“A building that does not recognize the cultural context and existing forms is a disservice and a stranger to the surrounding community.” James Kimathi – 2011
Best known for use of round forms and conical roofs in his designs, Architect James Kimathi is one of the most respected architects in East Africa. With some of the great commissions in the region under his name and a brilliant career in architecture on his sleeves, it is then a huge surprise to discover that Kimathi did not grow up desiring to be an architect.
Born in Meru in an environment endowed with nature, the last born child in a family of four remembers how as a young boy he’d find the rotating grinder of a flour mill fascinating. He also adds that observing the moving water rotate the flour mill system was quite an experience for him. He now realizes the mechanical inspiration of a flour mill may have given him motivation for architecture, although he also admits that back then, he never perceived it as a drive. Kimathi also notes that his friends used to tell him that he was good in artwork but still that did not gear him up to pursue an artistic course.
James is a registered architect in both Kenya and Tanzania. He has over thirty years experience in the practice of architecture, project management, planning and landscape architecture. He has also acquired enormous ability in planning and management techniques over his period of practice in undertaking projects in a broad spectrum of building types in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana.
Kimathi attended a local primary school and later joined Nkubu High School in 1964. After high school, he enrolled for a medical course in the Kenya Medical Training College to train as a Public Health officer. It is during the second year of his medical course that he purposed to change his career path when they were introduced to a building and construction unit in the medical course. The practical sessions of this unit involved visiting construction sites to inspect buildings for hygiene purposes. This experience doubled James’ appreciation for physical things and soon he found himself seeking to understand more disciplines in the built field. The same year, James was persuaded to pursue architecture but the finisher in him would not quit, so he went on to first complete the medical course.
In 1971, James graduated with a Diploma in Public Health offered by Royal Society of Health. Rather than advancing his career in paramedical field, he applied for an undergraduate course in architecture at the University of Nairobi that same year. In 1974, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and subsequently a Masters in 1976. He is also an expert in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)/Environmental Audit (EA) from Nazarene University.
Upon completing his studies, James joined the Ministry of Works for his practical training. At the Ministry, he participated in the design of Prison Headquarters in Upper hill, Nairobi among other projects. During that time also, he sat for his professional exams and was registered an architect.
In 1978, James and his friend, Arch. Stanley Kebathi registered a firm dubbed K & K Archplans. They immediately quit employment and started the practice. The bold move to venture into business only two years after university was propelled by sheer courage and the fact that they both had few commitments with small families. K & K Archplans was the second firm after Waweru & Associates to have only Africans as main partners. It was also among the first firms to become computerized and train Archicad. Their early projects included a government commission to design an office block at Kiganjo Police centre, design of Nairobi School of Theology along Waiyaki way, World Vision office block and All Africa Conference of Churches. In 1990, James and his partner started an office in Botswana where they were commissioned to design three commercial blocks but due to increasing family commitments and more projects in Kenya, they decided to close down the Botswana office after completion of the projects.
In 1996, James and his partner agreed to branch out and share the workload, each establishing a private firm and hence the founding of K & M Archplans.
K&M Archplans widened its consultancy services to East Africa and has an established office in Dar-es-Salaam. In 1999, K &M Archplans emerged overall winner in an international design competition for the new Tanzanian Parliament, shortly after the company opened the Tanzania office. This project, the first of its magnitude to be executed by an African architect in Africa, earned James a remarkable career lift and greater opportunities in the industry hence placing him on the frontline in parliamentary architecture within the region. He notes that the iconic commission also led to major international travels and wide exposure to trends and technology in modern architecture.
He also credits the experience and success of that commission to his win in the design competition for modernization of Kenyan Parliament and award of first runners up in the design competition of the proposed East African Community Headquarters.
The winner by design, Architect James Kimathi has also done several other great projects besides parliamentary buildings, with most of his projects passing as winning entries in architectural competitions. Some of which are briefly discussed below:-
- 1st Prize in Tanzania Bunge Design Competition
- 1st Prize Kenya Debating Chamber
- 1st prize in Kilimanjaro Towers a twin tower complex to be erected at Upper hill
- 1st prize for the Ultra modern shopping mall in Mwanza (Tanzania)
- 1st prize for a 35 storey office complex under construction in Dar es Salaam.
- Design Competition, 1st Premium Award for Bomas of Kenya
- Design Award for East African Community Headquarters in Arusha and 2nd
- Prize for Pan African Postal Union House Competition in Arusha
The project came as winning entry in an international design competition in 1999.
The building design is abstracted from an African Traditional Hut and has vibrant forms that are culturally responsive to the people of Tanzania. This building is a major national monument for the people of Tanzania and a landmark for the city of Dodoma.
The exterior form of the building has been derived from housing forms of various tribes around Tanzania. The conical and vaulted roof forms have been borrowed from tribes near Dodoma and Maasai land.
The massive ultra modern complex that brought forth collaboration of over 30 consultants, specialists, contractors and subcontractors was completed in 2006 with a capacity of 350 MPs, 40 VIPs and 200 members of public alongside government and other support staff, modern workstations for 350 MPs fully equipped with a digital communication system and properly fitted acoustics.
This was another winning entry in an open design competition for the modernization and expansion of the existing Parliamentary chambers for the Kenya National Assembly.
The scheme entailed implementing a new seating arrangement as well as modernizing its facilities to provide multimedia electronic voting for MPs, enhanced lighting and broadcasting facilities with sophisticated electronic and mechanical systems.
The new facility is well fitted with proper acoustics hence individualized seating arrangement for the MPs, which provides each occupant of the chamber with comfortable workstation.
Special attention is also provided for artistic and cultural designs that form part of the interior décor and significantly contribute to the chamber’s character.
Tanzania Ports Authority
This 35- Level proposal was another winning entry in a competition for design of a one stop centre along Sokoine drive in Dar es Salaam. The design is an abstraction of a moving boat.
The project, which is currently under construction, accommodates commercial spaces on ground floor, two level basement parking, one level of podium parking and a 1200 pax conference hall on the fourth floor. The Proposal also has a rotating restaurant at the top most level of the tower.
The building which is set to be another landmark in Tanzania sits approximately 30 meters from the sea. Construction is on 30th floor.
Architect James Kimathi is very conversant with parliamentary architecture but he notes that he has not deliberately chosen this as his specialization – it just comes by the grace of God. The bulk of work and technology required in such iconic commissions demand intensive research studies and adequate exposure to similar structures and expertise.
He has further written a book, Parliaments and their Architecture – Design, Art and Technology. These insights from his wealth of knowledge and experience in parliamentary architecture are documented in this book which is available on sale all over the world.
Despite the accomplishments, his practice has not been without challenges; big decisions have had to be made, new innovations have had to be adopted due to technological changes, growing competition has kept him on his toes and corruption has countlessly but unsuccessfully threatened to ruin his morals. To stay grounded, James has always had his priorities in order. God comes first in his life and family right after. Work comes third. He draws inspiration from books and nature. He also adds that his staff members are very supportive hence the success of his firm, K & M Archplans. Other sources of his inspiration are architectural works by Antonio Gaudi and Santiago Calatrava but he is more of Gaudi person.
James still seeks to impact the industry and is more vibrant to change, model and remodel architecture nationally, in the grassroots through the counties in their parliaments and civic buildings. This also, is as his way of giving back to the community.
He works to inspire and motivate students and young professionals through his work and words of advice, “Be organized, focused, work hard and persevere. Travel a lot and see different designs but develop architecture practical for Africa. Research on trends and read a lot.”
James also has a word for everyone, “Design personal guiding principles in order to achieve anything in life and pursue your interests with undivided passion.” He dubs these principles in his familiar jargon as ‘internal architecture’.
His future plans are a succession plan for his firm and of course retirement. His retirement plan is to do something that is less strenuous most likely still within his line of practice. James is also passionate about mentoring younger architects. In his own words, “I have a serious desire to pass on what I have acquired over the years to young architects. I have no secrets concerning architecture that I want to hide from other architects. I have a burning passion to mentor younger architects and this is one of my plans in the next few years.”
Kimathi is married to Grace Kimathi who is an author and counselor in marriage and family. They have four children and three grandchildren.