Ugandan Architecture Through the Years
Kasubi tombs.

Ugandan Architecture Through the Years

The story of shelter begins in the caves with the hunting and gathering man. Eventually, as he became agriculturist, it became imperative for man to have a fixed base to keep an eye on his crops and animals. Constrained by the existing physical setting and technology, man begets a shelter form dictated by his cultural beliefs.

By Tom Sanya
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First published: June 12, 2005

In Uganda the round hut is historically the predominant architectural form. The hut could be of mud and/or grass. The buildings were arranged in homestead clusters. In Africa in general, the spiritual world was viewed as richer than the physical world and so the built environment is rather scanty but infused with cosmic meaning. Architecture was mainly residential. Among a few tribes like the Baganda, however, there were of signs of monumentality, for example, as evidenced by Kasubi tombs. But society was more or less egalitarian. Every man knew how to build as skills were handed from generation to generation. There were homesteads forming villages strewn all over the landscape, and looking homogenous and very much part of nature.

Parliament buildings from behind.

The colonialists changed the built environment drastically. They introduced a capitalistic economy, and new technology and building materials. Urbanisation started with towns as centres of administration and commerce. Urban areas in Uganda were established complete with administration buildings, a court building, and maybe a hotel (part of the Uganda Hotels chain). The administration facilities were augmented by Indian dukas. The duka, an arcade building with 3 - 5 rentable shops and residential facilities at the backside, was an Indians creation that has become the quintessential building in Ugandan townships.

Kampala was established when Lugard put up a flag and a fort at Old Kampala Hill. Existing already was the traditional Ganda capital – the Kibuga. The Municipality started by Lugard and the Kibuga existed together but with different characteristics. This resulted in a duality that has had ramifications for city development up to today. While the Municipality was well organised based on then modern urban principles, the Kibuga was based on rural administration modes, was poorly served with infrastructure and grew in a disorganised manner. African immigrants went to the Kibuga for cheap accommodation. Those who failed to get jobs in the Municipality sought employment in the nascent informal sector in the Kibuga. The physical manifestation of the informal sector is the organic and largely disorganised informal settlements, which constitute about 60 percent of the cityscape today. The Kibuga became part of the Municipality in 1968. But those areas which were in the Municipality (Kololo. Nakasero, Bugoloobi etc) have remained well planned while those in the former Kibuga are still relatively disorganised (e.g. Katwe, Kisenyi, and large parts of Mengo, Nakulabye).

The colonialists brought new styles of architecture. Every new town, from provincial to sub county level, had an administrative headquarter and support buildings that were usually of substantial brick architecture. For accommodation the British built themselves what they called 'senior-quarters' (very good residences with lush green compounds). In Kampala the senior-quarters were at Kololo where the residences are, by any standards, grand and handsome. The Asians also built substantially. Areas such as Nakasero and Old Kampala have many a fine Asian Style building, but usually not with so much green. For the natives the British provided the African Quarters which had very basic 1-2 bedroom house usually with bathroom and kitchen outside, for example at Naguru in Kampala and Walukuba in Jinja. But for the white-collar job African, relatively better accommodation in form of pool houses was provided.

Crested Towers.

For commercial use Modern-Architecture-inspired buildings by colonialists came up like Sheraton Hotel, UCB building, IPS, Crested Towers. The material used was mainly concrete using a column and beam system. Huge social infrastructure facilities, at a scale that has never been equalled since, were constructed: Makerere University, Mulago Hospital (Mulago is perhaps the largest Modernist work in Uganda), and Luzira Prison. In other towns similar facilities also exist e.g. Bugiri Hospital and Soroti Hospital.

Entering into the grounds of Saint Mary's College, Kisubi.

The church has been a key player in construction of numerous schools of colonial brick style: e.g. Namilyango, Kisubi, Namagunga, Budo, and Gayaza. Churches, like the beautifully proportioned Rubaga Cathedral and the imposing Namirembe Cathedral, are important landmarks in the city. Churches are also involved in provision of health facilities: Rubaga Hospital, Nsambya Hospital, and Namirembe Hospital. The Moslems too have Kibuli High School and Kibuli Hospital. In the rural areas the churches and associated social facilities are still the most dominant built form.

Today, over 85 percent of Uganda is rural. The urban areas have a concentration of economic activity with urban inhabitants having a higher average income than their rural counterparts. In Uganda's context Kampala is a primate city producing the lion's share of GDP. But there are lots of urban poor many of whom are worse off than the average rural dweller. Poverty in towns is evidenced by the ubiquitous informal settlements. Three out of every five people you see on a Kampala street live in appalling and unhygienic conditions in informal settlements many of which are overcrowded, unhygienic, and flood prone.

In the countryside the wattle-and-daub grass-thatched hut still predominates today. Huts are strewn over the savannah landscape to form a oneness with nature that can evoke poetic emotions. The traditional hut itself is well suited to our climate as anyone who has experienced its cool interior on a hot afternoon can attest. The round shape, continuous vent at the top, use of courtyards, and choice of building materials result in a cool environment. But getting a brick and mabaati house is status symbol always at the expense of thermal comfort. Timber for construction and for firing bricks is fast disappearing, hence the need to find building alternatives that consume less of the forest resource. Many in town also have a house in the village, and possibly a few animals, where they go when they inevitably die. In the upcountry town, a flimsy version of the Indian-Duka is still the defining style.

Outskirts of Kampala: duka-style homes/shops.

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By Tom Sanya
more from author >>
First published: June 12, 2005
Tom Sanya qualified as an architect at Makerere University in 1996 and was called back to lecture at the Department of Architecture. In 2001, he attained a Master of Infrastructure Planning Degree from the University of Stuttgart (Germany). His Master's Thesis was entitled "A Study of Informal Settlements in Kampala City".

From August 2002 to date he is undertaking doctorate studies at the Oslo School of Architecture. His doctorate research proposal is entitled “Living in Earth – the Sustainability of Earth Architecture in Uganda”.

He works as an Architect in Technology Consults Limited, a cross-disciplinary firm that offers consultancy services in architecture, engineering, computing and surveying.

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