Brutalism and the newly independent African states, A case study: The Kenyatta International Convention Centre

The Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) is one of the greatest examples of Brutalist architecture in Africa. The building is an important reflection on the countries feelings as a newly independent country. The choice of architectural style, brutalism, is important. Brutalist architecture wanted to escape from all architectural conventions and to create truly modernist architecture that could be applied to buildings universally around the world.

So what is brutalism, let start by looking at the etymology of the word. Although many people think brutalism comes from the English word brutal the word actually comes from the French term béton-brut, meaning raw concrete. The word brutalism was coined by British architecture critic Reyner Banham. Hence raw concrete is one of the most important features of brutalism. Although concrete had been extensively used in buildings in the 20th century it was almost always covered and hidden by some other material in the facade. Brutalism wanted to show concrete as it was, the honesty of the building is an important idea in brutalist architecture. The building unapologetically showing what it is. A building must be honest and people should be able to ‘read’ the building’s structure from the outside. Brutalism was also conflated with equality and can be seen as one of the most important architectural styles of communist countries. Brutalism wanted to build a world of equality and egalitarianism, this meant doing away with historical and cultural backgrounds.

Brutalism wanted to show what concrete could do and to be bold in its use. Concrete is interesting for a number of reasons, the most important being that it takes the shape of the mould in which you place it, this makes it incredibly versatile. Furthermore, concrete can be used for structural and non-structural parts of a building. This means that concrete is just as useable to create a non-structural wall or an ornament as it is in creating the structural parts of the building. This meant that there did not need to be a distinction between materials used for structural parts of the building and materials used for ornamental or functional parts of the building, it could all be done in concrete. Brutalism can be seen at its base as an experiment in what concrete can do and how it could be used.

Brutalism became an architectural experiment in medium but also a political and social experiment. In the west, brutalism became the go-to style for large social housing projects, like Robin Hood Gardens, and large public institutions, like the Boston city hall.

Brutalism had its heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s right around the same time as many African nations were become independent, like the DCR (1960), Kenya (1963), Nigeria (1960) and Zambia (1964). These newly independent countries needed to build new buildings for there institutions and put their countries on the world stage.

African leaders needed an architectural style that showed how modern these countries were but also shows their independence from their former European oppressors. This required an architecture style that did not follow European conventions of architecture and a style that pushed away from all that had come before, brutalism was the perfect fit.

One such building is the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi.

The KICC is named after the first president and father of the nation, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. In the 1960’s Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his party, KANU wanted a new party headquarters in the centre of Nairobi. The party wanted a small four-story building and asked Norwegian architect Karl Henrik Nøstvik and Kenyan Architect David Mutiso to design a building.

During the design process, the IMF/World Bank choose Nairobi to host a large conference, this required a large new convention centre to host the largest conference ever to be held in Africa. The event would take place in 1973 and the KANU headquarters was chosen to host the venue. The 4 story building turned into a 28 story building with more than 200,000 square meters of space. The building’s new design needed to not only capture the new Kenya but show what a post-colonial Africa was capable of.

The new design had three main structures, a tower, plinth and auditorium. The building’s design is supposed to reflect a closed (the auditorium) and an open flower (tower). This idea is created by the cone shape roof of the auditorium and the inverted cone at the top of the tower. The building is therefore emblematic of the country blossoming into a free independent state. Nøstvik and Mutiso wanted the building to reflect Kenyan design principle and were inspired by traditional mud huts. This is where the round shapes in the building come from and also the brown colour of the building.

The building can be seen as a brutalist structure because of its use of raw concrete, most notably in the plinth. The ramps are very reminiscent of the galleries in the Robin Hood Gardens in London. The grand monumentalism of this ramp, which acts are the main entrance to the building makes the building feel gigantic. Another brutalist feature of the building is that the construction and use of the building is visible from the outside. The auditorium is clearly visible from the outside. The building is honest in its constriction not only in the exterior but also in the interior of the building, where raw concrete is also extensively used.

The building’s three main structures (tower, plinth and auditorium) are not only a separation of functions but these three structures are also visually split, most notably between the plinth and the auditorium. The joint between these two structures is formed by a glass entrance to the auditorium. The auditorium is held up by thin ‘n’ shaped concrete arches. This leads to a very clear visually division between plinth and auditorium.

The KICC is one of the many examples of brutalist architecture in post-colonial Africa. Other notable examples are the Central Bank of Kenya also in Nairobi, La Pyramide in Abidjan, the independence Arch in Accra and Kariakoo Market in Dar es Salaam. All these buildings wanted to push away from there European colonial pasts and show what post-colonial Africa would look like. Although brutalism fell out of favour across the world in the 1980’s the style forever embodies post-colonial Africa.

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