Kenya celebrated the country’s golden jubilee in December 2013 marking 50 years of independence. The Ministry of Sports, Culture & Arts contributed to a budget of Kshs. 500M for the celebrations in partnership with leading corporations including the National Bank, Safaricom Ltd, Coca cola and EABL among others. The programme by the Kenya@50 secretariat was part of the country’s Vision 2030 medium term plan.
Eight flagship projects, dubbed Legacy Projects, were launched by the president as hallmarks of the celebrations, among them, refurbishment of the Kenya National Theatre which is the country’s largest national stage, at a budget of Kshs. 100M with East African Breweries Ltd as the designated sponsor.
In the capacity of the commissioning client, EABL then contracted Symbion Kenya to design and execute the refurbishment project in June 2014 with Architect Luke Carter as the lead project consultant due to his wide range of experience in theatrical architecture. Representatives from the clientele including EABL, the Kenya Cultural Centre trustees as proxy to the Ministry of Sports, Arts & Culture and the Kenya@50 secretariat, formed a steering committee to work with the architect.
Located along Harry Thuku road in Nairobi, the Kenya National Theatre is subtly fitted among iconic landmarks like the University of Nairobi and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation offices on its adjacent sides and the Norfolk Hotel on its opposite. The first cultural facility to have been built outside the commonwealth, KNT is part of the Kenya Cultural Centre (KCC) mandated to offer space for the rehearsal and staging of productions to both local and international repertoire in Nairobi. The planning for the building began in 1949 when a steering committee made up of British and Indian settlers requested the colonial government to set up a place where they could express themselves in music, drama and arts. This call was repeated a year later prompting the British government, through its colonial offices in Kenya to initiate the project that saw the construction of the first and now the oldest cultural institution via a statutory parliamentary Act (Chapter 218 of 1951).
A piece of land was provided along Harry Thuku Road for the two-phase construction of the centre. The location was guided by the need for safety since the area was a no-go-zone for Africans who were at that time restricted to Eastlands and could not go past Gikomba.
The first construction phase involved setting up a 450-seater hall that could host musical and dramatic arts, and dances.
The hall had a dilapidated orchestra pit at the basement, auditorium with curtained stage and a balcony where the audience could watch performances and an extension containing a bar and restaurant to offer refreshments during breaks.
The overall brief requirement was modernization of the facility in terms of acoustic quality, occupancy and safety to restore the former glory of this historic building. The intention was to promote the efforts of young artists in music, film and performing arts within the contemporary culture. Initially, the architect designed a concept for everything with a complete master plan for the refurbishment of both the interior and exterior which would cost Kshs. 320M. However, the allocated budget of Kshs. 100M could not achieve the milestones desired for the project hence the design had to be revised to fit within the budget. The revised design mostly covered the main auditorium, which is the heart of the theatre consisting of acoustics, seating, lighting, audio equipment, rigging, air conditioning and paving.
Being a national landmark and a key feature in the city, its interiors reflect the national colours including red, black, green and white and hence the need for the architect to work with the theme. From the last renovation about a decade ago, the timber on the walls was painted black, the timber on the top dark green and the seats were red. In the spirit of conservation, the architect reused the painted timber exposing the beautiful brown side of the timber on the walls to create an artistic cultural feel. Display spaces for artworks and murals were also incorporated.
Installation of new fixed tilting upholstered, bigger and more comfortable seats reduced the seating capacity from 450 seats to 375 seats. Special lighting for the contemporary theatrical design include aisle lighting, front lighting, foot lighting and follow spot lights to accommodate various performances at modern standards.
Regulation of aisles for easy circulation and fire escape has been channeled appropriately in the auditorium. In addition, emergency notification systems, lighting, signage, fire equipment, new push passes on the doors and other security systems have been installed to facilitate safe and speedy evacuation during emergency. New lights recessed into the floor risers at each seating tier and wall mounted low light level sconce lights are typical.
New acoustical ceiling and wall panels for the interior finish in the auditorium were fitted to prevent sound distortion from the stage. The volume of the auditorium was also reduced by introduction of new seeding that helps reflect and disperse the acoustics evenly across the space. To complement the existing control room on the second floor, a new sound & light control room was introduced at the ground floor area facing the stage so that they can have direct visual and acoustic link with the stage. The architect also introduced two mufflers on the two walls of the auditorium to help control the acoustics.
Heating, ventilating and air conditioning(HVAC) systems are sized and zoned to regulate varying internal loads as a function of audience sizes, performance lighting loads and projection equipment. Existing cooling systems are fully serviced for optimum functionality.
The colour scheme was guided by several factors. The stakeholders wanted a combination of modern and traditional look with an historic conservation. The architect therefore went for a contemporary look with a mix of bold and temperate shades, both light and neutral hence the gypsum ceiling and textured finishes. Manufactured granite tiling has been used at the main entrance lounge. The auditorium floor is cladded with a high spec carpet and dust trappers to reduce incoming dust. The old dysfunctional elements at the stage were cleaned and the exterior was wire brushed with a new canopy added to the balcony and some additional spaces for services.
Midway construction, additional sponsorship worth Kshs. 50M from the Ministry and the Japan Embassy in Nairobi was received and mainly used to revamp the main front face of the theatre and the terrace bar makeover. The new covered extension of the terrace with new floor finishes supplements the lobby with increased seating capacity and a fresh aura for theatre lovers. The lighting systems introduced enhance the atmosphere of the place and the strategic points of operation created will make customer relations easier and convenient for business. Other areas covered in the extra budget included external paving, lighting and public washrooms. The money was also used to acquire a 400 KVA backup power (the generator) and water tanks. Low flash toilet technology has been used in the washrooms to reduce the amount of water used. The public washrooms at the main lobby have been reconfigured with the introduction of handicapped WC, new urinal, WHB and WCs. Upgraded power & water systems have also been well fitted for the comfort of the user.
As a separate pro bono exercise, the architect also redesigned the entry into the facility and circulation around the venue. It also included extra parking, landscaping and exterior lighting of the façade to draw more attention to the theatre at night. Sewer and storm water reticulation has also been separated to control flooding due to overflowing manholes.
Capacity of the entire facility include the main auditorium, the executive gallery, the dance studio, the dressing/changing rooms, rehearsal space, orchestra pit with contemporary visual systems, fully equipped green room, power switch room the terrace bar area, snack shops, booking offices with modern e-ticketing systems, management offices, washrooms and the parking.
One major challenge was dealing with multiple stakeholders which involved long discussions and mediations hence delayed processes. The fact that the KCC premises were still in use during the KNT refurbishment was also a challenge with random people all over the tight site regularly and hence the pressure from the arts centre to use the venue. Being a renovation project, there were also several discoveries, during construction, of elements in the building that the architect had no idea existed at design stage hence the consequent updating of the design which was time consuming. Particularly, the design changes midway construction as well as the budget fluctuations & restrictions affected the set timeline for delivery in a big way. Design took four months while the construction took eight months. The entire project took twelve months to finish.
The renovation which was completed in March 2015 will enable the Kenya National Theatre to stage more productions and give the youth a greater opportunity to fully exploit their talents in the field of performing arts within the modern standards. Renowned as the country’s premier venue for artistic and cultural drama, the 62 year old facility now stands as the best equipped theatre for modern theatrical productions in the whole of East and Central Africa.
Architects: Symbion Kenya
Project Manager: Kenya Breweries Ltd
Main Contractor: Raicon Development Services Ltd
Structural Engineer: Britech Ltd Consulting Engineers
Mechanical & Electrical Engineer: Donn Consultants
Quantity Surveyor: Davson & Ward