East African cities fighting for living heritage

The region needs a way forward, and very fast because everyone wants a skyscraper.

The iconic Christ is King Church which is to be remodelled. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NATION 


  • CHANGING SKYLINE: Cultural experts and civil society organisations argued that the Uganda National Museum, a landmark, should not be demolished at any cost. Instead the main structure and its environment must be preserved for posterity and cultural heritage


Christ the King Church in Kampala is one of the oldest remaining historical buildings in the city. It is also imposing one of a few iconic structures still dotting the ever changing city skyline.

It was therefore shocking to Kampalans this year that the 87-year old church on Plot 3, Colville Street, was going to be remodeled, both internally and externally, to make space for an additional three galleries to be built on the sides and back of the church.

According to a 2001 handbook, the church was officially opened to the public and blessed on October 26, 1930, to serve a growing Goan Catholic community in Kampala, majority of them former workers of the Uganda Railway construction projection.

The public uproar was not so much against the renovation of the church, but much to do with the general sense that Kampala was fast losing its architectural history and soul to modern skyscrapers, which are not necessarily aesthetically better. 

There was a precedent. The first British colonial modern building in Uganda, Fort Lugard, designated as an antiquity, was demolished by Libyan contractors 15 years ago to make way for the construction of the 15,000-seater Uganda National Mosque, which also houses the headquarters of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council.  

The fort at the Kampala Hill in Old Kampala area was gazetted as a national monument, and was built under the watch of Sir Frederick Lugard, in 1890.

Lugard raised the Union Jack at the fort when Uganda was declared a British Protectorate in 1890. The building where he lived was built between 1908 and 1910 and was the seat of the British government for many years. The fortifications were destroyed during the Idi Amin regime.

The fort’s fate was sealed when Idi Amin gave the 12 acres of land to Muslim Council on June 1, 1972 under Statutory Instrument no. 66 of 1972.

Amin however warned the council not to tamper with the building where Lugard first raised the Union Jack because of its “national importance” to the country’s history. Later, Fort Lugard was made Uganda’s first museum.

In 1999 however, the fort’s land was reduced to 10 acres as the Muslim Council took occupation, demolished the old fort and allocated a minute chunk measuring 50 by 40 metres for the relocation of Fort Lugard.

A new fort building was constructed on this small piece of land on the edge of the mosque, using contemporary building material in total disregard to the old fort’s original architectural style that included a floor was made of crushed cowry shells.

The “new fort” was completed in 2003 and the grand mosque in 2006. The latter was officially opened in October 2007 by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Recent case

The Uganda National Museum in Kampala was saved from demolition by a campaign which was led by cultural experts and civil society in 2011. The ministry of trade had proposed the demolition of the museum to make way for the construction of an ultra-modern $750 million 60-storied complex to be called the East African Trade Center under a private public partnership and build operate transfer arrangement.

Cultural experts and civil society organisations argued that the Uganda National Museum, a landmark, should not be demolished, at any cost. Instead the main structure and its environment must be preserved for posterity and cultural heritage.

The Uganda National Museum, a modernist building was designed by the German architect Ernst May. It was constructed between 1952 and 1954.

According to the former curator of Uganda Museum, Merrick Posnansky, the museum is ideally situated, close to the city centre and the other cultural icon of Uganda, Makerere University. The building was hailed by Unesco Journal on Museums in Africa in 1962 as one of the best-conceived museum buildings in Africa.

“With its brise soleil walls, it is perfectly designed for the climatic conditions of Uganda,” said Mr Posnansky.

“The curator’s house, that was also an architectural gem in its own right, was regrettably removed several years ago for the new wild life building,” he lamented adding that;

“Removing a collection, uprooting a cultural centre is an operation that requires considerable care and thought and should only be contemplated if the future location has more space.”

Legal tussle

Currently there is a legal tussle over the government’s proposed demolition of the piano-shaped 61-year old National Theatre building situated on Plot, 2, 4 and 6 on De-Winton Road. It houses the National Theatre and the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) headquarters in Kampala.

A Ugandan not for profit non-government organisation, Historic Resources Conservation Initiatives this year filed a case against the attorney general and the UNCC board of trustees at the High Court in Kampala, to stop the government from demolishing the National Theatre building.

According to the concept paper that was developed by the UNCC management titled Re-development Concept for Uganda National Cultural Centre,” the piano-shaped building will be dwarfed by ultra-modern twin towers. The proposed 36-floor cultural centre is estimated to cost over $100 million.

Artists who use the theatre also joined in the fray and are calling for its refurbishment and expansion instead.

Commenting on the Christ the King Church’s remodeling, senior lecturer at the department of architecture and physical planning at the Makerere University, Dr Allan Birabi, referred to a key universal principle on conservation of historic buildings in relation to constructions of new ones. It states: “No new monument should go up at the expense of an already existing monument.”

“As you may note about the trend in Uganda, this principle is not being respected. Existing historic buildings are being demolished, altered, desecrated, among others, or entirely replaced with new ones in the name of development,’” Dr Birabi told The EastAfrican.

“Ideal development is to allow for new structures to come up side by side with old ones but not doing away with old ones and in place having entirely new ones. Development does not destroy but rather it respects what already exists unless the structural integrity of the existing structure is notably dangerous,” Dr Birabi added.

Sufficient space

The church’s administration however has allayed public fears that the extension works will interfere with the building’s aesthetics, saying that the first extension works on the church were done in 1977 to increase the seating capacity to 600 and did not interfere with design.

Parish priest, Msgr Gerald Kalumba said; “The main reason for this renovation and extension is that the church does not have sufficient space for worshippers. It seats approximately 600 people and we’ve had to have five services on Sunday, with each mass overflowing with worshippers.” 

Henry William Ssentoogo, of Ssentoogo and Partners, the project consultants and architects, declined to discuss the detailed remodeling architectural plans citing the architect-client confidentiality. He instead referred The EastAfrican to the church authorities.

“Henry Ssentoogo recommended that the old church should be demolished in order to extend it. The new living quarters and offices will now be attached to the remodeled church,” Msgr Kalumba said. 

“In his submission Henry Ssentoogo indicated that he wanted to keep the original architectural impression for history and posterity, and for the people’s appreciation of their old church,” Msgr. Kalumba added.

The statues of Jesus and the Mary in the grotto in the church’s foreground will not be removed, but will be remodeled together with the building’s front elevation view.

The work already being done on the ground. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NATION 

The reconstruction is being undertaken by MS Seyani Brothers. The reconstruction that will be done in phases began in November 2016 and is expected to be completed in April 2018.

Kenya’s situation

The office of the directorate of antiquities, sites and monuments at the National Museums of Kenya has been having discussions with the public about Nairobi’s historical buildings.

“Without the old architecture,” says Hoseah Wanderi, a research scientist in the department, and an anthropologist interested in human culture, “Nairobi would lose its Nairobiness and would then be like any other city in the world.”

One of the buildings is the Kenyatta International Convention Centre opened in 1973 — not exactly a heritage building — but one with fine architecture and a landmark on the city’s skyline. “When you look at Nairobi’s skyline, the KICC gives it a strong identity.”

“Building a city is a progressive affair,” continues Wanderi. “You can’t press a start or stop button to it.”

“Nairobi is being swallowed by highrise buildings,” said Dr Purity Kiura, the head of the directorate of antiquities, sites and monuments that includes statues and green spaces.

While Josephine Gitu, who like Wanderi is a research scientist in the department agrees that not all buildings can and should be preserved, she insists however that;

“People should know the historical importance of these buildings. Nairobi’s central business district still has a lot of old buildings and many that are not gazetted. There is a real lack of awareness about the historical importance of these buildings and therefore a need for more sensitisation.”

Acclaimed architect Donald Insall states, “Every building has its own biography.”

Scanning through the file of Nairobi’s gazetted buildings in the central business district, there is still a good number of building certified as monuments.

These are the 1919 Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) building on Moi Avenue; the 1929 Standard Chartered Building on Kenyatta Avenue with magnificent facades and colonnades; the 1934 City Hall on City Hall Way with Italian renaissance architecture and impressive portals; the 1920 Khoja Mosque on Moi Avenue built with shaved Nairobi stone; the 1913 old Provincial Commissioner’s office (now the Nairobi Gallery) and Kipande House both on Kenyatta Avenue dwarfed by the ugly brown Nyayo House. The one that takes the accolade is the High Court building on City Way described as the “finest architectural building in Nairobi and supposed to be the centre piece of the Grand Kenya.’

The IBEA Building (1919) on Moi Avenue, Nairobi, is a certified monument among many others. PHOTO FILE | NATION 

Way forward

“You cannot run away from history by demolishing building and statues and we cannot change history,” says Wanderi. Although very few of the historical buildings in downtown Nairobi have been lost, the case is worse in once planned suburbs of Westlands, Parklands, and Ngara where the art-deco period houses have been replaced with towering monoliths of glass and steel.

“The Heritage Act gives no incentives to benefit the house owners,” explains Wanderi. “In some cities once the building is gazetted, home owners can get waivers from paying land rent and exemption on other taxes. Nothing like that exists in Kenya.”

Dr Kiura however says in some instances communities appeal for preservation of such heritage, a case in point being the community of Nairobi’s Kariokor. “The residents there want the school, post office and other buildings gazetted. It’s their heritage.”

“However,” adds Dr Kiura, “there is some interest from the civil society.” She cites the case of Kariokor, one of Nairobi’s first housing estates. But on the other hand, the counties in their quest for development are happy to bulldoze their way into buildings of heritage importance.

“But there is resistance now from county governments as they attach no value or pride in their national history.” This includes Nairobi county. One prominent case is that of Desai House – the residence of the late freedom fighter Jashbhai Motibhai Desai on Parklands Second Avenue.

Built in the 1920s, it was the meeting point of the freedom fighters of the day – Jomo Kenyatta (founding president), Achieng’ Oneko, Pamela Mboya, Kung’u Karumba, Paul Ngei and other African independence leaders such Julius Nyerere Kenneth Kaunda and Joshua Nkomo.

The house has been gazetted, de-gazetted and re-gazetted as a national monument in the space of eight years with on-going ownership battles.

Inherited by his sons, one sold his share to a company that wants to change its user rights. The new owners managed to have the house de-gazetted but the National Museums of Kenya had it re-gazetted. “Where on earth have you heard of such a case of de-gazettement?” asks a bewildered Kiura.

Dr Kiura advocates for a monument policy that would identify national monuments, stakeholders, protection and increase public awareness of national monuments.
“If this doesn’t happen, we will lose our history and our national memory,” she lamented. The region needs a way forward, and very fast because the way things are now, everyone wants a skyscraper.

Additional reporting by Rupi Mangat

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