Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, Architect Urko Sanchez interest in travel was sparked at an early age by his pilot father who flew the family to different countries during holidays. Fueled by a serious case of wanderlust, Architect Urko Sanchez has since traveled in more than 40 countries. “Travelling helps me to gain a deeper compassion, understanding, and appreciation of people beyond borders. Travelling with passion and purpose allows you to appreciate cultures, love the world, and have great experiences. If I were not an architect, I would be a traveler.” Urko remarks.
Consequently, travel has informed much of his life and his work – all of the colors, the art, people and cultures he’s been exposed to adding to a sense of what Urko wanted to build for himself and for others.
The multiple award winning Spanish architect first came to Kenya in 1993 on a brief visit after participating in a rugby match at South Africa. A friend had suggested to him that Lamu, an island town in the coastal Kenya, was a great holiday destination and so Urko made a point of passing by the town on his way back to home. “I instantly fell in love with the serenity of the place and I was sure I would like to visit Lamu again” Urko expresses.
Urko would then return to Spain and enroll into a university. “I’m in architecture by chance. I always loved mathematics, physics and drawing but I did not think I would study architecture until the time I joined university. I had applied for geology and business administration and my father had suggested architecture. Surprisingly, I was selected for the architectural course which I did not really like at the beginning. I actually tried to drop out twice but eventually I came to love it.” narrates Urko. It is therefore no wonder that the six year course took Urko ten years. He began his architectural studies in 1988 and completed in 1998! A natural nonacademic, Urko always appreciated experiences and practical training more than theory since his passion for travelling would not even allow him to stay in school consistently. As part of his studies, Urko thus began collaborating with NGO’s on his trips to help in their missions, participating in different architectural endeavors in Spain and Nicaragua as a volunteer.
Upon graduating in 1998, Urko continued to offer his expertise in different conflict zones, including Bosnia, El Salvador and Angola where he spent two years. His participation always revolved around the field of architecture, building camps, schools and clinics. “One of my assignments was at the border of Somalia and Kenya, ’’ Urko remembers. After seven months serving in Northern Kenya, Urko decided to revisit the coast of East Africa and hence making his way back to Lamu “It was a completely peaceful break from all of the high-conflict countries I’d been working in. I decided to set up a base there with the idea that I’d live on this island and then go off to different places to work. But I really didn’t want to go anywhere else, so how could I make my living in Lamu?” he continues, “I came up with the idea of Lamu House Hotel in 2001, and then got a group of friends together to buy the plot. We started working on the architectural planning and just when we were ready to begin building, September 11th happened. Everything stopped. So I went back to Spain for a year to work for a construction company.” Back at Spain, Urko was involved in very special, up market projects like renovation of the Real Madrid Stadium, interventions in the Cathedral of Salamanca and private houses.”
As the world grew more stable in the aftermath of 9/11, Lamu called Urko back ‘home’ in 2003 to start building the hotel. It took two to three years to complete the first phase of Lamu House when the architect, who wanted to keep working on his projects, started building for other clients. “Lamu had started experiencing a boom; more tourists were appreciating the beauty and serenity of Lamu town and even buying property,” Urko says. He started getting clients who wanted their houses either renovated or designed afresh. It was creating spaces that fit the needs of the people without losing the character of the traditional Swahili architecture that set Urko apart. That combination of features rendered his projects a lot of beauty and fascination for the users. And that’s how Urko began to expand his specialty, gravitating more and more into Swahili architecture with a modern twist. He observed how the Swahili community built using Makuti and other locally available materials and the feeling in the spaces. It did not also take him long to adapt to the African culture as Spanish traditions and culture are largely related to those of Africa. “Spain is more like an African European country since it falls on the south very close to North Africa.” Adds Urko.
After living in Lamu for eight years, operating a construction firm, Urko decided to move to Mombasa. The city opened up to him with more opportunities to practice architecture at large scale and hence Urko realized the need to work on the legal requirements to establish himself as an architect. He enrolled for a two year short course at the University of Nairobi to learn about the practice of architecture in Kenya and the regulations after which he sat for the BORAQS exams and was registered an architect in Kenya.
Urko then went back to Mombasa and established his firm Urko Sanchez Architects, an award-winning Kenya and Spain-based boutique architectural firm renowned for excellence in design, master planning, construction management and quality control. “I like to create a comfortable environment for people to live in and remember while contributing to the beautification of an area. In all cases, however, the focus is on the client and the context, with a tailor crafted approach to interpret their vision. One of the most important things for good architecture is the client. Regardless of the place, size of the project or budget, the method of approach to design is a deep process that involves concept analysis to develop the best ideas for the building. A close relationship with the client therefore ensures an architect of their trust and cooperation. This helps to develop mutual understanding through the complex process of design and construction which requires a lot of patience in order to get a unique and functional building with its own identity, adapting to the client’s personal values and environmental requirements. Unfortunately, many clients do not often understand that an architect cannot just come up with ideas; initial design and concept can take several weeks or months before the actual design of how the building will eventually look is complete.” Urko explains.
Combining his training from Spain and the experience he has acquired overtime, Urko is the brain behind some of the most remarkable edifices in the Coastal region of Kenya including the multiple award winning Red Pepper House, Lamu Apartments, Vipingo Club House and Tudor Apartments. He has also done projects in other countries including Spain, Bosnia, Germany, Djibouti and Angola. Experiences from travelling and interactions with the local communities inspire most of his work. In the recent past however, most of his inspiration has come from the internet since he no longer travels as much as he used to due to family responsibilities and work load.
His projects have bagged numerous awards globally; to mention but a few – Vipingo Club House as the best golf development in Kenya in the International Property Awards, Architectural Association of Kenya and the Red Pepper House as the best hospitality project in the French Association for Young Architects in Africa and in the AAK Excellence Awards 2015. Urko Sanchez Architects‘ projects have also been recognized on several publications and international platforms including the African Design Magazine, Architectural Digest, BUILDesign Magazine, Huffington Post, Design Boom, The Telegraph UK, Architecture Lab and Arch Daily among many others. His works have also been exhibited in France, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Namibia and Morocco.
Hallmarks of all of Urko Sanchez Architects‘ projects include both his impeccable design prowess and contemporary twists on traditional architecture; a green aesthetic that harnesses wind and solar power and recycled water; leveraging passive elements of design to showcase natural light, frame private gardens and open courtyards. “Sustainability comes at a very early stage of any project and every architect should incorporate it in their core values. It is possible to create a habitable environment minimizing the need for artificial energy. Consider the cultural roots of the structure, and how the building will be best integrated into its environment; the view, the indigenous materials and the flow of the surroundings. You have to consider the human environment as well. Study the factors that can influence the comfort of the people who will use the building and the neighbors. Water is another key factor; you have to determine where to get the water for the use in the building and how to capture rain water, the means of storage and recycling.” Urko notes. “With the modern trends, especially the use of glass and steel in the tropics, we have to ask ourselves, what are we developing towards? Is it a better future? When we answer that question, we will then pull the wheel of development in a different direction and try to develop in order to improve the environment. The future depends on the present.” He asserts.
After another eight years in Mombasa, Urko has now moved to Nairobi since 2015. His offices in Spain and Mombasa are still operational. “Every eight years, I feel the need to explore a new place. I believe that this is a vital cycle in life and a necessary challenge to be able to express my style of architecture in a highly developed and diverse city using new materials and technology as well as exploring new possibilities.” He says.
Establishing a base in Nairobi will also allow Urko to partner with the universities and share his experience and skills with the students. For instance, being a great architect does not necessary equal to a great business. Urko admits that he has made some losses comparing the amount of work and resources he puts in his projects to the income that he gets. “Running a business is something I was not taught in the architectural school. I only learnt how to design buildings and I think schools should incorporate courses on business administration. It is also important to understand that computers do not create, they only facilitate your creative process and a designer cannot forego the use of pen and paper,” he adds. “This is why I would like to interact with the younger generation of architects especially students as a mentor and hopefully pass on what I have learnt from my experiences.”
Moving forward, Urko hopes to work on fewer but bigger projects. “I love to dedicate enough time to one project with minimal distractions until it is fully completed. With technology, I can also work from different locations and with lesser workload; I can travel more and spend time with my family back in Spain.” He concludes.