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ANALYSIS: The inspiration behind Kenya’s architectural icon, the KICC

The Kenyatta International Convention Centre is one of Nairobi's most well-known landmarks. Photo: Alphonce Shiundu/Africa Check

Unmistakable against Nairobi’s skyline, the tower of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre has for decades given Kenya’s capital an unquestionable identity.

Founding president Jomo Kenyatta laid the foundation stone in December 1967. The building itself was completed in time for a global meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in September 1973.

Fast-forward to October 2018, when Kenyan architect David Mutiso set social media alight with a yet-unheard claim that the iconic building “was inspired by a donkey’s penis”. In the same interview with Citizen TV, Mutiso also said he had designed the KICC.

Given the resulting general incredulity and questions about the history of the building, Africa Check set off for the archives.

Who designed the KICC?

On its website, the KICC says the building was “designed by the Norwegian architect Karl Henrik Nøstvik and our own David Mutiso”.

Geneva-based architect and urban researcher, Prof Manuel Herz, said the iconic building “went through two distinct planning phases”. Herz and Shadi Rahbaran, his colleague at ETH Basel Studio, authored Nairobi, Kenya: Migration Shaping the City, which deals in part with the history of the KICC.

“In the first phase (until approximately 1970), the planning office of the Ministry of Works was the lead agency of the design,” Herz told Africa Check.

Mutiso was then the chief architect at the Ministry of Works, with Nøstvik working under him.

“The blueprints from these years state that Karl Nøstvik was responsible for the design,” Herz said. “At the end of 1970, Nøstvik left the Ministry of Works and opened his own private architectural practice in Nairobi. In the second planning phase, the KICC was designed in the private practice of Nøstvik.”

(Note: Herz’s account is consistent with architectural drawings Africa Check has obtained from the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway.)


Design happens in conversation and exchange

But Herz pointed out that an architectural design “is never done just by a single person”.

“A design of a complex building like the KICC always happens in conversation and exchange with several designers.

“So I am sure that Mutiso had his input on the design in the years until 1970, but that Nøstvik was either the main architect of the building (signing the drawings) or at least majorly involved during that time. After 1970, Nøstvik can clearly be seen as the lead designer.”

After Nøstvik left the Ministry of Works, “there were attempts to take the design away from him”, Herz and Rahbaran write in their book.

“But it was clear that only he was capable of finishing the project and, with Kenyatta’s approval, he kept the project.”

The book was a research collaboration involving ETH Basel Studio, the Department of Architecture at the University of Nairobi, and Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“I have never heard the ‘donkey’s penis’ association before,” said Nina Frang Høyum of Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. She was project manager of Forms of Freedom, an exhibition exploring architectural icons of African independence such as the KICC.


What inspired the KICC tower?

She provided other accounts of the building’s inspiration. “For instance, Jacqueline Resley, Nøstvik’s partner, told us that Nøstvik had himself used the organic analogy of the ‘open and closed lotus (flower)’’.

And in a newspaper article, Nøstvik said the amphitheatre may symbolize the African ‘Baraza’.” (Note: A baraza is a meeting hut or gazebo.)

“The tower has also been called Mzee’s [Jomo Kenyatta’s] Index Finger, and the tower and the amphitheatre together the Corn Cob and the African Hut.”

Never a single story

But Herz warned that “there is never a single ‘story’ or explanation of the design of a building”.

“Even if the ‘donkey’s penis’ has been on the mind of Mutiso, this will not have been the only metaphor or reference for the designers of the building,” he told Africa Check.

“You can also ask: What’s the relevance of this supposed metaphor of the ‘donkey’s penis’? What is important is that the building is magnificent, and a great piece of architecture offering wonderful spaces and a great climate. It is a truly exemplary building and needs to be cherished and protected.

“I don’t need to know some strange (and highly simplistic) explanation of the design of the building to appreciate the architecture, especially as the building is the exact opposite of this simplistic explanation: it is sophisticated, nuanced, subtle and open.”


Further reading:

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