Architecture and Identity – East Africa Series

Nairobi SGR Station

The LFA is the world’s largest annual architectural festival – running each year from 1st to 30th June – with a programme this year of more than 450 public events run by over 260 organisations and individuals – engaging in one way or another with an audience of over 400,000 people.

At its most basic level, the identity of any world city like London is instantly recognisable by the silhouette of its architecture. From Sydney’s Opera House to New York’s Empire State Building, we recognise and identify our cities by their buildings.

Of course, identity and architecture are much more closely entwined than the look of our cities.  The identity and cultural background of any architect has a profound influence on the architecture they create.

London has always been an open and international city. Nearly a third of architects working in London are from overseas – including from the former colonies of the British Empire or more recently from the European Union.  Architects have brought their different backgrounds, identities and ways of thinking to vastly improve the dynamism and creativity of London’s architecture sector.

And so too London-based architects have travelled the world creating some of the most world’s iconic buildings in their wake.  The looming effects Brexit stand to change the identity of our architectural sector in many ways.

To coincide with our festival this year we wanted to explore ideas of architecture and identity more broadly – to get a bit of perspective.

So we travelled to Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia to bring you a series of Architecture Masters interviews.  Given our changing identity, we thought these countries might offer some insights.

How have architects working in Kenya and Rwanda had their identities influenced their British, German and Belgian colonial histories. And what of Ethiopia – which largely escaped European colonialism – but was fascinatingly influenced by orthodox Christian architecture.

Much has been talked about immigration and identity in the UK of late.  But London is not alone in having its identity shaped by immigration. So what then of the large scale Indian and South Asian migration – mostly as a result of indentured labour – into the horn of Africa during British Colonial rule, in large part to build the early railways.

And what of the identity of architects themselves. Kenya just 900 registered architects – about the same number as Wales – and Rwanda has an even smaller community of architects with barely over 100 registered architects. How does a relatively young profession define and identify itself with so few role-models?

There could scarlessly be a more interesting trio of countries to learn about identity and architecture.

These episodes have been made possible with help from the British Council’s Art Connects Us programme for which we’re immeasurably grateful.

Our first few episodes come from Kenya – a young country which only gained independence – from Britain – in 1963.  Over the next few episodes we’ll be speaking Kenyan architects, designers and educators – keen on finding out more about their work but also exploring their perceptions of identity and architecture.

Those early railways might have been built largely by indian labourers, but what impact is Chinese construction and architecture having in Kenya now – particularly with the opening of the recent Standard Gauge Railway from Nairobi to Mombasa, built and funded largely by Chinese firms.

And the Chinese influence continues to Ethiopia where the recent Addis Ababa to Djibouti Railway along with Addis’s urban metro railway system which were both designed and constructed by the Chinese.

We’ve got got two episodes from  Addis Ababa – Africa’s fourth-largest city and it’s diplomatic capital as home to the African Union.  This relatively young capital city might have been built without much input from architects, we’ll hear from some of the current crop of Ethiopian architects trying to change that.  We’ll also hear about of Ethiopia’s architectural identity through the world Heritage site of Lalibela and it’s stunning churches carved out out of the ground from of solid rock.

Later on, we’ll bring more episodes from Kigali in Rwanda

In the western collective mind, Rwanda is perhaps most associated with the 1994 Genocide – linked, in part, with early colonial desires to measure, classify and give identi ty of different ethnic groups.

But Rwanda’s emergence from such horror has been as rapid and profound.

Kigali stands apart from many other African cities, perhaps having more in common with Singapore than Senegal.  Unlike Nairobi, much of the city was built post independence.

The country too has undergone a profound series of identity changes – having in 2009 switched from French to English as the language of the education system – and at the same time joining the Commonwealth.

Finally, after the London Festival of Architecture we’ll bring some of the ideas together into three programmes which explore identity and architecture, along with some of  my personal observations from some of the amazing people I was privileged to interview.