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BUILDING THE BRITISH HIGH COMMISSION, KAMPALA

BUILDING STUDY

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 users 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.

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