Established in 1985, Cullum and Nightingale is a London-based team of eight architects with projects throughout the world. Its current workload includes an eco-resort on the coast of Mozambique, a masterplan for the Grade I-listed Combe House Hotel in Devon and a private house in Dulwich, south London.
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 a 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 pedestrian visitor goes through a security check in the cramped gatehouse before entering through a concrete canopy and proceeding through a stepped walkway which ends in a second walkway which adjoins the building. Here, the courtyard a storey below holds your attention, but you must turn left to come to the reception door. The cream paint inside contrasts with the red exterior, while the fired-clay floor paviours in the reception and main circulation areas bring the outside to the inside.
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 roll 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 in grey carpet.
Entering the visa-consular section is a curious experience.
As a visa or consular services-seeking visitor, for whom no parking provision is made, you must go down a path bordering the dusty road that marks the western site boundary. A sharp left turn brings you up to shallow steps leading to the direction from whence you came into a guardhouse. You then proceed along a covered walkway, shielded from the main building to the left by a brick wall and offering a glimpse of the dusty road to the right through a metallic grille. That walk must surely feel like the lonely trudge to solitary confinement. Yet it brings you 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). But the nice touches are rather weakly connected, leaving a lingering aftertaste that the general site composition is feeble. One gets the sense that the courtyard could have been conceived as a physical and visual heart to the building, with overspill activity from circulation areas.
Presently, it is rather stark, with just the odd person moving about in it. When the vegetation is fully grown it may be that the shade and semi-privacy will encourage more social use of the outdoor space. Still, that will not take away inexplicable idiosyncrasies like the concrete entrance canopies that could have probably been better conceived as pergolas to blend better with the relaxed feel of the building.
Many of the problems with this building are due to the compromising approach that a Kampala site requires in dealing with sun, view and air, and - of particular importance to this project - security. The Kampala sun is hot and the cool breeze welcome. How to let in daylight, air and views without letting in too much heat and compromising security? Add in the need to deal with the sporadic driving tropical rain and you have a series of catch-22 situations. Positioning the main building along the northsouth axis places the longest elevations smack in the sun's path, which means it can be quite hot inside. As an ameliorative measure, fired-clay louvre sun breaks are used over the windows, but these obstruct views without preventing heat gain through the walls. To escalate matters, the anti-blast window design required for security reasons means that the windows cannot be opened even a quarter of the way. In the end, the building reads like an open one but is effectively used like a closed one. That is not to deny that the site layout, with its see-through metallic perimeter fence, is far from fortress-like. Still, it is lamentable that with planted surroundings for a cool microclimate and interiors that could be cross-ventilated, the building can be so hot that most users find air-conditioning indispensable. Coming from Kamokya centre (large parts of which are disorganised informal developments) into the air-conditioned serenity of the High Commission underscores the point that outside it is Kampala and inside is British territory.
This building seems to have been designed to heighten the rainfall experience. The jagged mound in the courtyard floor corner catches and dramatises rainwater from the sole valley gutter.
The rest of the water from the roofs flows unobstructed to hit the ground hard and percolate through perforate paviours. For workers on the top floors, the deafening noise made on the roof makes communication impossible during a downpour. This could be just as well because, for at least a while, it causes the people to shut up and let nature do the talking.
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 louvres) 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.
Whether the resulting red brick aesthetic is acceptable to Ugandans is another matter. Said one person: 'the finishing is too basic for my liking.' This leads to the speculation that given the prevailing admiration for glossy finishes in the country, convincing the ordinary Ugandan to accept unadorned brickwork is like convincing your typical teenager to shun pulp fiction in preference for literary classics. As if to support this conjecture, the neighbouring facing-brick-clad Wild Life Authority Centre, also a new building, seems to insist that lies can be more appealing than the truth.
By gracefully stating that this is not business as usual, the High Commission has, in process and 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 a 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, its shortcomings notwithstanding, 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.
Credits Client Foreign and Commonwealth Office Estate Strategy Unit Project Manager Ridge Contractor Cementers, Kampala Architect/Lead Consultant Cullum and Nightingale Architects:
Richard Nightingale, Ben Kilburn, Rafael Marks, Edward Rutherford, Carolyn Steel, Melanie Brunning, Lucy Pritchard Architect and Structural Engineer (Kampala) FBW Structural Engineer Price and Myers Environmental/Services Engineer Rynba Environmental/Services Engineer (Kampala) Multikonsults Landscape Architect Melanie Richards