Tag Archives: Kenya

Infrastructure between Statehood and Selfhood: The Trans-African Highway

Kenny Cupers, Prita Meier


Focusing on the 1960s–70s project to build a trans-African highway network, Infrastructure between Statehood and Selfhood: The Trans-African Highway argues for the need to develop a more dialectical understanding of the relationship between people and infrastructure than current architectural and urban scholarship affords. As Kenny Cupers and Prita Meier describe, African leaders imagined infrastructure as a vehicle of Pan-African freedom, unity, and development, but the construction of the Trans-African Highway relied on expertise and funding from former colonial overlords. Based on archival research, visual analysis, and ethnographic fieldwork in Kenya, this article examines the highway’s imaginaries of decolonization to show how infrastructure was both the business of statehood and a means of selfhood.

Map of the Trans-African Highway project, late 1970s (Rolf Hofmeier, “Die Transafrikastraßen: Stand der Planung und Realisierung,” Africa Spectrum 14, no. 1 [1979], 35).

Map of the Trans-African Highway project, late 1970s (Rolf Hofmeier, “Die Transafrikastraßen: Stand der Planung und Realisierung,” Africa Spectrum 14, no. 1 [1979], 35).

From the automobile and the tarmac road to the aesthetics and practices of mobility these fostered, infrastructure was a vehicle for the production of subjectivity in postindependence Kenya. This new selfhood, future oriented and on the move, was both victim and agent of commodification.

A. M. Martin & P. M. Bezemer (2019): The concept and planning of public native housing estates in Nairobi/Kenya, 1918–1948, Planning Perspectives, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2019.1602785

Open Access PDF:

Estate lay-out Kaloleni, 1943, A.J.S. Hutton. Source: G.W. Ogilvie, The Housing of Africans in the urban areas of Kenya. The Kenya Information Office: Nairobi. 1944

Abstract: Interwar public housing estates for native citizens in Sub-Sahara African cities, represent hybrids of global and local urban concepts, housing typologies and dwelling habits.

The authors explain such hybrids via exploratory research note as a result of transmutation processes, marked by various (non)human actors. To categorize and compare them, Actor Network Theory (ANT) is applied and tested within an architecture historical framework. Nairobi/Kenya functions as pars pro toto with its Kariakor and Kaloleni estates as exemplary cases. Their different network- outcomes underpin the supposition that actor-oriented research can help to unravel a most essential, though neglected part of international town planning history.

Plan and elevation of two one-room dwellings, Kaloleni, 1943, A.J.S. Hutton. Source: G.W. Ogilvie, The Housing of Africans in the urban areas of Kenya. The Kenya Information Office: Nairobi. 1946


Architecture in the Twilight of the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

April 18, 2017, 6:00-8:00 P.M., 20 Cooper Square, 2nd Floor, New York University

African Cities Week

This moderated discussion concerns architecture and emergency urbanism in history, focusing on the constructed environment of the UNHCR-administered refugee camp complex at Dadaab, Kenya, near the border with Somalia. Paradoxical for its scale and ephemerality together, the Dadaab complex at once approaches and resists being “urban,” on the one hand, and a “camp,” on the other. Established in 1991 to shelter thirty thousand refugees, the Dadaab complex expanded over the course of a quarter century to five settlements with a compound headquartering a centralized structure of humanitarian agencies. According to unofficial counts, it currently houses one half million refugees and asylum seekers, along with humanitarian aid workers in residence. In early 2016, citing security threats, the government of Kenya announced that it would close the complex prior to the next general election, and dismantled the Department of Refugee Affairs as a decisive measure. Through a detailed discussion on design, use, aesthetics, and affect at the Dadaab site, we hope to study the social and political lived realities of an environment constructed to be liminal.


Introduction by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi

Discussion with Samar Al-Bulushi, Alishine Osman, Ben Rawlence, Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi

Moderated by Rosalind Fredericks

Remarks by AbdouMaliq Simone

Organized by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, with Rachel Stern. For more information and teaching materials related to this event, please see:

24 hours in ‘downtown’ Nairobi

Dr. Ola Uduku, Dean of Africa, University of Edinburgh

Nairobi definitely has its charm. Unlike West Africa’s capital cities with their myriad of pot-holed or dirt tracks for roads, Nairobi’s roads at first glance seem akin to being in South or North Africa if not the West. The motorways seem to thrust the driver into the superhighways and traffic freedom that most of Africa can only dream of. Even the traffic lights work – in a peculiar manner we found out.

Image set 1: Downtown Nairobi

A trip from the airport to the city centre however can take 2 hours at peak traffic congestion periods or if it rains, so the absence of potholes does not equal speed of arrival. As one nears the city various parts of the skyline become more visible. An abstraction of the empire state building, followed by a squat version of Big Ben, signifying the parliament buildings, then the thrust of downtown Nairobi. The informal city seems well removed from view as the planned city is viewed before one’s eyes. Conference over, on day three a motley group of presentation weary conference attenders take a walk through central Nairobi – this is what we saw.

Starting out a vantage point on Kimathi Street we walked past the ‘hip’ Java Café to a bookshop in search of Iwateni and Wanjiku’s A Brief Tour of the Buildings of Nairobi, five-star recommendation if you can find it. I wanted to find Dorothy Hughes’ cathedral, which seemed absent from our Guidebook, we finally found a very short paragraph about it – clearly not significant to our guidebook writers. We nearly walked past its unimposing exterior façade.

Image set 2: Cathedral designed by Dorothy Hughes

Security in Nairobi has heightened since Westgate, so getting in to the building required bag searches and photography was not allowed. A discussion with the priest in charge gave us the permission we craved. Hughes’ oeuvre is definitely worth viewing. The play of light and the scale of the glazing enraptured us for the better part of half an hour. Its expressed structure also mimics well the stonework of the traditional European church in cast concrete ribs with occasional delicate details. Presumably planned to respond to the post Vatican Council 2 church layout, it has the alter moved from the apse to engage more with the congregation. This works well in relation to the cruciform structure of the layout.

Enroute we came across the memorial to Lionel Douglas Galton-Fenzi who was involved in an early car rally, which established road routes from Nairobi to various parts of East Africa and founded the East African Automobile Association. The monument also marks the historic central milestone for Nairobi Kenya, and gives distances to various faraway destinations. Not in terribly good shape but gives a sense of Nairobi in relation to the rest of the African continent.

Next stop KICC Centre. More security checks to get in to what, at first glance seemed, an inauspicious entrance to a rather large structure. As we make our way to the entrance however the structure begins to emerge. A very Scandinavian group of offices in a watered green setting soften’s the structure a brutalist concrete façade from ground level upwards to the scaling of a group of Swedish chalets. The entrance podium level is dark wood and retains its seventies interior design. The trace of a once clock strikes the right spot for the pre tower climb. The lift to the 27th floor works, and we get out before realising there is still some climbing to do. The top of the tower gives an amazing vantage point. A few other intrepid visitors share our view, Nairobi revealed, is a very green city but noisy too we can hear the soundspots and see the transport chaos from afar. Fast trip down and a coffee stop with a great view of the building – we didn’t make it into the conference centre but viewing the interior setting compensated for this. The detailing cries back to the Barbican Centre in London, apparently Norsvikk worked with the architects dept of Kenya city council – might there have been an exchange of ideas?

Image set 3: KICC Centre

Could we take in a few more buildings before dusk? The central mosque, next and across the road from Hughes and Polkingham’s Pensions building. A wall of high-rise architecture with a podium shopping façade. We split ways at the mosque as I wasn’t allowed to visit the male areas. The mosque occupies a large expanse of land in the CBD. Its been constructed around a much older mosque and now has a number of ancillary facilties. Part of its original site is occupied by a bank building which we found out later was one of Kenya’s first local savings banks.


Image 4: Mosque and Bank 

We trudged out of the CBD on surely one of the best-designed footbridges in Nairobi to the campus site of the University of Nairobi, separated from the CBD by a busy motorway. An oasis of calm set around a quad, this did seem like the quintessential tropical university college campus. A few somewhat newer large additions including a school of Architecture and planning did not detract from the original quad buildings. To one side was the Nairobi Synagogue another visit for another day. Finally we made our way to Kenya’s National Theatre situated opposite its five-star Fairmont Hotel, used for the filming of “Out of Africa”, once owned by Tiny Rowland, and survivor of a 2010 terrorist bomb attack. We walked in on a major event for Kenya’s elite and had our beers and dinner whilst we ‘people-watched’ and were offered canapés on the balcony.

If you have the morning to spare, (we did it the next morning), a visit to the National Museum at the aptly named museum hill would be a great way to end the tour. Be careful of traffic lights where the ‘green person’ does not necessarily grant you right of way. When you do get through the doors bite your lips and pay the hefty foreigners fee, it will be worth it. It’s a series of buildings knitted to gether with good architectural nouse. The original building is a colonial affair, added to this is the Aga Khan wing, and its most recent addition formalises the setting into a court yard with the obligatory entrance, museum shop and café all being part of the project. At a location somewhat further downhill on the site is a snake sanctuary, which we decided to give a miss to. We were treated to an installation display showing the Scandinavian contribution to architecture and development in East Africa with Norvikk starring with the KICC tower and others who had contributed less show piece buildings but more development focused infrastructure to East Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Various parts of Kenya’s history from early skulls of pre neandrathel man, to the legacy of the Leakey family and banking, which brings the viewer back to the 20th century with the m-pesa exhibit. The museum café should round up your 24 hours in Nairobi city perfectly with locally brewed Kenyan coffee on tap.