Exploring the link between politics and architecture reveals quite a complex and close relationship between these two entities. Aside from urban planning being generally controlled by politics and laws, these also have control over the potential funds that can be raised for the completion of architectural projects, as well as the evolution of construction systems and strategies that relate to the public and private sectors.

In the African continent, politics have also had a strong influence on the development of cities.  In what comes next, we will follow up with the chronological architectural evolution of housing in the city of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. 

Generally speaking, self-generated architecture is the form of architecture that mainly dominates African cities and is considered the main housing model. These have, in fact, been subject to many changes throughout the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods.

The politically inclined architecture of Africa - Sheet2
Nairobi on the map_©africaguide.com

African Architecture: pre-colonization and colonization periods 

The urbanization and modernization of the rural landscape of Kenya during the colonization period was the main reason behind the housing problems of the city of Nairobi. In fact, colonialism resulted in the urban settlement there, and helped construct the railway line to Uganda. Dispersed settlements characterized the landscape. 

Customary practices defined the building process as well. This reflects the architectural stability relevant to the region’s inhabitants for the era of traditional systems of colonial Africa’s cultural, spatial use and evolutionary methods.

The politically inclined architecture of Africa - Sheet5
Traditional African Vernacular Dwelling_©Mariamichelle / Pixabay

Informal dwellings formed progressively on the periphery of the city, after the increase of the demand by the population whose big majority was used to transportation on foot, their houses being quite far from the city. Neglecting completely the African architectural traditional values, the construction systems, layouts and materials of these flats were, however, imposed by external political policies. 

“Temporary” is the word that can describe these dwellings, and that due to the instability of the materials in use; however, they presented a short-term solution to the faced problems that ended up leading to the relocation of populations.

The politically inclined architecture of Africa - Sheet4
Informal Dwellings_©ecomena.org, Africa architecture

At this location, residents were allowed to build houses on cultivated land according to the coastal type “Swahili“. Although this type was African, it was still foreign to non-coastal Africans and reflected the imposed spatial paradigm. Subsequent housing types ignored the spatiality of Africa, such as the Kariokor housing complex and the first official African housing complex, and the concept of neighbouring units fixed in the 1948 city master plan.

The politically inclined architecture of Africa - Sheet3
Informal Dwellings_©Flickr, Africa architecture

The first official “subdivision” for Africans in Kariokor in 1929 marked the beginning of a symbolic awareness of the need to house the city’s natives. The basic idea was the occupation of the space by individual residents, mainly men, and not by households and thus to further anchor and objectify the status of the “transitory” African in the city. 

Mostly hated, the concept was scrapped from this block of dormitories, which was mostly only intended for adults, and was actually demolished later due to the negative reception of the supposed locals.

Swahili Settlements_©Gideon Ikigai
Swahili Settlements_©Gideon Ikigai, Africa architecture

A group of South African consultants proposed the Neighborhood Unit Concept, which reinforced the community’s view of the heart of ideal settlements, promoting modern values, which has a “civilized” effect on the urban population. The main goal for the Neighborhood Unit Concept was to end migration-related relations, and that through strengthening the labour force. The closest to the practical implementation of the ideological concept was the colony state, which was planned with green courtyards and streets and considered autonomous with social and commercial facilities. 

However, it did provide modest housing in housing units that did not meet the requirements of the African family base. Thus, developed in good faith, the NUC was hardly consultative and reflected undemocratic values and the dictatorship that was the colonial political system. This is clearly reflected in the informal changes to the colony and other African properties in the Eastlands.

African Architecture: post-colonization period 

The architectural housing strategies of the post-colonial period can be described as rather discriminatory and difficult. The major problem of that period was in fact related to the population growth, despite the flexibility and ease of movement that came along with the fast urbanization process. The obstacles were not only related to quantity, but also to quality; the quality of independence aimed to be achieved. This independence more objectively meant for the colonial government to promote African values. 

Social Housing System_©Javier Callejas
Social Housing System_©Javier Callejas, Africa architecture

The National Housing Corporation proved to be a main force of action when it came to the design of housing, taking as a main concern people from the lower class, whose incomes could not let them afford any kind of housing they desired. In that way, flats were grouped in blocks, while others were also detached or partly detached housings. 

Moreover, still focusing on this main concern, access to these housings was mostly granted through rental, mortgage, or purchase schemes. Therefore, through this political infiltration, and these financial systems, the quality of architectural spaces is not compromised. NHC’s strategy mimics social housing solutions in western cities, providing low-income people with minimal protection from the onslaught of wealthier people.

Reference | Africa architecture

Makachia, P. A. (2011). The Politics and Architecture of Housing. Nairobi, Kenya: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing.


Angela Hanna is a senior architecture student at the university of USEK, Lebanon. Having always been passionate about reading, she states that words have a wicked and powerful way to change our perception and therefore our reality. She believes that through the creation of spaces, we create emotions and enhance mindsets, thus which will work in favor of building a better world.