Ugandan architects struggle with the dilemma of what’s appropriate

The African Union laboratory in Nansana, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. Ikko Kobayashi and Fumi Kashimura/Terrain-Architects

Located in the heart of Africa, Uganda exhibits a spatial geography of stark economic contradictions. There is a relatively modern and better-serviced urban sector, and then a traditional rural sector where most Ugandans live. In urban areas, the affluent formal sector is juxtaposed against the informal sector, where perhaps more than 60% of the East African country’s urban population work and live.

Globally generated ideas freely penetrate the national boundaries deep into the innermost recesses of Uganda’s villages. Local architects and potential clients are exposed to state-of-the-art contemporary architecture. On large urban projects (particularly in the capital, Kampala), architects work to create a local version of cutting-edge architecture.

But something niggles. Their broad educational backgrounds, coupled with a critical understanding of local context, leave Ugandan architects with a nagging feeling that something is not quite right. They are driven to confront the ethical question: is it justifiable to produce isolated, resource-guzzling edifices?

These edifices propagate an irresponsible idea that modern materials, technologies and finances negate the need to differentiate between a building in the hot wet tropics and one in the hot dry desert or even in freezing temperature zones. Could there be a more contextually responsive alternative?

Open buildings

It is an ethical imperative for every architect to negotiate with the client to expand the design brief to fulfil the developer’s needs while promoting the public good. For example, in Mexico City Rojkind Arquitectos uses grand projects to provide for strategically significant private-public interfaces in the city.

Perhaps the most fertile potential for thoughtful urban place-making exists in the careful calibration of public-to-private gradations. The aim is to make the building more open to the greater public. This, while simultaneously empowering the main tenants with a range of choices as to the extent to which they will engage with the outside world.

By sensitively handling how the building interfaces with the broader city and street life, architects can contribute to creating positive places that make possible the mixing of minds and bodies. An example here is the 55-storey Commerzbank in Frankfurt. The building is embedded in city and social networks by enabling pedestrians to flow through it. It allows pedestrians to refresh themselves in its street-level cafés and restaurants.

A more radical example is by Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra, who uses his projects in Mumbai to blur formal-informal city dichotomies. He does so through carefully considered erosion of boundaries to enhance a bidirectional flow of ideas, bodies and resources.

Tradition and context

Architects can also initiate critical engagement with tradition and context. The quintessential Ugandan traditional building is a round grass-thatched mud hut in a homestead. Having evolved over centuries, it has responded to existing materials, technologies, skills and cultural practices and attitudes.

Arguably, it embodies lessons that can be unlocked through intense study. But the forces of modernisation have led to many people abandoning the hut in favour of tin and brick buildings.

A key characteristic of the traditional building was that it was built within the resources and expertise of a given community. It was therefore empowering and supportive of diverse and distributed niches of economic activity. The preferred brick-tin alternative obliges people to become ever more dependent on faraway manufacturers and suppliers. This ultimately weakens local societies.

Given modern aspirations, how can architects salvage tradition’s positive lessons? How to become modern and return to sources? The answer does not lie in the growing trend of designing modernised replicas of traditional buildings for entertainment and tourism.

Like fast food (which is ultimately bad for you), such replicas give instant gratification. But they are, borrowing from British architect Kenneth Frampton, best described as scenography – mere stage sets.

Cross-pollination needed

Tradition should not be static and frozen. Rather, it should be conceptualised as malleable and fluid. It should resiliently soak up the emerging demands and opportunities of modernity in the design and erection of buildings. This requires a double-pronged approach – one in which tradition and modernity are in dialectical opposition to constantly yield lessons for architecture.

Cross-pollination between tradition and modernity in terms of materials, skills and technologies is required. The broader objective is to strengthen endogenous craftmanship and make the building process more responsive to diverse economic and socio-cultural niches.

Contextual sensitivity also demands design of spaces that utilise and make us more aware of the richness of the Ugandan natural environment. Think building materials, landscape forms, lakes and flowing rivers, the beautiful sunlight, sunrises and sunsets. Include sheltering shadows, framing of views, channelling breezes to cool people, diverse flora and fauna, and the array of natural colours in this country.

Ultimately, the aim should be to design and erect buildings that do not brutalise but rather nurture societies and nature with multiple benefits.

The author acknowledges Ikko Kobayashi and Fumi Kashimura, who are also the owners of images used. This is a shortened, edited version of an article in Architecture Uganda, Vol 2 Issue 2. It is a publication of the Uganda Society of Architects.