Architecture Kenya Nairobi Urbanism

In Conversation: Henry Musangi, Architect (Part One)

Henry Musangi is a busy man. Even on weekends. That this Western-educated Kenyan architect was able to find time to have a conversation of this sort was somewhat of a miracle. Well, that and the fact that the beginning of the year tends to be a less busy time for most businesses, affording me an opportunity to ask him the questions I’ve been meaning to ask for a while now.

My first encounter with Henry – I have to continually, in my African mind, resist the urge to call him Mr. Musangi – was not, as one would suppose, at a mixer for architecture professionals. We did not meet at a continuing education convention or at an end-of-year school presentation where he was a critic. We “met” on LinkedIn. Yes, that time-tested networking behemoth that has changed our approach to careers and how we market ourselves to the professional world. At the time, I was a soon-to-graduate architecture student in the US, looking for ways in which I could somehow seamlessly integrate my foreign education with a position in Kenya. Henry popped up on my page as someone I might know (we have mutual acquaintances, go figure) and what struck me was the fact that he had (and still does, of course) a Kenyan name and happened to be based in Kenya, but had the AIA* suffix attached to his surname as well. Exactly the type of person to provide the kind of advice I was seeking at the time. Because he had worked in the US and was now back in Kenya he was, in my mind, someone I needed to get in touch with. So I did. And I’m all the more glad for it, because of his ever-gracious and accommodating attitude, and his willingness to help.

Our meeting was scheduled for a weekend morning, but because he was running late (not his fault) from a prior engagement, we ended up starting a little after midday. No complaints from my end. I was just happy we were finally doing this, Kenyan time or not. Henry is an articulate man with a fine command of English, not that far removed from the African gentleman of a generation or so ago whose love for tea and tailored suits is well known. He might have been an exemplar had he been a student at Mukibi’s Educational Institute, the fictional school in Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series. Simply put, our conversation was a pleasure. My original intent was to ask 10 questions, but naturally, some of his answers generated follow-ups (as well as digressions into such discussions as the correct way to prepare Red Snapper – a story for another day) that had to be discussed. My questions are in bold italics; Henry’s responses are in regular typeface. Karibu. Grab a cuppa, because this will be interesting. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

At what point in your life did it dawn on you that architecture was the career you wanted to pursue?
Ah, that’s an easy one, that one, because it was very clear to me.

I was towards the last years of primary school … at that point we lived in Egerton (in Njoro) and they were doing so much expansion work: new developments, new buildings and the like, you know. So my dad, who was part of the administration in the university, used to bring some of the plans and the designs home and I was like, ‘this is so cool!’

So I knew there was something called architecture from very early on … Then, the one thing that really got to me is when some architects (Mutiso Menezes International) designed our farmhouse. My dad showed us the designs for that. Very nice, simple, but very well done. And then we got it built. We had a big party, invited tonnes of family friends for the house opening, you know. So seeing something from concept to actualization – by the time I entered high school I knew I wanted to be an architect. That’s what I wanted to be.

Henry's parents' farmhouse. Photo courtesy of HM.
Henry’s parents’ farmhouse. Photo courtesy of HM.

Wow. So there was no plan B? Architecture was it?
Architecture was it. But when I went to college I started thinking of other things, you know. At some point in college I started thinking, ‘maybe I should do economics.’ Then I started thinking, ‘maybe I should do psychology.’ Because of my personality – being an intuitive feeler – I’ve always thought, ‘ah, maybe I could be a counselor or something.’ I remember even mentioning psychology to my dad and he almost slaughtered me alive (laughs) … psychology was out, but my first year of college I did not enroll as an architecture major, believe it or not. As much as I’d always had a passion for architecture, I enrolled as a liberal arts major and did a whole emphasis on psychology while taking some economics electives. But I ended up, in my second year, beginning architecture.

Looking back now, in what ways do you feel that your study of psychology and economics have helped?
[It helped] a lot … Education is not just one thing and focusing on that. Having a liberal arts sort of approach to your career really gives you a broader perspective, you know? So now I cannot help it even in my interaction in the office – I am always looking for people’s motivations, wondering what their personalities are. How do I gear my directives and my interactions with them based on that, you know? In the office I very quickly identify who has got a sense of intuition for design versus who has the opposite sensibilities to manage things; who is more procedural versus who is more intuitive and the like …

Do you think that studying psychology has helped your work relationships – the actual connections you’ve made?
I hope so, you know? I hope so (laughs).

What about your background prior to your work years? Let’s go back all the way before college, and then maybe you can talk a little bit about your college years.
Alright. High school was boarding school – boys boarding school. As my mum says, I did everything except academics (which is true, actually). I was very involved in extra-curricular; quite a bit. A lot of extra-curricular not including sports. I was in the school choir, the social club, scouts … I actually was a scout from Standard 3 onwards, right through high school. I was passionate about scouting. Even now I feel embarrassed that I am not involved as an adult … I liked camping and the like. In high school I also liked drama. I really admire people with talent in the performing arts. And then being a prefect of sorts – leading this, leading that, taught me quite a bit about running things. Actually, in high school it was a baptism by fire because I quickly learned that not everyone will follow (laughs).

I lived in Njoro until 2nd Form, and then spent 3rd and 4th in Nakuru town. I wasn’t one of those bright, bright kids who were top of their class in high school. In primary school I was, but high school was a different story. But I always tell people that at least I was passionate about something, you know?

Njoro, Kenya. Click on image for source.
Njoro, Kenya. Click on image for source.

By the way – this is kind of an aside but slightly related – I was watching Sir Ken Robinsion (you know, the famous educationist) on Al Jazeera today and he was saying that he got to meet the Beatles, or at least Sir Paul McCartney, because they’re both from Liverpool and they went to high school there in the late 50s. And he said Sir Paul McCartney told him that in his (Paul’s) music class (two of the future Beatles members were in the same class), he and his friend were poorly rated by their teacher. Their teacher said they were horrible musicians.

If that teacher was alive today, can you imagine? He had two of the Beatles members in his class and he did not think they were good musicians. And apparently, the same thing happened to Elvis Presley. He got horrible grades in music class. So anyway, I said ‘yeah, I know that feeling’ (laughs).

Wow, that’s inspiring.
I know.
So that was life before college. And then college came. [I went] off to the US, and got used to living abroad – a whole different system, a whole different culture. I think the thing that impressed me about the US is how fascinated people are with foreigners, you know?

Yes! Particularly those of the ‘exotic’ kind.
Exactly! Yes … [thankfully] I did not find people stand-offish. It was very rare that I found somebody who just, you know, did not … um, what do you call it-

Like, wasn’t nice.
Wasn’t nice, you know? Was racist or something. Once in a while, but rarely.

One of Henry's school projets: an  urban intervention in Nashville. Courtesy HM.
One of Henry’s school projects: an urban intervention in Nashville. Courtesy HM.

So how would you compare the nature of architectural education here versus in the US?
You know, I do not know much about architectural education here. The much I know is the criteria they use to select who pursues architectural education in Kenya. I remember when we were in high school, we had to write out which 3 majors we wanted to do in a Kenyan university. And then somehow some education board or something would choose which one you’d study – you didn’t get to have a say, you know? And we were always told – and it is the case to this day – that people who are selected for architecture in Kenya have to have top science scores.

Hm, ok.
So [we’re talking] physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

It’s the opposite in the US.

It’s the direct opposite because in the US, they are not looking for the logical, scientific subjects or competence. They are looking for creative competence … that’s what will earn you a place in architecture. I have always believed architecture is a more innovative, creative field and I always said that it’s very unfortunate that in Kenya they look for logical and scientific competency in a career that requires … it’s a creative field, you know? And that’s why personally, I feel that it’s rare to see innovative architecture in Kenya. It’s [mostly] purely functional, because everyone who’s been trained in architecture, or at least a majority of them are – here goes my psychology again – logical, functional people. As long as [a building] has so many rooms and so much space that’s ok, that’s a building. But it’s not about the experience and the aesthetic and the like. So you can compare the two education systems with their output. That’s the part I really honestly regret about architectural education in Kenya.

Where do you see architecture going in Kenya? Given what you’ve just said, what do you think – if we don’t change things soon, where do you think we are headed?
I think, for one, Kenyan [consumers] are getting very exposed. Many clients have now realised, “I can’t get innovative architecture out of Kenya.” So what they’re doing is they’re running off abroad and getting international architects to come and design.

Wow, ok.
It’s a huge, huge trend right now. I mean, if you talk to any of the major architecture firms in Kenya you’ll see that essentially half the work they’re doing is in collaboration with a foreign design architect, you know?

And most of their (the Kenyan architects) work is just execution, not necessarily design –
Yes! Yes. Exactly. Because the clients have seen that … foreign architecture firms are brilliant and talented at producing innovative architecture that combines function and the criteria with aesthetics.
Basically, we’re headed for disruption. And we’ll just be crowded out. In fact, what might happen is that a lot of these practices will just come and set up in Kenya and just be local, so they’ll do everything – the design and the execution – themselves.

That’s what I see … the built environment here: you drive around and you despair. And it’s not just architects who despair, but also general members of the public. Really despair. I always think whenever I drive up Thika highway one of the most stunning places I despair about is Githurai, you know? It’s building after building, jam-packed! And architects, or at least the AAK, cannot claim that all those buildings are not done by architects, [or] that they’re done by quacks. That cannot be the case. They are actually drawn up, designed by architects –

It’s a deliberate move – once you put pen to paper that’s a deliberate move you’re making.
Yes, it’s deliberate.

Githurai. Click on image for source.
Githurai. Click on image for source.

This kind of segues into urban planning – the planning issue in Kenya: what’s your take on that? What do you think needs to change?
Again, it’s got to take a focus on what the experience of a city is, you know? What Jane Jacobs talked about: the life, the ethos of a city. It’s not just about space and putting up so much building of so much mass. It’s about creating an experience within an urban setting. And I honestly – actually, I’m convinced that that isn’t understood within the urban planning realm of Kenya. Very few people appreciate it and understand it. Even the meeting I just came out of (his prior engagement was a planning meeting) – that’s always the battle with the city [government] because they just see things from a density and development perspective. And that’s where urbanity and urban development starts and ends for them, you know? They don’t see it from a heritage perspective, or from an experiential or quality-of-life perspective. It’s hardly understood. Hardly understood. And I also think that urban planning is not taught in Kenya in that way. In fact, I don’t think any bit of that is [taught] because in my interaction with planners I never hear that sort of explanation or understanding, you know? You’ll hear a thorough understanding on traditional Euclidean zoning – which is, by the way, very outdated – where one corner of the city was the industrial sector, the other corner was the education sector … that’s what planners in Kenya understand.

Which is almost the opposite of – it’s quite the opposite of what Jane Jacobs proposed.
Complete opposite. It’s very outdated. Many places in the world have absolutely abandoned that theory of planning – in fact, [they] abandoned it decades ago. We still uphold it. We are still required to provide development masterplans – or structure plans as they are called here – on the basis of Euclidean zoning.

Jane Jacobs, neighbourhood watchdog. Click on image for source.
Jane Jacobs, neighbourhood watchdog. Click on image for source.

How do you feel about specialisation within the design field? Architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, urban design, urban planning …
The individual fields in and of themselves are very good. What I really hope for and what I always advocate for is for practices to become multidisciplinary. Instead of doing things separately, do them together. And if they have to be done by separate practices do them in a far more integrated way. Not serially, but in parallel. So an architect should not design a building and [then] send it off to an interior designer –

They should work together.
They should work it out together – the architectural design should be based on the interior design and vice versa. When I worked in Baltimore that was the case. We had 3 disciplines within the same company: Landscape architecture, interior design and architecture. As soon as we began a project – even doing the site layout and site analysis – we always had to do it with the landscape architecture department.

And this was [always] in the beginning, in the early stages of the project –
At the beginning.
You sit there with the landscape architects and you’re all there sketching over trace, so the building layout, orientation – everything fits a landscape concept. Then, when you’re forming what the spaces will be, what the movement in the building will be, you’re again with the interior designers. Essentially, the interior designers acted as interior architects … and that always brought out a superb, superb outcome. I really enjoyed it. Now, if we were doing something at masterplan scale, then we’d also bring in urban planners and urban designers, and conceptualize together.

Personally, my feeling is that all these different areas should be taught simultaneously. That’s kind of an ideal. I don’t know if it’s actually possible –
It is possible. They should even go to the same classes. And some architecture schools do that – at least in the US – where you have joint classes within your college. In fact, some colleges combine architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and urban planning within one college. They’re just departments within the same college. And then you have a whole series of courses where all of you are taking literally the same class, you know? That way design becomes more integrated.

What was the approach at your particular school?
I went to 2 different schools. At my undergraduate school, we had interior design and architecture in the same college. We took a whole bunch of classes with interior design students – even some technical classes like lighting design. So that was useful … In graduate school I remember having classes with undergraduate architecture and interior design students. Those were selective classes, a mandatory part of your coursework. They were not electives. But I never did have any class with landscape architecture students, which I regret. Nor even urban planning students … the college of urban planning was on the other side of campus. [However] some schools, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign combine – very strongly – architecture and urban planning.

What do you think of the educational approach in US colleges? The heavy emphasis on theory and design? For the most part I feel like they do not focus so much on the technical aspects.
You know, I used to hear that there was a dichotomy between East Coast schools vs West Coast schools … that the further west you go you start getting more technical exposure in architecture. The further east you go it just becomes design and theory, which I never got to verify. But when I think of the best examples – if you talk to anyone who went to architecture school in Germany, you will see why the Germans are very good at…why they come up with Mercedes Benz and Audi and Volkswagen. Very well-designed products which are excellent technically, you know? Germany has managed to find in its education system that perfect balance between design and the technical. And they do both very well, you know? Though they’ve got a very sober aesthetic, which I also admire.
I think, after a strong emphasis on design education and theory, I think the trouble with that is that it leads to a drop out, a falling off. A fading away when people enter the real world.

Yes, there’s a disconnect.
Some are able to adapt and and absorb the technical aspect of the real world, but several people just get uninspired and say, ‘oh heck. I’m going to pursue another career.’ And that’s because they did not learn to combine the technical with the creative.

What was your personal experience?
There was a contrast between the two schools I went to. My undergraduate school was 80% technical … it was strongly emphasised on things like specifications, plumbing, lighting, structural design – in fact, another combination we did was construction administration and management. There was a nearby community college which had one of the best programmes in the country in construction management. So we had the option of taking a year within the construction management programme in addition to architecture.

Another one of Henry's school projects - this one was based in Chatanooga. Courtesy HM.
Another one of Henry’s school projects – this one was based in Chatanooga. Courtesy HM.

So you had the best of both worlds, would you say?
Fortunately. Because [during my years as an] undergraduate I remember … one year you had to do wood frame construction, another year steel, another year reinforced concrete. We … had to go out in the field, learn how to do field tests, cube tests, all that. So it was super technical. Design studios did not come until your last two years. Then [I] went to graduate school and it was the complete opposite! Very design-oriented. Seminars on design theory, a tonne of papers on historical design theory vs. contemporary … but I had become too logical-

Yes! At that point you almost feel like it’s too late to change…
Yes. But it was very interesting. It got me to understand where buildings come from historically. But I felt bad for the people in the graduate programme because they never really got to learn the real technical aspect of things.

What do you personally enjoy more? The technical side or the design – the creative side?
I enjoy the technical side of things, [even though] I really appreciate the design side. I’ve got one person who works with me who’s superbly good at design. I always tell him, ‘you come up with something creative. I will be glad to make it work [technically].’ I can critique design thoroughly, but I still enjoy the technical.

Do you have any other passions within the field itself?
I really always emphasise how architecture interacts with the landscape. So I want to know, literally, the ground – the site, the views and the like. That’s one thing I’m very passionate about.

Whose work do you admire?
Bernard Tschumi. He doesn’t have a single aesthetic but he’s able to relate concept with context and he articulates it very well.
I [also] like David Chipperfield quite a bit because he has an [interesting] approach to historical buildings. It is very fun and refreshing to see how you can readapt historical buildings very sensitively and respectfully but in a contemporary way. That is his biggest talent.
Renzo Piano [is another one]. His buildings look machined and –

Renzo Piano's addition to the JP Morgan library. Click on image for source.
Renzo Piano’s addition to the JP Morgan library. Click on image for source.

They look very simple.
Very simple. And there’s a sobriety about them. The aesthetic is superb also, because every detail is thought through. I think his talent is designing in detail.

I always tell people, don’t try come up with crazy forms and say that’s design. I see that a lot here. It’s a cop-out. I say come up with [something] – it doesn’t have to be a crazy shape, [as long as] it’s well put together. You can design in the detail. Every detail has to be designed and I think that’s Renzo Piano’s talent.

Interior shot of Renzo Piano's addition to the JP Morgan library. Click on image for source.
Interior upward-looking shot of Renzo Piano’s addition to the JP Morgan library. Click on image for source.

Anyone else?
I think when it comes to residential architecture no one has beaten Frank Lloyd Wright yet.

Ok (*me, incredulous*)?!
In the US if I ever went visiting places it was [mostly] Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Regrettably, I did not visit his most famous one, Fallingwater.

The Kaufmann residence, popularly known as Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Click on image for source.
The Kaufmann residence, popularly known as Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Click on image for source.

What do you think is the state of craftsmanship in Kenya? You’re talking about people like Renzo Piano and FLW – their approach to craft (in my opinion) was and is highly detailed. Where do you think Kenya is in terms of that: detailing?
(Sighs) Some of it has been lost over the years. But anyway, even around the world, craftsmanship in architecture is nowhere near what it used to be. These days everything has to be done faster, cheaper, more artificially … But I think the good thing with Kenya is that labour is not expensive. I think as architects we have to take the time to train people. We can design innovative works that require good craftsmanship but we have to be prepared to allow them to take their time to be built. The potential is there for very good craftsmanship. The trouble is that no one has got the patience.


Abrupt ending? Maybe so, because this conversation continues! Come back for part 2. Henry offers advice to those interested in pursuing architecture; we discuss what a typical day for him is like and how he balances his professional and personal life, and more!

Image of Henry courtesy HM

*AIA – The American Institute of Architects. The AIA suffix is attached to anyone who is licensed as an architect by this body.

2 thoughts on “In Conversation: Henry Musangi, Architect (Part One)”

  1. Been meaning to comment on this. I love the farmhouse. And Henry’s story is an encouragement to me to follow my dreams, exercise my talent, do what I love. I’m not an architect; you know this. But these principles – not going crazy/ using cop-outs, being patient with systems, training people – apply to ever profession/career, and even to everyday life. Looking forward to part 2!!.

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