Featured Image Source: USAID Kenya, Under Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/usaidkenya/6129819092
Just a few months ago the biggest mall in Kenya opened, Two rivers mall. The 65,000m2 mall is one of the biggest in Africa. The new mall opened on the 14th of February and has become a major attraction for many of the middle-class families who spend their weekend there. Large international retail brands like Nike, Carrefour and Waikiki and big African brands like Mr Price.
Two Rivers mall, like the many shopping centres that continue to open across Nairobi and the world, each bigger grander and more opulent than the last and marvels of modern architecture and capitalism but in the process, they are destroying something much more important.
Nairobi when we first came there in early 2008 was a very different place. There were just a few large shopping malls, Sarit centre, village market and Adams arcade where at the top of their game. Junction had just started laying their foundations. Nairobi was on the brink of a revolution.
The largest of these malls was village market, it was one of the most interesting and vibrant places in Nairobi. It was a place for shopping, swimming, bowling and of course there excellent mini golf course. Which I can say with much pride is the only time I’ve ever been pooped on by a monkey, sadly it’s unlikely that anyone will fall victim to this crime anymore as the mini golf circuit no longer exists due to village market expanding.
village market was truly Kenyan in its design and construction. It’s small confusing streets lined with small local brands, the seemingly random offices and its excellent food court. The light and fresh air, it’s water fountain (where I and my brother raced leaves in the river fountain), the trees and connection to nature where all Kenyan. It was an example, of truly great design.
Of course, it was still a place for the upper and middle class but people who lived in the area would also come to buy something special for a loved one or a present for their children. It was a place where one could spend a whole day not only shopping but more importantly living. It was full of life and interest, it was a place.
I would argue that village market is among the best shopping centres in the world because it wasn’t a shopping centre it was just a collection of shops who all happened to be situated in the same place. It felt like a marketplace, not a shopping mall.
I think that since then the new makes have been drifting further and further away from this simple truth. They are large, huge monstrosities with no soul or life. There filed with marble and gold. Huge shops and even bigger brands. There’s nothing that distinguishes them from any other shopping mall on earth, and I think that’s a shame. Kenyan and Nairobi have so much history and heritage it is a shame that these large malls do nit try and use this history to create beautiful architecture. Architecture that fits in the urban fabric, both physically but more importantly socially. One can not and should not wish to place foreign forms on Nairobi’s soil.
The new malls that are being built are not only boring structures with little sense of time and space but they lack openness. Openness towards the streets they lay, the communities in which they are and the people who live next to them. They are, like many things I Nairobi, cut off from their surroundings, for security and for the upper class this is, of course, good and to some extent needed. But it does not mean that architecturally these structures need to be so distanced from their surroundings’.
‘Galleria mall below’
By no means am I arguing that the new upper and middle class does not deserve big shopping areas, with international brands and that are filled with lovely and expensive things. I am merely arguing that these places must be Kenyan in soul, in function and most importantly architecturally. Architecture was founded in the villages and towns across the nation for thousands of years. These places should draw from the Swahili states of Lamu and Mombasa, the huts and village structures of the Masaai and the layout of the typical Kenya marketplace.
These are things that are deeply Kenyan and if we are going to continue building bigger and better shopping malls, then the least we can do is make these places Kenyan, so that in a hundred years we can look back at this time of booming capitalism fondly and with pride. We must look back at our history and what has come before and follow in its footsteps. Village market, Sarit centre, Adams arcade and all the other historic shopping malls knew these truths, although seeing Village markets new expansion I feel even they have forgotten this. But its never to late, and we should fight for a more open, beautiful and Kenyan shopping mall, where everyone can feel welcome and where everyone can spend a lazy Saturday. Thinking of all the pretty things they could have, eating and laughing all the day through.