Arch. Jim Archer started joining his father to visit construction sites at the age of 5. At the time, there was hardly any sparkle in the architecture industry in Kenya. Only the infamous Kenya-Uganda Railway line and a few government buildings at the city centre. Uganda Railway was the major developer in the country then. His father, the late Howard Archer worked on several projects which still remain timeless edifices of architecture in Nairobi. To mention but a few; the City Hall, the National Archives, the High Court, All Saints Cathedral and the Railway Headquarters. Jim’s formative years as a child were characterized by lengthy periods beside his father drawing or on construction sites supervising projects – and hence by the age of 10, Jim had acquired a good knowledge of building technology. By then, he knew that he wanted to be an architect.
Born in 1937, Architect James Howard Archer, usually known as Jim Archer grew up in Nairobi at their home in Lower Kabete and was born, in the very room, he still works in, to date! It is also the place where he does his best creative thinking; this room and the office and the beautiful garden forms a big part of the person he is. Jim attended Nairobi Primary School for his primary education. He later joined the Prince of Wales school (now Nairobi School) for his secondary education then went to the UK to the Oxford School of Architecture. His 1st and 2nd years at the School of Architecture were challenging trying to cope and adapt to a new culture in the UK.
Despite him being a British descendant he found it very difficult to talk to, understand, or work with English students of his own age. He graduated with First Class Honors in 1960, the first student in ten years to get the award at the Oxford School of Architecture. His final portfolio and thesis were selected by RIBA as one of the five UK students’ work to represent British schools of architecture for the Commonwealth Tour of 1961, having had previously been selected for exhibition in RIBA among the top ten architecture schools in the UK.
The design, which was a proposal for the Supreme Courts of East Africa to be sited in Mombasa, was a simple timeless interpretation of ethnic building technologies of the time and set, without compromise, in an entirely modern context. It was an inspiration from the ruins at Kilwa and the well-preserved work at Konga, Tiwi, and Fort Jesus in Mombasa. It had managed to “escape” from the “Cubic Concrete” architecture of the time something that made it more distinct.
Professional Background – the early career experience, the rise, the downfall and the fresh start
After completing his studies, Arch. Jim Archer joined Norman & Dawbarn Architects in London and West Indies, Tanzania and Wolverhampton, the UK as an assistant architect. Though a financially fulfilling opportunity, Jim felt limited as a designer in exploring his creativity. He remembers his first project at Norman & Dawbarn. Wolverhampton was to move a massive and very heavy steel hammer mill from one place to another within a factory working 24-hour shifts 365 days a year, a task that had nothing to do with his skills as an architect. But this was the kind of work that was offered to young architects they could not give non-experienced architects major architectural projects to work on. However, this humbling experience was useful because it helped him gain valuable hands-on skills. His first architectural task in the firm involved modifications and improvements to amazingly primitive Victorian factories plus the design, detailing and construction supervision of five schools in the Midlands of England.
At the end of 1961, Arch. Jim Archer returned to Nairobi to take up a position as a project architect in his father’s practice – Cobb, Archer, and Scammell. He designed and supervised the Commonwealth Development Corporation headquarters on the then Government road (now Moi Avenue). He also designed the UK funded Veterinary Preclinical School for the University of Nairobi at the Chiromo Campus.
Shortly after independence, investment confidence was low in Kenya as the country was still experiencing instability and hence, contract opportunities were few. Jim moved to Kampala to manage the firm’s office in Uganda. There over time, he designed the Kampala City Hall, the Town Council offices, the National Insurance Headquarters, the Diamond Trust Building, The Central Telephone Exchange, The Meat Processing plant in Soroti, a Textile factory in Jinja and Uganda Breweries in PortBell among many other buildings. It was during that time that he met Trevor Andrews who joined Jim in Kampala as a senior assistant, who later in Nairobi became his co-founder of Planning Systems Services Ltd. In Kampala, he successfully chaired the Committee that revised the Kampala City Planning and Building Regulations. With a booming practice and his signature on several mega projects in the country, Jim was one fairly successful young architect in Uganda but little did he know that all his efforts would crash when Idi Amin overthrew the government of Milton Obote in 1970, resulting in the exit of foreigners in Uganda. The violence and instability destabilized the vibrant and stable economy of the country. Jim worked out a plan to secure all his employees new jobs outside Uganda before he decided it was time for him and his family to go. He would then leave behind his ten years of investments arriving at Heathrow in London with what his family was able to carry in their hands and five British shillings, just enough to make a telephone call to a friend.
On his return to the UK, Arch. Jim Archer was fortunate to get a partnership in a commercial oriented architectural practice – Watkins Gray Wood gate International. Again here, just like Norman & Dawbarn, the money was good but there was no design stimulus no “get up and go”.
After a deep soul searching, Jim returned to Kenya in 1975 and joined the University of Nairobi as a Senior Lecturer, Department of Architecture – having the merit of a practitioner among the other 250 applicants. Not long after, he was selected Chairman of the Board of Professional Practice Examiners but the earning could not fully satisfy his needs. With the approval and support of the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Jim set up a small architectural private practice that he would run in the evenings and on weekends. During holidays, he would engage architectural students to enable them to gain hands-on experience. Gradually, Jim was getting busy with the firm and handling two jobs was becoming a challenge. He resigned at the University and got into partnership with Arch. Trevor Andrews hence establishing Planning Systems and Services Ltd in 1978. Their first office was on the balcony of a car repair workshop in the Industrial area, Nairobi. The first big break for PSS was in 1982 when they won a competition for the design of Lake View estate in Lower Kabete road in Nairobi.
Planning Systems and Services Ltd is today a leading practice in Africa specializing in architecture, land use, project management, energy, and environment. With dozens of signature projects, international awards and commendations for architectural excellence, the firm is continually delivering quality projects.
Arch. Jim Archer is the architect behind some notable buildings in Nairobi. These include; the I & M Bank Tower along Kenyatta avenue, Lonrho House in the City CBD, Hilton Hotel, Nation Centre building at the city centre, Windsor Golf and Country club in Ridgeways, Sarit Centre in Westlands, Fedha Towers, Rahimtulla Trust Tower , KCB Headquarters and Citi Bank building – both in Upper hill, Braeburn schools, both Starehe Boys and Girls schools, the Agakhan University hospital, Gertrude’s Hospital, Mayfair hotel in Westlands among many others. However, Jim takes no credit for such accomplishments, he rather commends his staff team for his success. In his own words, “My best project is not a building but the team we have built at PLANNING over the years. Our staff members are my pride and the best project.”
In addition to being an architect, Jim is also an environmental enthusiast, championing conservation programs to protect and improve natural resources. He is the inventor of the international award winning Community cooker, a waste-burning stove designed to transform waste into safe, clean and cheap energy for cooking and heating water. It is currently in use in one of Africa’s largest slums – Kibera, in Nairobi, Kawangware, and Naivasha. Jim plans to build hundreds of these stoves especially in the impoverished areas where electricity is not readily available. In his own words, he says, “I live for the Community Cooker project.”
As if that is not enough for a 78-year-old, Jim has another conservation project dubbed, the Intervention program. He first conceived this idea in 1990 and he first put it on paper in 2003. The project is about regeneration and redevelopment of the Nairobi River and Ngong river boundaries from open sewers and dumping sites to clean waterways with eco-friendly commercial surroundings. This involves cleaning up the river and turning its neighborhood into a continuous series of water parks and wetlands. The properties on the river bank are then redeveloped into shopping promenades to house small-scale kiosk owners. Jim explains that his choice for Nairobi and Ngong rivers in specific was guided by their catchment areas which are easily traceable within the city. Nairobi River originates from Dagoretti while the Ngong river hails from Karen, and therefore to clean up the upper regions of both rivers would be easy.
And to accomplish such immense commissions, one would wonder, what is it that keeps Jim energetic and inspired? The natural world – the tangible, visible, naturally occurring things hold a dear place in his heart. His other inspiration and mainly in his architectural designs is the 3B and 6B pencils. Besides, Jim also has a list of personalities that deeply influence his practice and especially people who stand up to do the unexpected and accomplish the impossible. Needless to say, his father, the late Arch. Howard Archer – he is the reason why Jim is an architect today, shaping his mental system at an early age and exposing him to architectural works on top of parenting. Other people who have continually inspired Jim include; Architect Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Dennis Lasdun, Foster Sterling, Rogers, Renzo Piano, Colin Stansfield Smith, I.M. Pei, Eng. Happold and Peter Rice and economist Mark Bostock among many others.
Having overcome the many challenges he has experienced, Jim highlights corruption as the major setback. He has severally turned down job opportunities that would otherwise compromise his integrity. Other major challenges have been incompetence and dealing with clients who want quick financial return projects.
Arch. Jim Archer feels that student architects in this age are not set enough challenge and hence their work exceptional Jim exclaims. But like a good teacher, he appreciates what his students are doing in the industry today though he feels that there is more that can be done. He reminds students and young professionals that the world of design is without limit in its exploitation and so, you have to live every moment of what you draw. You have to believe in what you draw, which means you have to be able to back it up with hard fact – now, that is design.
His other two cents is in regard to creativity. According to Jim, the accuracy achieved and creative ability offered by the pencil is simply priceless. For the last 54 years in his architectural practice, Jim has created using a pencil. While computers are great for speed and convenience, Jim terms computerized drawing as largely idealistic and hence lacks creativity. His design advice to architects is; Throw away your computer. Pick up a 3B pencil and as you draw, THINK, as you draw CREATE. Always look at the details and ask yourself: Is this buildable? He hopes that the many young architects who have sat under his mentorship can embrace this concept.
Over the years, Jim has also factored a major flaw he feels that architects (himself included) are repeatedly doing, and that is a failure to listen. Jim says that architects often deem themselves too knowledgeable hence they don’t listen to the client or other consultants. They feel that they know what to do and how to do it and usually end up making unnecessary mistakes. He says that he has learnt, his entire professional life, to be a good listener and the more careful he has listened, the fewer design mistakes he has made.
His parting shot as far as design is concerned is a statement that has stuck in his mind from way back in campus when a British architect visited their school to give a public lecture. It says, “Always give clients what they want but also give them something they never dreamt they could have.” It simply means supersede the expectations of your clients, something Jim strives to achieve in all his work.
Arch. Jim Archer is also a family man; a grandfather of three, a father of four and a husband to one wife. He has been married for the last 28 years to Dr. Linda Archer, a demographer, and statistician who works as the Country manager of monitoring and evaluation at an international health NGO. Besides his conservation programs, the Community Cooker and the Intervention project, Jim is currently working on the succession plan of PSS. In the next five years or so, he hopes to entirely hand over, having set up Planning Project Management and Planning for Energy and the Environment. The retirement plan is chief consultancy for the firm and more family time with his wife and their children.