Nairobi’s rapid growth has seen many of the city’s neighbourhoods enjoy a property boom. But the pace and scale of the development has also caused destruction, with old and historically significant buildings upgraded or replaced in full, by modern apartment buildings and office complexes.
A new movement in Nairobi, spearheaded by the National Museums of Kenya, is now seeking to list some of the country’s most treasured historical buildings, marking a very first step towards conservation of the country’s heritage, alongside its accelerated development.
Kenya already has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but these cover larger areas and focus principally on areas of natural beauty. The only Kenyan buildings listed by UNESCO are Fort Jesus in Mombasa and Lamu Old Town, with Nairobi featuring nowhere on the list.
This has left the city’s famous buildings completely unprotected from galloping modernisation, with no rules yet in place to distinguish buildings that go to form part of Nairobi’s distinctive character.
In the UK, English Heritage has devised a system whereby certain buildings that are old or hold cultural or historical significance, are listed, which not only celebrates their importance, but also brings them under the control of the planning system, meaning it is much more difficult to significantly alter or pull down listed buildings. All buildings built before 1700 that survive in anything like their original condition are listed, as are most of those built between 1700 and 1840. It is a form of protection that has not been afforded to Nairobi’s buildings. The Norfolk Hotel, for example, is older than the London Ritz having been built in 1904, but recent renovations have modernised the building and removed much of the building’s former architectural and historical appeal.
Similarly, London is well-adorned with blue plaques marking the former homes or birth places of former prime ministers and other people relevant to the history of the city, but Nairobi has yet to recognise the residences of famous Kenyans that have lived and worked in the city.
Thus people in England are informed that former prime minister Clement Attlee used to live in a certain property, or that Scouts founder Robert Baden Powell was born in a certain building, but the people of Nairobi are not told where, for example, Jomo Kenyatta or Ngugi wa Thiong’o lived in the city.
This new movement is in the formative stages, however, to now raise awareness of Nairobi’s own heritage, driven by the understanding that the unfettered development of the city could see the city lose its architectural heritage, never to be regained.
The first step is recognising the heritage, and with this in mind, a survey launched by Aref Adamali Consulting firm in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya and the Architectural Association of Kenya is seeking to formally list Nairobi’s most important buildings, with the input of those who live in the city.
Anybody is welcome to contribute their opinion, with listing symbolising an implicit request that the owners of the buildings do what they can to preserve them, as they are considered by the people of Nairobi to be part of the city’s identity.
A project steering committee will review the results of the survey before the list is made public, with some of the buildings to be incorporated into an architectural tourism circuit to be launched by the National Museums of Kenya.
A photographic exhibition of the buildings from the list will also be run sometime in 2012.
“Apart from conserving the past, recognising and celebrating the best of Nairobi’s architecture will ideally also raise the profile of good architecture and quality construction today,” writes Adamali.
“Good buildings improve a neighbourhood and give pleasure to a wider public than just their occupants. Together, they shape the feel of a city and help to create its identity.”
“This is the case for all kinds of buildings, from the grand, like New York’s Chrysler Building, to the more modest, such as the family homes that line Amsterdam’s canals. However, all of these buildings share something in common: their builders strove to create something that would extend beyond themselves and their own generation, at times ostentatiously, at other times quietly. But all of them wanted to build something that was in its own way remarkable.”
Buildings likely to be among those voted onto the list in Nairobi include the Times Tower, the Nation Centre and the Bull Cafe.
The public are encouraged to consider all types of buildings from all time periods, though the steering committee has also developed some criteria to guide the public when considering which buildings to nominate. These include great architecture and aesthetics, uniquely Kenyan or African architecture, representation of history and use of innovative technology or ‘green design’.
To vote in the survey please visit: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dG9icHRsejkxa3FDTC1HcjJxWVE5dWc6MQ.