting across the city while the urbanized area has oozed outward for miles, much of the city center's largest and most prominent office buildings all come from a building boom that built momentum in the optimistic ebullience of post-independence, and peaked in the early 1970s. 
Kenyatta State Hospital, like a Tricorn Centre on the horizon.

Bruce House, Muindi Mbungu Street.
20th Century Plaza cinema, Mama Ngina Street.

There are a number of such buildings around central area of the city, some in a certain state of dilapidation, from what appeared to be a lack of maintenance and heavy usage more than city-center abandonment, while many others which were examples of classic quasi-colonialist modernism. 

Norwich Union House, Kimathi Street.

It is somewhat astonishing to encounter, for instance, the Norwich Union House, with its bright yet faded paint of primary colors, and even without the incredible plaque depicting the grandly bucolic Norwich Cathedral emblazoned on its concrete elevation, it seems straight out of Oxford Circus. Nearby, the Hilton tower has stood for decades, and there is nothing so much like its presence on the divided boulevard of Moi Avenue than the London Hilton on Park Lane, or so it seemed to me. 

The Hilton, by Tel Aviv-based architects Zevet.

Norwich Union House is only one of many examples of facades featuring bright paint jobs, shaded in a range of color-television linoleum palette. There are two bright blue buildings within one block of each other on Utalii Street, one the Chester House, which seems to be a staggered arrangement of balconied apartments, and the other Jamihiriya House, which apparently has its origins as the Libyan government's building, although I would have thought that would make green the choice of color. 

Jamahiriya House, Loita Street. 
Chester House, Loita and Market Streets. 

I wasn't able to enter many of the buildings, just in general this wouldn't be feasible anywhere but in Nairobi especially, there is high security at most important addresses; this is the city of the 1998 embassy bombings. One tower I was able to enter was International House, due to its double-storey lobby of nothing but airline ticket offices (could there be anything that lends more to mid-century atmosphere than a city-center airline ticket office?). A hanging dual stairway, paneled in red marble, allowed access to the mezzanine, although only South African Airways was selling tickets on the 2nd floor, as the gentleman at the Air Malawi office regretfully informed me that the company has temporarily paused offering flights to Blantyre due to "administrative issues."
International House, built 1968-71. 

Double stairway, mezzanine level of the International House.

There is much else to central Nairobi besides Brittania and brutalism. The influence of the Arabian Gulf on East Africa is ancient, but as in most everything, everywhere, the influence of Dubai has crept in recently, although not so much in the way of wavy blue mirror glass curtains. What reminded me most of the UAE was this fascinating trio of tall buildings standing side by side together on a narrow alley, like nothing so much as one of the less impressive and updated stretches of Sheikh Zayed Road, or so it seemed to me. 

KEMU Towers and siblings on Utalii Lane.
Utalii House, Utalii Lane.

Nearby is Kenindia House, with a butter-colored billowing buttress sloping down from its columned face. Presumably, the name is a combo of Kenya and India, as South Asians have had a major commercial presence in East Africa at least since the British facilitated their arrival in the region. 

Kenindia House, Utalii Lane/Utalii Street

The heritage of South Asians in Kenya is only further evidenced on the Mokhtar Daddah Street, facing Jevervee Park, where 70 year old storefronts, most built by Indian merchants, make for an orderly if forlorn block in a less happening stretch of downtown. 

Mid-century commercial houses, Moktar Daddah Street facing Jevanjee Gardens.

The Old Mutual, Kimathi Avenue, a pre-independence edifice.

Probably the strangest-looking building in Nairobi is the dual-turreted Nation Media Centre, its floors alternatively striped in light grey, an unintentional Adolf Loos reference, with some sort of broadcasting mast, bright red, vertically up the center in the space between the two towers (which I will avoiding referring to as a warrior's spear).
Looking north down Banda Street, terminating at Nation Centre.

 I'd love to spend some more time understanding this architectural class, this exuberant, over-complicated, mis-fired modernism. There's an unwritten book on weird buildings like this, all across Africa. Indeed I think a belt of them is arrayed across the middle of the planet, from Marrakesh to Manila, where giddiness and non-existent zoning allows such strange creations. 

Kenyatta Avenue looking north to the Nations Media House.

The western edge of downtown is defined by the University of Nairobi campus, which is seemingly unaltered from the mid-1970, right down to the decorative-grille doorways and signage: 

On the other side of town sits Harambee Avenue, Kenya's Wilson-era Whitehall, which like its London cousin is surprisingly diminutive and off-center from the capital's larger axes. Instead of colonnaded Georgian blocks, Harambee is a parade of vintage modern office blocks consisting of the treasury, the ministry of finance, the President's office, and the state-backed Kenya Power company in Electricity House.
MOMWE Foundation, Parliament Road at Garden Square.

Electricity House (now Kenya Power House), Harambee Avenue, 1974.
The Old Treasury Building, with the National Bank Building at left.

Like many an African capital, much of Nairobi's commercial-looking skyline is in fact government offices, including the massive Telepost Tower, home to the Ministry of Post and Telecoms. 
Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, Kenyatta Avenue.

In a narrow alley off Harambee, is the Zentech House. Internet research has not even confirmed if I have the name correct, or what goes on inside, and I couldn't even understand if two wings enclosed a courtyard, but it was nonetheless a beauty. 

After this astonishing set of elevations, I came upon the much more massive Kingdom Securities House, infamous as the sight of the 1998 Embassy bombings which blew out all its windows, but today fully refurbished and looking sleek in its angled blue glass fronts framed in concrete, like a sub-Saharan Solow Building in New York, although the white stone siding looked more Marble Arch than mid-town Manhattan. A matching sloped banking hall sits at its base.

Kingdom Securities House. 

Nothing quite embodies the Englishness of Nairobi's architecture so much as the stone-sided City Hall, which could be plopped down on Euston Road tomorrow and no one would notice. 

Nairobi City Hall.

Like many developing countries, Kenya is a difficult place to do business, especially something as capital-intensive and physical, in all senses of the word, as real estate. Lack of skills, higher costs, and corruption drag development. It's hard to get buildings built here, and generally only the government (or its donor partners) have the means to, which leads to very conservative constructions, so its all the more remarkable when there is any style, flair, of thoughtfulness. While such statements are generally true globally, like so much of society's hard edges, the realities are sharper here. A bit of decent design becomes an exuberance, a touch of dated decor a marker of a moment when the country tried to lurch forward, such as the early-desktop computer era octagonal openings on the block-long Kenya Commercial Bank, built sometime in the early eighties, inspired by the nascent aesthetic of personal computers as the first ones arrived in Africa:

Kencom House. 

Or, equally but in a completely different way, the rugged, raw-concrete daring of the Kahawa House, the offices where Kenyan coffee's commoditization is centralized. I was so mesmerized by this Umoja-Harambee Unité d'Habitation that I actually ignored the honking of a shared taxi and nearly got run-over photographing it. 

Kahawa House, the Coffee Exchange, Nairobi Aviation College, Haile Selassie Avenue.

These are curious buildings, their Britishness either overtly the result of Home-country firms dominating Kenyan industry and professional expectations and standards during and after colonialism, or the lack of glittering 21st century towers. The continued presence of so many nearly-historic mid-century buildings much more the result of dysfunctional economics and corrupt politics than historic preservation or aesthetic dedication. I wonder, as Kenya surges toward 50 million people by 2050, and Nairobi seeks to position itself as the super capital of Central Africa, which of these buildings will stay standing, which Kenyans continue to value. 


  1. I wish you ventured further out from the CBD maybe you would have gotten a wholesome feel of Nairobi. May not agree with some of the assumptions made here but, great read. Thanks for the documentation and education.

  2. There is no Kenya Communications House. If you had bothered to ask you would have been informed Kencom stands for Kenya Commercial Bank. Kencom is its head office.
    But then, you know better than the owners don't you?

    1. Sorry you're so upset that I wrote this and that it included an error. Thanks for pointing it out, I fixed it. Try not to be so sore, sarcastic, jealous and arrogant when reacting to things other people do.


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