Is this the death of Uganda's national theatre?

Saturday October 8 2016

Artists want Uganda's National Theatre refurbished and the building renovated instead of the proposed demolition that will see it replaced by a 36-storey complex. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

Artists want Uganda's National Theatre refurbished and the building renovated instead of the proposed demolition that will see it replaced by a 36-storey complex. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI 

By Bamuturaki Musinguzi

The arts and culture fraternity in Uganda is up in arms against a government plan to demolish the iconic 60-year-old piano-shaped building that houses the National Theatre in Kampala, and replace it with a 36-storey modern tower.

If the government has its way, the facilities on Plot 2, 4 and 6 on De-Winton Road will be demolished as per the proposed redevelopment of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC).

After six decades of existence, the UNCC management is now claiming that the theatre is no longer habitable and has come up with an upgrade concept for a new building that it says will have more auditoria and commercial space.

According to the concept paper titled Redevelopment Concept for Uganda National Cultural Centre, the management of UNCC says that it intends to rehabilitate and optimally utilise its land.

“The land is prime and underutilised which has attracted and continues to attract investors most of whom are not fully grounded in the advocacy and promotion of culture,” the management argues.

The land and facilities on De-Winton Road, a prime location in the city centre, houses the Uganda National Cultural Centre headquarters and one of its two constituent institutions namely the National Theatre, with the Nommo Gallery, the national gallery, situated on Plot 4 on Victoria Avenue.

The De-Winton Road property measures 3.624 acres of which 1.084 acres accommodates a car park with the National Theatre building, the Crafts Village and a restaurant sitting on the remaining 2.54 acres. The structure of the Crafts Village and the restaurant are semi-permanent.

The Nommo Gallery building, a restaurant and a private art gallery sit on the 0.822 hectare land on Victoria Avenue. The structures of the restaurant and the private art gallery are also semi-permanent. According to the concept paper, these structures will give way to a five-star hotel.

Nommo Gallery building was originally a guest wing of present State House lodge which former First Lady Miria Obote donated for use by Uganda's artists.

Deplorable building

The redevelopment concept paper says that the theatre building’s flat roof is incompatible with the tropical climate and has continued to leak despite annual repairs. The roof of the main stage is made of asbestos, a substance that is now banned and is overdue for replacement.

The proscenium has limitations and cannot fully accommodate modern productions. Coupled with this is the small auditorium with a capacity of only 377 seats, now a drawback as most productions and functions draw larger crowds, the concept paper notes.

The paper adds that the UNCC car park is underutilised given that it can only accommodate a maximum of 120 cars even though it sits on 1.084 acres.

The centre has also not been generating enough funds to use for the development of new facilities or expand the existing ones.

Proposed new building

Estimated to cost over $100 million, UNCC says the proposed modern cultural centre will have four auditoria, office outlets, apartments, a food court, a crafts centre, a traditional medicine centre, an exhibition hall and visual arts laboratory, an art gallery, a language centre, a conference hall, a car park, a five-star hotel and the Ministry of Culture offices, among others.

The proposed new building will also take the shape of an “adungu” — a stringed musical instrument of the Alur people of northwestern Uganda. It is an arched harp instrument with between seven and 10 strings.

An artist’s impression of the proposed towers to replace the Uganda's National Theatre. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

An artist’s impression of the proposed towers to replace the Uganda's National Theatre. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

But cultural experts argue that theatres and museums are stand-alone buildings that should not be housed in a commercial set-up.

Artists and other stakeholders in the arts and culture sector have also weighed in by rejecting the proposed redevelopment concept and are instead calling for the refurbishment and expansion of the existing facilities.

Artists are wary that “politically connected investors” want to grab the prime plot and contend that even the current facility has not been effectively utilised; and point to the government’s continued failure to support the arts and cultural sector in general.

The producer and co-curator of the Kampala International Theatre Festival, Deborah Kawe Asiimwe, argues that there is no need for any new constructions. “I don’t think that, that is the most pressing need that the UNCC has. Why do we need to redevelop or expand the UNCC facility? Is traffic so heavy that we need additional space?

“Personally, I would suggest that we opt for renovation. From the outside, the building is a shadow of its former self. The inside is even worse. I would recommend that the space is grown through major renovation. The great thing is that the original designers of the space had that in mind, and left room for expansion,” Asiimwe told The EastAfrican.

National Theatre not on sale

However UNCC management says the with the proposed redesign, the new building will showcase the different aspects of Ugandan culture. In addition, the redevelopment concept paper notes that the new centre will have enhanced visibility and because of the many commercial facets will widen its revenue base, ensure optimal use of the prime land, and contribute to the national coffers through taxes, fees and donations.

Gender and Culture Affairs State Minister Peace Regis Mutuuzo said: “We are firm on the redevelopment; there are a few anti-development elements who are busy inciting artists and the public against this noble cause. They have decided to misinform the public that the government is selling the National Theatre. This is absolutely not true.”

But according to the director of Theatre Factory, Philip Luswata-Kafuluma, the UNCC Act totally disenfranchises the artists.

“All powers over decision making are vested in the line minister and the board. They are free to buy and sell as they will. The way things stand now, they [ministry] are in agreement on building the towers. The only way to reclaim this facility is by petitioning to revise the Act and stop what they are doing or by going to court. These are the two options we are looking at,” Mr Luswata-Kafuluma told The EastAfrican.

Artists are also planning to petition the Speaker of parliament to seek the intervention of legislators.

Established by an Act of Parliament of 1959, UNCC is a semi-autonomous body under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. It is mandated to preserve, promote and popularise Uganda’s cultural heritage locally and internationally; to entertain and educate the public using theatre and film; and to enhance and safeguard the quality and standard of the arts in the country.

'Embarrassing symptoms of extreme national ignorance'

The National Theatre building is among 51 buildings and sites in Kampala, that were constructed before 1969, reflecting Uganda’s socio-cultural, religious, political and economic history that have been identified by the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) and its partners as an important step towards the preservation and promotion of these assets.

In an annotated map titled Kampala’s Historical Buildings and Sites – Our Valuable But Vanishing Heritage, CCFU observes that Kampala is fast expanding and becoming a modern city, but it is also losing its historical and cultural identity, especially as historical buildings and sites get modified or demolished.

“The principles of conservation of historic buildings state that the artefact (for instance, a historical building) remains highly priced as long as its authenticity is kept intact. Second, demolition is a last resort if the structural integrity of the building is deemed ‘dangerous’ to its owner-occupiers,” senior lecturer at the, Department of Architecture and Physical Planning, Makerere University Dr Allan Birabi told The EastAfrican.   

“As such, the global conservation movement of historical buildings gets outraged by moves such as these to demolish the National Theatre and replace it with something else. No monument should prosper at the expense of another. In the first place, this building is among the few ‘listed’ historic buildings of Uganda. Hence, its demolition would be a big blow to the urban cultural tourism of Kampala in particular and Uganda in general,” Dr Birabi, who is also a Unesco expert for Africa, and Uganda’s representative to Unesco in Paris, said.

“Second, there is enough land on site to make an extension of the National Theatre if capacity is the problem. And that would in fact enrich the cultural landscape of that part of the city and the cityscape given that it would physically tell the story of the architectonical growth of the theatre. As such, any moves to go ahead with demolition of the National Theatre are embarrassing symptoms of extreme national ignorance about the value of accumulated material cultural heritage for the identity of the nation,” Dr Birabi added.

The piano-shaped National Theatre building is among 51 buildings and sites in Kampala, that were constructed before 1969 reflecting Uganda’s socio-cultural, religious, political and economic history. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

The piano-shaped National Theatre building is among 51 buildings and sites in Kampala, that were constructed before 1969 reflecting Uganda’s socio-cultural, religious, political and economic history. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

Strategic plan

Artists have now developed a five-year work plan titled Concerted Efforts towards the Reclamation and Promotion of the Arts in Uganda: Strategic Workplan 2016-2020, expressing their desire to take over and revive the National Theatre following frustrations by the UNCC board of trustees and the ministry. The artists allege a sharp decline over the years in the promotion of the arts at the National Theatre and the country as a whole.

“This decline is a result of the lack of organised promotion of the arts in production and presentation. The lack of well-crafted production processes has impacted on the presentation processes and has thus led to a sharp decline in the audiences and service users,” they say.

“All sections of the Uganda National Theatre building and the Nommo Gallery need urgent repairs and renovation. The buildings need total refurbishment to meet modern artistic demands,” they add.

According to the artists, the auditorium has been neglected over time. The stage, lights, seats, curtains, air conditioning and emergency exits, and all stage pits are in need of refurbishment. “We need to replace the old English system of high voltage power consuming lights with less power consuming yet better performing LED lights,” the artists suggest.

In their resolutions and subsequent meeting with the minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development Janat Mukwaya, on September 2, the artists asked UNCC management and the ministry to produce land titles as assurance that no one has sold the land.

They also asked to examine the original master plan of the National Theatre for comparison with the proposed redevelopment plan. They argue that such comparison will show, if at all there is a need for a new plan.

Ms Mukwaya regretted that her ministry officials did not consult stakeholders widely to get their input into the plan. However, she assured the artists that the current National Theatre building will not be demolished but renovated to accepted standards.

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The current building was designed by Peafield and Bodgener Architects and completed in 1956 as the National Theatre and Cultural Centre in the shape of a piano. The piano was representative of British influence and cultural dominance that had nothing to do Ugandan culture. The construction was financed by subscription and public funds, and upon completion, the colonial government established a trust for its administration.