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