Ben Britton: Building Independence – the Kenyan Parliament

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Anthony Kersting’s photographs of the Parliament Buildings in Nairobi illustrate, rather neatly, the contrast between the two stages of its design. The first section, built in 1957, was commissioned by the colonial government, whilst the second was completed, by the same architect, following the country’s independence in 1963. The architect in question was New Zealander Amyas Connell, who, following a career in the UK in the 1930s, relocated to East Africa, and eventually attracted the attention of Kenya’s British governors, who sought a suitable design for Kenya’s post-independence parliament.

However paternalistic a gesture, the building and its history tell a complicated story which reflects a wider trend in the Global South, whereby international cooperation and modern architecture were implemented as part of the decolonisation process, and coincided with the adoption of policies of Non-alignment.

A photograph of the Nairobi parliament building, taken by Anthony Kersting. The photograph is black and white and shows the modernist clock down rising up from the low buildings. The photograph is catalogued as KER_PNT_G06606.

‘Nairobi, National Assembly Building’, by Anthony Kersting, KER_PNT_G06606. Kersting’s ledgers date this photograph to the 12 March 1968. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

The most prominent aspect in the first image is the clock tower. It was not, however, included in Connell’s first draft, and instead represents his response to the criticisms levelled by the British, who considered the designs not English enough, and lamented that it did not look remotely like Westminster. Indeed, the coolness and near-classicalism of the surrounding buildings represent not just the modernising of Kenya’s political environment but were designed more than anything in response to geography. The Modernist architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who did a considerable amount of work in Lagos, Nigeria, had recently published an influential and detailed study of Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone[1], which demonstrated the practicalities of the Modern style in equatorial countries. So as to appease the British, however, Connell included the central clock tower (then the highest building in Nairobi), a modern mock-up of St Stephen’s tower. There is something comically absurd, however, in its reduction to pure rectangles, and the omittance of Gothic detailing anywhere other than the clock-face itself.

Drew and Fry’s influences extended beyond the African continent. Most famously, they were invited by Prime Minister Nehru to be part of the design team headed by Le Corbusier for the new city of Chandigarh, a symbol of India’s post-independence development. Architectural Modernism was a prominent feature of many newly-independent nations, and, even in countries in which it was implemented prior to the end of colonial rule, a unifying feature of many Non-aligned countries.

Founded in Belgrade in 1961 and rejecting formal alliances with either of the Cold War superpowers, the Architectural Modernism movement allowed for communicative processes beyond those of ‘Iron Curtain’ politics and bloc-formation. As well as the work of Western architects, architectural historian Łukasz Stanek details the Modernist buildings designed by Eastern Europeans in a variety of Non-aligned nations at the invitation of post-colonial governments, as part of a process he deems “socialist world-making”[2]. Although not a founding member of the Non-aligned Movement, Jomo Kenyatta represented Kenya at the 1964 Cairo conference of these countries, and the parliament buildings represent an important addition to the Modernist practices and ideological implications which developed in the Global South.

A print of a black and white photograph of the parliament building in Nairobi, taken by Anthony Kersting. This photograph is catalogued as KER_PNT_G6608.

‘Nairobi, National Assembly Building’, by Anthony Kersting, KER_PNT_G06608. Kersting’s ledgers date this photograph to the 12 March 1968. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

These ideals are nowhere more stark than in the second section of the buildings, in which Connell takes a decidedly Corbusian approach, and which incorporates a sculptural frieze depicting the triumphant victors of the independence struggle. It is a shame that Kersting did not take a detailed picture of the frieze (the sculptor of which is unknown) as it is the most direct affront to the pro-British sentiment of the earlier section. His photograph does, however, demonstrate the fluidity and breadth of the National Assembly Building, housing the Kenyan parliament’s lower house. It is, in its architectural form, a testament to the newness of the country, both domestically and in playing a role on the international stage.

As Dennis Sharp writes, the building is an attempt “to develop a new and relevant architecture appropriate to the burgeoning political situation”[3]. The employment of the Modern style, which was implemented across Nairobi consistently in the post-independence period, was by no means constitutive of socialistic revolutionary activity; it was, however, and remains to this day, a demonstration of a solidarity shared across the Global South, to participate in international politics on the basis of positive neutrality, and to maintain relationships, architecturally or otherwise, beyond the division of the world into colonial and military blocs.


Ben Britton
Digitisation Volunteer

References

[1] Drew, J., Fry, M. (1956). ‘Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone’, Tropical Housing & Planning Monthly Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 2-7

[2] Stanek, Ł. (2020). Architecture in Global Socialism, Princeton University Press

[3] Sharp, D. (1983). ‘The Modern Movement in East Africa’, Habitat International, Volume 7, Issue 6, p. 323

Hannah Wilson: Visions of London

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Read by Anne Hutchings

Text Version

Over the last few centuries, London has inspired architects to imagine how they would reshape the city to their own distinct styles. After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren proposed a new street layout for London, with streets dividing building blocks into rectangles around St Paul’s Cathedral but branching out from central points in the areas east and west of this. This plan was never carried out and the majority of the old irregular street layouts were maintained. Since then architects, either as individuals or groups, have presented their visions of how they would alter the skyline, buildings and roads of London. Many of these designs were never built and now all that remains of these abandoned plans are the drawings the architects produced.

Some of these designs can be found in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute, alongside collections of photographs showing buildings and monuments across the globe. The collection’s three boxes on the architectural drawings of 20th-century British architects reveal three planned design projects for buildings and streets which were never fulfilled which show great variation in their visions of a reshaped city with differing architectural inspirations from classical and romantic to more futuristic.

Sir Christopher Wren’s plan of London

Sir Christopher Wren’s plan of London. CON_B04591_F005_016. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Classical

 

Design for the Selfridges Tower

Design for the Selfridges Tower. CON_B04816_F006_021. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Model of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Jona Lendering [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This monumental tower was intended to be built on the roof of the Selfridges store on Oxford Street and was designed by architect Philip Tilden in 1918. His other completed designs often included restorations and extensions of politicians’ houses although none of those quite matched the scale and ambition of this project. Not much is known about why Selfridge had commissioned this design or the exact reasons for why it was never built but it shows a vision of great grandeur and is reminiscent in some ways to the tombs for rulers and kings from the Classical period such as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus which is believed to have had a similar large podium with colonnaded areas and sculpted figures but the proposed tower appears to be larger in scale than even these monumental tombs.

The proposed tower would have fitted stylistically with the pre-existing Selfridges building which features more Ionic columns along the shop front, conforming to the concepts of “Beaux-Arts” architecture which was particularly popular in the 19th century. This was achieved by including classical and neoclassical decoration while using more modern features such as steel frame interior.

The expense of such a construction may have contributed to it never being built but its existence would have also radically changed the skyline of London at the time. The drawing makes the tower appear to be around 4 to 5 times taller than the main building. Since Selfridges is already five storeys high, the tower would have equalled or potentially surpassed the 111m high St Paul’s Cathedral which would have been the tallest building in London in 1918 and had been since 1710. Even today, it would have probably ranked among the hundred tallest buildings in London.

Futuristic

 

Design of Bond Street

Design of Bond Street. CON_B04816_F006_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

20 years later, the Glass Age Town Planning Committee proposed their own vision of a changed London. This time, these architects were not limited to a single building but instead proposed plans for rebuilding the entirety of both Bond Street and the Strand. Luckily for the Courtauld, Maxwell Fry seems to have allowed Somerset House to remain intact in the upper right corner of his drawing. Alongside a reimagined Bond Street by Howard Robertson, these designs formed part of the February 1939 issue of Architectural Review. The two images in the Conway Library would have been among designs for several other parts of the country including Princes Street in Edinburgh and parts of Liverpool, all depicting buildings using glass as their main exterior material.

The large scale destruction of older buildings required for these plans to happen and a lack of any form of planning permission are both factors which prevented these designs from becoming a reality. But the purpose of the committee itself was initially mainly to be part of an advertising campaign by Pilkington Brothers Ltd., a glass production company, to both promote their product as a building material and also present concepts of how buildings in the 21st century could look with further developments in technology and modern architectural styling. These designs could subsequently be as radical and unrealistic as the architects wanted because they were so unlikely to ever be built. Yet it still presents an interesting insight into how architects in the 1930s may have thought architecture could develop and how they imagined a future London could look.

Design of the Strand

Design of the Strand. CON_B04814_F006_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Modern Strand (Google Earth)

Modern Strand (Google Earth)

The view of the Strand now is different to how the Glass Age Committee would have seen it but it may not have changed as much as they would have expected. The formation of tower blocks has never occurred in this area although the redevelopment of Charing Cross station later in the 20th century increased the amount of glass in its design. The skyline of London is also now dominated by glass skyscrapers, most prominently the Shard. In some ways, the Glass Age committee’s ambitions for greater use of glass in building came true, although not necessarily in the ways they had imagined or proposed in these drawings.

Romanticism

Less than a decade after the designs which aimed to promote modernist architecture and technology to 1930s Britain, the Royal Academy Planning Committee took a very different approach to how they would redesign London.

Drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral

Drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral. CON_B04816_F006_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Modern St Paul’s Cathedral

Modern St Paul’s Cathedral (Google Earth).

This picturesque drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral was published as part of a book, London Replanned, by the Royal Academy in 1942 in response to 1940 and 1941 bombings of London causing large scale damage. Unlike the clear and precise images of Bond Street and the Strand produced by the Glass Age Town Planning Committee, this pencil drawing is much more delicate with atmospheric clouds, a focus on more traditional architecture and featuring several small steamboats in the foreground. This image could depict a Victorian or Edwardian period London, a contrast to the emphasis on modernity proposed by other architects only a few years before and has much greater stylistic links to drawings and paintings by 18th and 19th century Romantic artists.

Although it is the only image from the Royal Academy’s book stored in the Conway Library, it would have been part of a building project even more extensive than that of the Pilkington commission. Among their plans for most of central London were a new road layout around St Paul’s, wide roads around Piccadilly Circus and a redevelopment of Hyde Park.

Royal Academy Hyde Park Corner drawing (www.royalacademy.org.uk)

Royal Academy Hyde Park Corner drawing (www.royalacademy.org.uk).

Modern Hyde Park Corner (Google Earth)

Modern Hyde Park Corner (Google Earth).

These drawings in the architectural drawing collection of the Conway Library give a snapshot into how different architects and groups thought London could be redesigned and how these views changed throughout the first half of the 20th century in response to the emergence of modernist architecture or the damage to London in the Second World War presenting the possibility of a significant redevelopment. The drawings of Bond Street, the Strand and St Paul’s also form parts of wider projects to redesign large proportions of London which were never fulfilled and little evidence remains of their ideas other than in these types of drawings. When considered together, these designs present interesting contrasts between a structure with links to classical features alongside more contemporary building materials, plans which imagined how the future London would look and a redesign of London combining traditional buildings with large expansions of roads and parks. If any of these plans had been carried out, they would have significantly reshaped the layout and design of London as it is today.


Hannah Wilson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

 

References:

    • Parnell S (2014) In praise of advertising. Architectural Review.
    • Pilkington Brothers Ltd. (1939) Architectural Review.
    • Royal Academy (1942) London Replanned. Royal Academy of Arts: London.