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Kampala

by Tom Sanya

Technical report by Susan Dawson

Photography by Adrian Hobbs, Richard Nightingale and Ben Kilburn

Architects' Journal, 11 May 2006

'The main focus is Cullum and Nightingale's British High Commission in Kampala, a contextual building finding a balance between openness to climate and the inevitable concerns of security.'

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Other articles about this project:

Credits:

  • Client:
    Foreign and Commonwealth Office Estate Strategy Unit
  • Project Manager:
    Ridge
  • Contractor:
    Cementers, Kampala
  • Architect / Lead Consultant:
    Cullum and Nightingale Architects Limited: Richard Nightingale, Ben Kilburn, Rafael Marks, Edward Rutherfoord, Carolyn Steel, Melanie Brunning, Lucy Pritchard
  • Architect and Structural Engineer (Kampala):
    FBW
  • Structural Engineer:
    Price and Myers
  • Environmental / Services Engineer:
    Rybka
  • Environmental / Services Engineer (Kampala):
    Multikonsults
  • Landscape Architect:
    Melanie Richards

'From the very start, the new British High Commission in Kampala, Uganda, sets out a low-key theme. Located in Kamokya, a pulsating suburban centre to the north-east of the central business district, it announces itself only by brick planters that hint at the red fired clay forms glimpsed through preserved fig tree. The steeply sloping site is shaped like an arrow with the short shaft abutting the street. The shaft is reserved for guest parking and entry while the remaining space accommodates the building and staff parking, leaving the arrow-apex free for landscaping.

'The High Commission reads like a group of three buildings, each of which is composed of a concrete frame with a brick masonry envelope and hollow-clay-block floors. The main building is composed of two rectilinear masses separated by a courtyard and connected by an elevated walkway. It runs counter to the direction of the steep site contours to create a dramatic rise from two storeys at the entrance side, through three storeys at courtyard level to four storeys at the lowest end. The visa-consular building is connected to the main building by another bridge and lies on an axis askew to the courtyard's orthogonality.

'In this trio of buildings, fired clay is displayed in all its red glory in the walls, the roofs and parts of the floor. The bricks in the external wall are laid rough face out, contrasting with the generous grey-framed glass windows. The brick is given a subtle tripartite articulation, completed by the clay pot screens that ventilate the roofs. The same subtlety is carried through in the articulation of the window surrounds with special bricks and in the repetitive vertical rolls mouldings that modulate the walls. On the main building, this polished aesthetic is completed by the monopitch clay-tile roofs that slope towards the courtyard. The roof of the wider visa-consular building is also clay tile, but double pitched with a clerestory vent.

'In each wing of the main building, rooms are arranged in a row off a single-loaded corridor that faces the courtyard, allowing for cross-ventilation. Each room is simple, with a wooden door off the circulation spine, opposite which is a window to the world. The walls and ceiling meet crisply without adornment and are plastered plainly to receive cream water paint, whereas the floor is covered grey carpet.

'As a visa or consular services-seeking visitor, you go down a path bordering the dusty road that marks the western site boundary. You then proceed along a covered walkway, shielded from the main building to the left by a brick wall into a spacious hall - with a high ceiling and exposed trusses - with a feeling halfway between a church and a warehouse. Waiting areas are furnished with spartan wooden benches and separated by a glass screen from the visa-consular open-plan office space ahead, and the more private offices to the left and right. The visa-consular building is adjoined to the western wing of the main building by a bridge at courtyard level. In the late morning, this bridge was a pleasant space, awash with light filtered through the red-clay screens that define its sides.

'Overall, this is a simple design which achieves richness by a series of surprises: the landscaped court; the resplendent bridge and the pergola-covered terrace (which is an extension of the cafeteria located a level below the courtyard).

'The approach to design and construction are laudable. The building projects its Britishness while remaining responsive to the local context. The timber was sourced locally and in a sustainable manner. Brick, the building material of choice for a burgeoning Ugandan vernacular, is used in new ways to experiment with dimensions, novel applications (like the louvers) and appearance. Furthermore, by choosing to expose the bricks, the project demanded a level of attention to detail that runs counter to a growing tendency to bury mistakes behind shiny finishes.

'By gracefully stating that this is not business as usual, the High Commission has, in process and an aesthetic expression, contributed to the illumination of architectural possibilities innate in Uganda and also focused attention on some existing questions. The possibilities being to use the courtyard to break up functions into small buildings, as is the case in local tradition, and in the beautiful Ugandan soil that can offer our rich palette of construction materials. Also, by expressing brick so boldly, this building must have jogged the minds of the public into considering the relative suitability of veritable fired clay vis-à-vis applied finishes. In all this, the most refreshing aspect of the High Commission remains that it stands neither as a monument to the British Empire nor to the architect but as a simple place to work that is a product of the soil in which it exists.'

BUILDING THE BRITISH HIGH COMMISSION, KAMPALA

By Cullum and Nightingale

'The road in from Entebbe airport to Kampala is rich with trade and small industry. When we first came to Uganda we were struck by the variety of buildings lining this road and the types of activity taking place along it. About halfway into the city there is a large brickworks, itself surrounded by small kilns and stacks of hand-made local bricks. Further in there is a row of coffin makers and a group of metal workers, their wares propped up outside their workshops. Many of the suburban buildings are built in brick, and much of that brick is produced on site for the particular building. Roofs are tin; screens are bamboo or wood; and windows are simple shutters or claypots arranged for maximum ventilation.

'We were inspired by these local materials and the way in which they are used. Kampala has numerous examples of '50s and '60s architecture designed to suit the equatorial African climate. Windows have sunshades; staircases are naturally ventilated; walls are tiled for coolness. Many of the offices are airy and light and the climate is cool enough that cross ventilation provides a good working environment. The trend with more recent buildings, however, is for sealed and featureless glass cladding with the consequent necessity for constant air conditioning (this in a country where electricity is expensive and often cut off for long periods).

'We visited the new American Embassy, relocated like the British High Commission on the outskirts of the city centre, largely for reasons of security. The walls and gates and guards around the embassy were to be expected, but what seemed less understandable was the totally enclosed and windowless interior.

'We were keen to learn from the best of local architecture and to provide an environment where the building's uses would be in touch with nature, views, natural light and, in short, with the beauty of the host country. Wherever possible internal spaces are capable of being largely naturally ventilated with big opening windows. The main circulation spaces are semi-external, around an open and shaded courtyard at the centre of the complex.We were inspired by the landscape - the soil is a deep red and the plants are lush, colourful and abundant. The new building is integrated with its garden and the construction (random vertical ribbing in the courtyard brickwork, banana-leaf shuttering to the concrete canopies) reinforces this close relationship. We sought to make the most of local skills and materials, the primary example being the use of brick and terracotta for the exterior and parts of the interior of the new building. We worked closely with the contractor through a process of experimentation and prototypes (and a certain amount of trial and error) to develop a range of clay products for walls, window surrounds, sunshading, perforated screens, etc.

'The design and construction process had to be responsive and flexible - not only to accommodate the changing client requirements to do with security but also to allow the process of trial and experimentation involved in developing local techniques. To a certain extent the process still continues - it will take time for the landscaping to provide the surroundings and shelter envisaged and minor adjustments have had to be made to respond to issues of weathering and shading. We hope that the result will be a building whose users enjoy working in, and an environment which makes the most of its particular African location and beautiful setting.'

WORKING DETAILS / KAMPALA

By Susan Dawson

WINDOWS WITH FIRED-CLAY SILLS, LINTELS, JAMBS AND LOUVRES

'The three-storey building has a cast in situ concrete frame with a load-bearing outer leaf of locally made bricks, an inner leaf of blockwork, and a steel roof structure.

'Bricks and clay products - tiles, ventilation grilles and decorative pieces - are a vital part of the indigenous vernacular architecture of Kampala. The local clay products have been developed and adopted by the architect for roof tiles, grilles, loadbearing walls, sills, lintels, jambs and shading louvers to windows.

'The bricks were made to special sizes, with a plinth of larger 120mm 'rusticated' bricks at the base and thinner 55mm bricks above.

'The window openings are lined with fired-clay surrounds, co-ordinate to align with brick courses. Sills were cast as single fired-clay units. Lintels and jambs/reveals were made up of two fired-clay units to avoid warping when fired, and fixed on site to the cast-in-situ concrete lintels and jambs.

'Each window is shaded with a series of horizontal fired-clay louvers fixed to a projecting steel frame. The frame consists of a pair of 100 x 50mm T-shaped arms, each supporting a vertical 100mm steel flat, with a series of 40 x 20mm RHSs fixed between them to support the louvres. The windows are reinforced with a steel frame to resist blast damage.'