Is UoN Tower a mark of fading creativity?

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BY KENYATTA OTIENO

Construction Review Online describes the University of Nairobi Tower as an epitome of refined architectural skills and a quest to address the increased demand for university education against limited space at the already crowded university. It also says that the building affirms the university’s position as the hub of architectural thought, innovation and champion towards the provision of environmentally friendly-solutions.

The tower is a pet project of former University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor and current Chairman of Kenya National ExaminationS Council, Prof. George Omore Magoha. The building made its way to the cover of Prof. Magoha’s autobiography – The Tower of Transformation Leadership. The 21 floor tower looks like it is walking from Norfolk Hotel across the road to the university’s Great Court but first, it has to squeeze between Gandhi and Education Buildings so as to reach the green lawns. The building exemplifies a university reaching up into the sky but looking inside.

I am not going to take anything away from Prof. Magoha’s legacy at UoN; the tower is a product of great idea and vision. I watched the tower come up but I did not have a full picture of how it will look like. Upon completion, every time I saw it, it left an aftertaste that went down into my heart that there is something about it that does not cut the descriptions that were put forward before construction began. In short, the building looks out of place. But I kept it to myself until my friend Irene Akinyi posted about it on Facebook that I found my voice on it.

During my undergraduate studies at UoN, I discovered that the ‘L’ shaped Gandhi Building viewed from Harry Thuku Road just outside School of Engineering looks like a ship trying to avoid a Titanic hit on Central Police Station by turning its head into Moi Avenue. There is a kitchen at the corner of the building, which emits smoke from the ship as well as flag masts that give it a real ship look. The building was designed by B.W. Webb.

When you look at the side of the building overlooking Harry Thuku Road from Great Court, you will notice that the UoN bookshop is shielded from you the sun shading structures that look like giraffes whose long necks go through a horizontal barrier to support the roof of the building. I heard that they were designed to signify the quest for students to reach the higher fresh branches of academic excellence. The giraffe appears in the university’s logo.

Diminishing Creativity

The UoN Tower looks out of place because of the inspiration behind the buildings that it was squeezed between. Times have changed and as it fleets it has taken our creative minds from the inspirations of old to the plain, tasteless and glassy (slippery) forms that you will not miss in buildings that have come up at the turn of twenty-first century.

In 2012 Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) conducted a survey of Nairobi’s architectural icons. Of the top fifteen buildings only one was constructed after 2007, the Coca Cola Headquarters in Upper Hill.  Top on the list is the pineapple inspired KICC in a list that has Cooperative Bank House, Ghandi Building, Kipande House and Holly Family Basilica while the maize cob based Lilian Towers that houses Nairobi Safari Club is missing. Cutting edge creativity has been diminishing with time.

Knowledge structure is a product of genetics, environment, skill sets and experiences that create our proverbial box, the one that has now become a cliché in the phrase, think out of the box. Over time it seems our environment has changed a lot in our quest to acquire skill sets through education. Genetic and experiences are kind of personal but our collective experiences or lack of it seem not to inspire some outstanding building designs. Our social box is growing bigger with time thus inhibiting our ability to think out of it.

Modern architecture was greatly influenced by growing use construction materials like glass, steel and reinforced concretes. This is what led to the shift from Neoclassical styles in the twentieth century. There are several theories and ideas that have shaped building designs through the ages. The most revolutionary according to me is Expressionism. It has its roots in Germany in early twentieth century as a counter to the strictly functional architecture of the earlier forms of design. Its pioneers wanted to create architecture that was poetic, expressive, and optimistic. They were World War I veterans and their experiences in war and subsequent political turmoil in Germany shaped their agenda.

I believe the new architects are products of closed environments and socialization. This means that expression is limited to the normal and accepted. The second half the twentieth century lacked major events that could have led to paradigm shifts in thought and expression. The downturn is effects of globalization and the information age, which means that a designer in Nairobi can gather ideas of worldwide trends at the click of a link and duplicate them locally.

Watch Tower

I am not an expert in building and related environment but I am a citizen expert in building use. It is people, a group I am part of who make use of buildings once they are complete. I hear the UoN Tower interior is a state of the art. I can vouch for our great interior designs some of which are as soothing as they are mind-blowing. Are we shifting our creativity from the external to intrinsic values?

If I were part of a focus group brainstorming on the tower, I would have proposed that its design should be based on the Gandhi Wing ship. The tower could represent the harbor where the ship is leaving as either a loading crane or watchtower. The exterior colour would also be in shades that blend well with the existing buildings. I still believe we have revolutionaries among us who can come up with iconic designs and still remain as modern as possible.