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How John McAslan + Partners built a new cathedral in Kericho

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Tomà Berlanda and Nerea Amoros Elorduy take a look at John McAslan + Partners’ new Roman Catholic cathedral in the Kenyan town of Kericho

PLAN • SECTION • ISOMETRIC • DETAIL • CLIENT’S VIEW • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA 

The town of Kericho, with a population of around 150,000, is the seat of one of the Kenya’s 20 Roman Catholic dioceses. Even though it is a relatively new diocese, established in 1995, its main church, the Sacred Heart Cathedral, is the second largest in the country. Consecrated in May 2015, the building overlooks a landscape of lush green valleys covered in tea plantations and forests, and is easily accessible via the busy Nakuru-Kisumu road. 

The cathedral is the result of the strong leadership of Bishop Emmanuel Okombo, and is part of the church’s larger pastoral strategy in the district. After securing generous funding from an anonymous foreign donor, and following various attempts to find an architect, the diocese appointed John McAslan + Partners to develop the design. The main concept was to build an inspiring sacred space, a stimulus for the congregation to assemble and grow, that would innovate in its use of local materials and skills to achieve long-lasting quality. Construction started in 2012, and the result is an iconic project that sits in sharp contrast with much of the architecture of east Africa.

Throughout our visit we were reminded of French architect Fernand Pouillon’s descriptions of the construction of Thoronet Abbey in south-east France, and the obsession to ‘study, observe, control, and come back in numerous repentances in order to attain perfection’. The precision and execution of the exposed structural framework, paired with the tectonic refinement of the assembly, provide a sense of serenity and peace to the ensemble that contrasts with the bustling new road and the charcoal market just a few metres outside the main entrance.

This attention and care is felt as soon as one enters the cathedral compound through its patterned metallic gate. Walking past the freestanding bell tower, one faces the small chapel where mass is celebrated every day and where Sunday school takes place, and on the right is the imposing volume of the main cathedral. Standing in the parvis, paved in machine-cut Nairobi Blue stone, one’s eye is attracted to the hefty metal doors that give access to both sacred volumes. Designed and produced by Nairobi-based Studio Propolis, these are ornately decorated with bas-relief bronze panels by Kenyan artists Florence Wangui and Rajinder.

The imposing and tapering structure of the church works as a counterpoint to the topography

The building’s perimeter, the way of the cross, is marked with concrete and glass sculptures made by artist John Clark. It offers magnificent views across the tea plantations and surrounding hills to the north and east, and leads towards the apse. The imposing and tapering structure of the church works as a counterpoint to the topography. A stone podium carefully integrates each of the building’s 10 structural concrete ribs into the ground through terraces. These large steps are connected to stone drainage channels specifically designed to mitigate the large amounts of rainfall that can accumulate very suddenly, but they also control the flow of people. The large roof eaves further cater for rainwater collection, contributing to irrigation in the dry season. Stemming from a marked horizontal canopy that visually separates it from the earthwork podium, the large, uptilted gable roof is clad with a refined pattern of red clay tiles, which make the building visible from afar. This traditional element, made in Nairobi from local clay, has been cut and arranged in a manner reminiscent of wheat and grapevine patterns, giving specific character and texture to the overall impression. 

Upon entering the cathedral, the passages of the rosary of bronze carvings lead to the main nave, an ascending vaulted trapezium-shaped space that, both in plan and section, splays towards the apse. This is the spatial embodiment of Bishop Okombo’s vision to create an intimate and direct connection between the congregation and the divine. While maintaining the traditional processional axis, the seating is radially organised to facilitate the view towards the altar, and can accommodate 1,000 people in the pews, and another 500 in the aisles. The 2,800m2 space is – and feels – enormous, defined as it is by its massive, inclined roof, which expresses the rhythm of the parallel concrete ribs, carefully engineered by Arup and a local consultant. No detail is left to chance, with pews, holy water fonts and even door handles and locks designed and fabricated to measure by Studio Propolis. The Christ above the altar has been forged in dripping brass by local artist Tums, and is placed on a cross made with the wood of a tree that had been central to the parish for many years, and had to be chopped down for the new construction. 

Daylight is sifted through the wooden battens and washes the whole central space

The roof’s assembly of multiple layers helps create a naturally ventilated and acoustically tempered environment for the changing weather. Despite its dimensions and heavy structure, the main nave maintains a delicate and calm aura thanks to the interplay between materials and the zenithal light permeating through the longitudinal skylights embedded in the roof’s spine. The veil of delicate, timber finger-jointed battens that span between the arches and compose the ceiling, combined with the overhead light, creates striking patterns in the aisles and near the altar. The daylight is sifted through the wooden battens and washes the whole central space, while the east and west side-aisles have a different rhythm, scale and warmth, and are lit by indirect light permeating via the lateral windows and doors. This creates a chiaroscuro pattern that carefully organises the sequence of bays between the outer seismic stability walls. Large exterior double doors can open up, allowing the congregation to swell for important feast days, and at every bay, glass art has been placed to indicate the way of the cross in between the double doors, culminating in two soapstone sculptures, sourced from the nearby town of Kisii. 

The different scales of the spaces are connected by the materiality of the concrete ribs, the granite floors, the terrazzo-clad walls and the wooden ceiling, the latter acting as one undulating continuous surface, seamlessly extending into the exterior canopy. Under this generous shelter it is easier to appreciate the detailing of the water management system, with metal gargoyles and gutters, and the roof’s edge, which ends in great precision and beauty. 

Besides the buildings in the compound, one of the most attractive elements of the intervention is a mosaic made by Kenyan artist Githaka from leftover pieces of stone used in different parts of the building. This is an element that directly points to what Pouillon called ‘wild stones’ – ‘materials chosen [which] are not the ones to which contractors are used … fragile stones, of an unusual colour, “wild stones” that require a more difficult work, and the execution has to be perfect.’ 

One is struck by the technical perfection of the building and the intelligent environmental solutions. Nevertheless, one cannot help reflecting on the seemingly absent opulence. John McAslan has spoken of how his practice was ‘very attracted by what might be regarded as a relatively modest budget’. On the other hand, the alleged $5 million construction costs represent a huge sum in the face of a community where more than 40 per cent of the population still live below the poverty line. So the notion of ‘modest’, or perhaps more appropriately, the holy virtue of ‘humility’ that Pope Francis seeks to make integral to his message, would require more discussion than warranted in this space.

Despite the laudable efforts to include local artists, and the excellent quality of detailing and long-lasting durability of the final product, one is left wondering whether the cathedral is designed for the congregation in Kericho, or for the visibility of the Catholic Church of Kenya. 

Or, ultimately, whether it is an architectural whim for another audience altogether, and in that sense slightly more reminiscent of medieval rural cathedrals, long-associated with the temporal power of the Catholic Church. With today’s call for an epistemological shift towards a decolonised African continent, maybe the spiritual wellbeing of individuals and communities could, and should, also be addressed through different architectural strategies.

Plan

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Section A-A

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Isometric

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Detail

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

The very simple palette of materials – local stone for the walls, local clay tiles for the giant roof, and local timber and expressed concrete for the structure – gave the frugal and unpretentious quality to the building’s aesthetic that became an important part of its design. 

There was, however, extreme skill and control in the assembly of these materials on site; the building’s conic triangular geometries generated as the interior volume expands toward the altar created a significant challenge for the local contractor. 

We also insisted all the concrete structure was left in-situ and uncovered, which admitted no possibility of mistakes in its casting and formwork. The accomplishment of this by the local contractor is really one of the project’s great triumphs.

The building has a very sophisticated low-energy strategy that controls the extraordinary temperature and humidity seasonal swings of the local climate. The roof is heavily insulated and naturally ventilated, and induces a stack effect to maintain an even and comfortable internal temperature for all the occupants during the mass. There is also natural cooling from the thermal mass of the building structure, which also offers a delay to the thermal swing of the building during the summer months. 

The extensive use of locally sourced natural materials reduced transport costs as well as the building’s carbon footprint during the construction period. We were particularly concerned to ensure that safe working practices were adopted throughout the construction, and that no injuries were caused to any members of the team. Given the context of African building construction, we are very proud of this achievement.

Aidan Potter, project architect, John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Source: Edmund Sumner

Client’s view

John McAslan + Partners has designed a truly inspirational and unique cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Kericho, for delivery by local hands using sustainable local materials. The concept design is firmly rooted in its African context, while faithfully referencing its great European predecessors.

George Patterson, client representative

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Source: Edmund Sumner

Architect’s view

Our design for the cathedral creates a unique and sacred place for an assembled congregation of over 1,500 seated celebrants to participate in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass under one giant unifying roof. This striking inclined roof and its ascending interior volume is the design’s key organising concept. 

The cathedral expresses the honesty of its construction with its simply articulated concrete arch frames and timber vaulting. The extensive use of local materials links it to the gothic tectonics of its European forebears but the strikingly crafted simple palette of materials honours the faith and frugality of this rural African context. It remains profoundly rooted to the locale and its interior has been carefully engineered to create a naturally ventilated and acoustically moderating environment for all seasons. The cathedral is the second largest in Kenya - a memorable place of worship and the beating heart of the local community.

Aidan Potter, architect, John McAslan + Partners 

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Source: Edmund Sumner

Engineer’s view

The concrete frame is a prominent feature of the finished building, the geometry of the structural form responding to the architectural intent without compromising its performance. Particular attention was given to its seismic behaviour, given the project’s location and significance. Achieving the best possible concrete finish was essential. The standard of finish achieved by the engineers and contractor is remarkable: working with local materials, sample sections of the curved arches were fabricated to develop the necessary details and systems. The contractor developed a robust but flexible kerfed, multi-layered plywood shutter, allowing the soffit formwork to be peeled away from the inner curve of the mature concrete arches without breaking the edge of the section. The defined profile of the roof arches are clearly visible below the slatted timber veil. A similar process produced the precise finish of the exposed concrete faces and joints. 

The Cathedral’s acoustic performance is designed to facilitate clarity of speech across a range of occupation levels whilst maintaining sufficient reverberance to encourage congregational responses. A directional ceiling-based system, aligned with the timber slats, accommodates hidden speakers, ensuring an efficient overall acoustic. 

The lighting design focuses on the sacred symbols in the sanctuary area, whilst providing a comfortable level of light throughout the congregational area. Four main sources of natural light are embedded in the building fabric - the full-length skylight and side doors being the most dominant. 

A natural heating/cooling/ventilation strategy accommodates seasonal climate changes, thereby eliminating the need for moving parts and their associated maintenance.

Caroline Ray, engineer, Arup

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Kericho by John McAslan + Partners

Source: Edmund Sumner

Project data

Start on site February 2012
Completion August 2015
Gross internal floor area 1,375m²
Procurement route Direct
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect John McAslan + Partners
Executive architect Triad Architects 
Client Diocese of Kericho
Structural engineer Engplan (Kenya)
M&E consultant EAMS (Kenya)
Quantity surveyor Barker & Barton (Kenya)
Multidisciplinary engineer Arup (UK)
Furniture design and entrance doors Studio Propilis (Kenya)
Stained glass John Clark, Glasspainter (Germany)
Main contractor Esteel Construction (Kenya)

 

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