Architecture Kenya

A frenzied and insatiable appetite for the boundary wall and its equally sinister equivalent the ‘gated community’ seem to have permeated our urban culture, and irreparably so.

 This resident’s only concept is part of a growing global urban living trend driven largely by a siege mentality of insecurity and exacerbated by acts of terrorism of the recent past. Yet in its pure form, it represents a damning aspect of social decline, instability and delinquency, an unsanctioned assault on public space and human decency. 

A tour around the city reveals the travesty that public space has become. For every built structure that is coming up, there is a fence, boundary wall or whatever other barrier to enclose it. The street today has become a disturbing retreat from the public realm where everyone is a suspect and every building a potential target. Whatever happened to defensible space? The idea that openness enhances security.

Where democracy expects open societies, our fears are drastically returning us to the safety of fortresses. Who are we running away from anyway? Ourselves?  Where architects are expected to sell the concept of defensible space to the public, drawing after drawing is submitted to the local Authorities complete with a boundary wall detail. Does this represent failure on the part of Architects to advise clients or a tacit endorsement of this troubling and ruinous concept?

For the gated community be it an enclave for the rich and famous or subdivisions of the working class represents in its stark form separation by income, economic opportunity or race all seeds of social instability.  Whilst golf and country club developments are understandable in their quest for exclusive lifestyle and prestige for their contemporaries, the security developments have fear as the greatest motivator. Yet both represent an embattled community whether by excesses of capitalism or unverifiable security concerns. 

For starters Gates and fences are in themselves not impenetrable to serious criminals and neither do anything to curb crime arising from residents. In any case evidence of enhanced security remains anecdotal and unverifiable. Where they enclose inequality in society, they have exacerbated, not reduced social tensions upheaval and controversy.

We have a solemn duty to build communities which are the only hope in solving our social problems. Physical design, architecture, landscaping and lighting have a place in fighting crime and encouraging social community responses. This is what urban design has always envisaged ‘eyes on the street’ being the best defenses against security threats and crime. 

What then is the measure of nationhood when neighborhoods and public buildings require fences and patrols to keep out their fellow citizens? How will nations fulfill their social contracts if they prevent social contact? It is time to rise up to these attacks on the very idea of democracy.
Two major earthquakes in quick succession:  One shocking in its devastation and damage, the other, though several hundred times stronger, much less deadlier. This is the story7 of Haiti and Chile. Haiti suffered an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale almost totally vanquishing its major cities especially the capital Port au prince, the heart of the devastation with an estimated death toll of about 230,000 people. Yet Chile’s earthquake several hundred times stronger has claimed much less lives comparatively and has had far less damage to infrastructure and buildings.

At the heart of these very different outcomes is the Building code and its enforcement. Whilst Chile maintains one of the most stringent and strictly enforced Building codes on the planet, Haiti is trapped in the perennial tragedy of lackluster building regulations common in poor and developing countries. In these cities, a haphazard and rudderless frenzy to erect buildings in the wake of rapid urbanization more often than not ignores sound building practices in the pursuit of quick profits in an environment of excess demand. 

Authorities that are supposed to enforce these regulations view it as a basis to extract bribes from willing unscrupulous developers out to make a quick buck. In this tragic matrix of unfettered greed, an alarming number of urban dwellers continue to live in perpetual graveyards.  The devastating experience of Haiti rings very well of what would happen if our city Nairobi experienced an equivalent earthquake or of a lesser magnitude.  In a city where buildings collapse even before completion, it is not farfetched to imagine that it wouldn’t survive a serious tremor. Recent mild tremors gave Nairobi residents sleepless nights. Quickly and as usual whenever the integrity of buildings in the city is in the news, talk about building regulations, enforcement of the Building code and weeding of quacks in the industry came up. As soon as the tremors disappeared, all these fizzled away as we went back to our old destructive habits. 

Yet the risks we put ourselves into are there for everyone to see. A casual  visit to most neighborhoods in the city especially low income neighborhoods  of Eastlands, Kayole, Komarock, Kariakor, Esatleigh, Kangemi amongst others reveals an upsetting pattern of unregulated building frenzy , structures of highly suspect integrity and zero indication of adherence to any planning guidelines.  Whereas the building code clearly stipulates that all residential buildings above four levels have a lift, this is always adhered to in the negative even by Architects.  We may not agree with the current building code and genuinely so- there are efforts to completely overhaul it- but neither do we have the wherewithal to totally disregard it. 

City Hall, an institution so hopelessly corrupt cannot alone be entrusted the safety of city dwellers. A situation where what counts to have a building approved is the amount of bribe one is willing to part with cannot be allowed to be the order of business. Architectural practices, Architects and Engineers who connive to perpetuate these behaviors cannot be allowed to persist in our midst. The AAK must desist the theatrics of rushing to collapsed building sites whenever damage is done and seriously engage to have a thorough enforcement of the building code. 

The time for action has never been more urgent. We must organize the professional community to ensure that not only are building regulations adhered to, but also ensure that a thorough exhaustive audit of all buildings in the country is done and those found unworthy condemned and demolished without hesitation. Only then shall the credentials we so happily claim as professionals in the building industry be worth the paper they are written on.  Even if this decision would see all buildings go, it is far much better to live in a tarpaulin shed, than in a perpetual disaster zone.