Architects As Initiators of Change

Architects As Initiators of Change

By Rakhee Kantaria

Kenyan architects are working in contexts characterised by poverty, environmental chaos, rapid urbanisation and at times, political violence. Their profession validity is at stake unless the social and physical priorities dictated by these contexts are identified and adopted. The profession’s effective contributions to development and to economically and politically weaker communities must be addressed.

In Kenya, an attempt to capsule into a short time span the experience of centuries in terms of thoughts, methods and technological changes has led to a disruption of local systems and the erasure of local identities. In addition to the imposition of alien cultures by colonial powers, Kenya was also victim to the failed development strategies of the post-colonial period where intervention was motivated by political influence and commercial interest and not based on urgency and need.

It is now realised that development is not only economic gain but also the ability to emancipate people from mechanisms that exploit them. One of the most important achievements in modern architectural thought and design is the historical shift from the public, monumental emphasis to that of the individual in a more unified global context emphasising the poorer people of the world.

Why then do architects in Kenya end up working for a small percentage of the social strata… the economic elite? In the private sector, architects are providing professional services of high quality to the financially well-off. Now, the importance of these services cannot be gainsaid but considering that the majority of the population cannot afford them, is this justified? There are of course various involvements in, for example, the provision of low cost housing projects but private enterprises are overwhelmed by the obstacles to the progress of work due to the highly bureaucratic government organizations.

In the public sector, isolation from the initial decision-making and again, rigid bureaucracies restricts the role of architects to participation at the technical level rather than being effective as initiators of innovative approaches to environmental change at all political, social and technical levels. Unless new roles are defined, and architects’ influence is extended to serve the undisputed majority, many environmental issues will continue to be based on political or economic factors rather than the technical issues.

The extent of the architect’s role and influence in Kenya is based on reactionary approach rather than long-term. There is a dependence on individual initiative rather than the institutionalisation of advanced concepts and approaches which could survive the constant flux of political, social and environmental changes. The low-middle income urban and rural dwellers are continually forced to accept the lowest standard of services which unfortunately are incorporated in planning policies.

Two aspects of essential consideration in the architectural development in Kenya are instability and cultural identity. Traditional lifestyles have been disrupted due to external forces such as mass displacements of people due to political violence or hunger; relocations have occurred due to natural disasters or shifts in land uses, overwhelming forces of urbanisation have changed the character of towns and villages alike. This is the alien context in which a vast majority of Kenyans find themselves and they are unable to adjust.

The retention of existing cultural identities is as basic to the development of a people as the provision of basic facilities. It is the only way that communities will appreciate changes and guarantee their continuity. Any new system must evolve from and be built on cultural inheritance. Architects should not only have attained greater knowledge of their local environments but also a respect and appreciation for the established systems they are based upon. This will ensure that architects are always viewing problems from within and not assuming roles far above the reach of people and beyond their comprehension.

Architects must formulate effective roles in community groups at grass root level where the only predictable forces at work are those of continuous change. The process of change can be achieved through vital educational and research programmes preparing future professionals to be ready for this role. A deeper knowledge of local history and absorption of local and global experiences is the future architect’s fundamental tool in the process.

Architecture should be conceived as a public service and architects as initiators of change for the benefit of the poorer masses.