Form, Function and Meaning


27 July 2018

Nestled among the corrugated iron roofs of the mud houses of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, is a small building whose existence raises familiar questions about the relationship between the things we build and the way we use them. The plastic roofing that forms the exoskeleton of the Kibera Hamlets School suggests perfect harmony with the surrounding environment. Initially chosen for its translucency, the roof has collected dust over time such that it is now impossible to single it out when approaching. Kibera has claimed this structure for its own.

But once you arrive at the site, its distinctive aesthetic is impossible to ignore – much like the charged politics that the structure and its provenance trigger. The stark white-and-yellow sharp angles and bold lines of the two-storey building dwarf nearby structures and demand the visitor’s attention. The happy squeals of children shielded from curious onlookers carry easily through the gaps and slats in the facade that the architects left so that air could circulate, and perhaps so that the children’s joy could lift nearby spirits too. “We wanted the school to be a place where the kids could go and have fun,” says Julian Ocampo, one of the principals at Helloeverything, a Toronto-based practice who worked on the project. “We wanted it to be cool and engaging.” Fun, cool, engaging, practical, replicable, distinct, nondescript – a laundry list of the often contradictory claims that make this seemingly simple project far more complex.

Kibera is variously – and incorrectly – referred to as Africa’s largest slum. Occupying some of the city’s most prime land in terms of proximity to the business districts, the rusty corrugated sheets and mud walls of the settlement are nestled on a ridge between Lang’ata, a neat middle-class suburb of row houses; Nairobi National Park, the only national park in a capital city; and Kilimani, a suburb popular with young expats and senior government officials. Accurate population estimates are hard to come by, varying between 300,000 to one million residents, but Kibera is undoubtedly one of Africa’s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods. Established in 1899 and almost as old as the nation itself, the settlement has come to symbolise both an endless wellspring of hope and the epitome of Kenya’s self-defeating politics, where individuals are held hostage by the political ambitions of both the state and the opposition, and exploitation in various flavours. Different groups have been trying to “fix” Kibera since it was created as a settlement for African soldiers serving in the colonial British government. But Kibera’s poverty is political, and “fixing Kibera” is not as simple as giving people more money, nicer buildings or ballet lessons. The shoddy buildings keep slum lords and water sellers off the grid, and let them charge extortionate rates without having to report taxes, for instance. Kenya has a young population – 80 per cent of the country is under the age of 35 – and a youth unemployment rate of 35 per cent. The poverty in Kibera exacerbates these social issues. During various political crises, like the 2007/08 political violence that erupted following the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki, the settlement has acted as a reservoir of voters and unemployed youth that, for a few dollars, will instigate political violence on behalf of either the government or the opposition. Kibera is a reminder that while poverty is expensive for the poor, it can be very profitable for the rich.

Kibera is also synonymous with well-meaning but often poorly researched interventions. The settlement has become a testing ground for everything from innovations in sanitation (Sanergy), to political initiatives, to yoga (Africa Yoga Project) and ballet (Anno’s Africa) and orchestras. These interventions make life for locals more bearable – a worthy pursuit in itself – but do little to challenge the political interests that keep the slum going. Thus, every day, thousands of Kenya’s lowest salaried employees still heave from its narrow arteries, marching towards construction sites, factories and homes they will clean, while someone else will come up with a new way to save Kibera. Few of these projects will take, but if you went only by the jargon and inspiration porn, you’d be inclined to think that Kibera was constantly teetering on the edge of salvation.

Almost a year after it was installed in Kibera, the Hamlets School unintentionally triggers some of the longest running debates in architecture and philosophy. Is architecture political? Should form triumph over function, or the inverse, or neither? Where does the architect’s responsibility towards a product of their imagination end? Do poor people “deserve” nice things? Conversations with those who designed and built the Hamlets School reveal that while they did not set out to raise these questions, they were inevitably brought up by the consequences of the school’s disruptive effect. The Hamlets School project was complicated by any metric except, perhaps, design. The original architecture has transatlantic roots – a product of the imaginations of Helloeverything and the Spanish architects Selgas Cano, with input from architectural photographer Iwan Baan and Nairobi-based architect Abdul FatahAdam and his Studio 14 practice. Further support came from Second Home, a London-based co-working space. Commissioned by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark as a pavilion for its Africa: Architecture, Culture, Identity exhibition, the structure was used as a viewing space for three short films based on the theme “building futures”. Baan knew José Selgas and Lucía Cano from a previous project – he had photographed a vaccination clinic that the firm designed in northern Kenya in 2015 – and had spent time photographing in Kibera. Initially, the museum approached Selgas Cano to reproduce its vaccination clinic. “Which for us was stupid,” says Selgas. “What’s the sense of replicating something?” Instead, Baan suggested that the team replace the dilapidated structure that to that point had served as home to the Hamlets School in Kibera. “So we asked the museum to let us do a project with the same kind of construction as the clinic, but which was going to be a school,” says Selgas. “It was always designed for that site in Kibera, because the existing school was a total disaster. What we did was to improve it.”

Kibera is one of Africa's largest informal settlements. Population estimations vary from 300,000 to one million. IMAGE Iwan Baan.

No doubt the structure responds well to the tension between form and function. The simplicity of the materials chosen means that the model can easily be replicated in other informal settlements, not just in Africa but around the world. I counted only seven different materials – plasterboard, translucent roofing sheets, corrugated iron sheets, wood paneling, steel frames and joints, plastic meshing, and some cement flooring – in the entire structure. All of these materials are readily available locally, meaning that the Hamlets School should have no problem keeping up with the maintenance of the building. The building is also pleasant to be in. “It’s a durable, interactive space,” summarises Adam. The steel scaffolding bars also act as monkey bars on which the students can play during their break times. The harsh lines of the steel scaffolding that forms the skeleton of the building are softened by their bright yellow paint, and further still by the gentle undulations of the translucent roofing sheets. Unlike the building it replaced, which was moulded from light-proof earth and harsh aluminium, the new building is encased in plastic see-through sheeting that bathes the classrooms and the common areas in Nairobi’s abundant natural light. If this all sounds rather semi-permanent, Ocampo assures me that this is intentional. “We wanted to provide a school for as long as it is needed,” he says, “which honestly, isn’t forever.” The school is designed to outlast the ramshackle buildings that surround it, but not to resist good public planning that should ideally lead to more permanent buildings for the students of Kibera.

The school was commissioned by Louisiana, showing at the museum for a summer before it was packed and shipped to Kenya with funding from Second Home. Both Baan and Adam had visited the original school prior to the project and understood that space would be tight. But they were certain that if the team worked with the school’s owners, local authorities, and teams of local young people who provided the labour, the project could be finished on time and on budget. “We wanted to be as transparent as possible,” says Adam. “We needed to be able to defend this building to everyone in the community.” Given these choices, the Hamlets School has become something of a local landmark. “We get all sorts of varied reactions,” notes Adam. “It’s a better and a safer space than what was here before. You know, Kibera gets a lot of tourists, and people like to come and see the school. It’s having an impact”. And it is an impact that can be quickly and easily replicated.

“Selgas Cano did an amazing job [with the materials],” says Baan, “treating everyday materials in a new way to create a new effect”. To this end, the school’s rigid steel bones and tough plastic shell are still designed to breathe. None of the classrooms are completely enclosed. Three of the walls in the upstairs classrooms are made of a durable, plastic mesh that allows air to circulate freely. Similarly, there is a large opening between the ceiling and the side walls that not only allows extended views over the settlement, but also lets hot air escape. The downstairs
classrooms are similarly open with one wall absent entirely, saturating the classrooms in natural light. And at night, when the lights are on, the translucent sheets cause the entire building to glow. “It’s like a beacon,” Ocampo tells me. “A sign of what’s possible in Kibera. The building makes a statement.”

And yet this building is supposed to be a school. Schools are used by students – and students are loud, rambunctious and easily distracted. What lets the air out of the school also lets Kibera in, and the aesthetics of the building exist in tension with its use. For example, the open slats that let air circulate through the building also filter in the noise from the narrow arteries through which Kibera circulates, making it impossible to teach. Victor Onzere, a young teacher I meet during my visit to the school, hints at the untenability of the situation. “I wish they would block the windows,” he says, referring to the large gap between the wall and the ceilings. “It really distracts the students.” In fact, Onzere is agnostic about the entire project. He tells me in a neutral tone that I recognise from my time as an English teacher in a similar school in Kibera – a tone suggesting years of being experimented on by well-meaning outsiders – that he appreciates the school and the many good changes it has made to his working environment, but wishes that it responded less to design imperatives, and more to its users’ needs. Like most other students in Kenya, the students at the Hamlets School learn by rote and memorisation. This means that the teacher stands in front of the class, writes things down on the blackboard, and then invites the room of up to 80 children to shout back what they have written down. In the case of the Hamlets School, the blackboards are on either side of the thin plasterboards that are the only solid structure between two adjacent classrooms. So, given that the classrooms are all open, this means that at its peak usage 200 young voices could be shouting things at or past each other. “The noise comes into my classroom from the other classrooms,” says Onzere wryly. “Sometimes I can’t even hear myself think.”

A year or so on, the building is being reclaimed by Kibera, with dust settling on its translucent roofing. IMAGE Iwan Baan.

While Onzere is grateful that he has more space and that the environment is cleaner and more open than the structure that preceded it, he can’t help but point out all the details that make it impossible for him to truly enjoy the building as a teacher. Take those translucent roofing sheets for example. “It gets so hot in the afternoon. All the students in the upper rooms complain that it’s impossible to concentrate in the afternoon, so we bring them downstairs where it’s cooler,” he tells me. But this only serves to aggravate the noise in the open courtyard. Or take the fact that the school is built on a sloping plot of land that has only one culvert for draining water. “During the rainy season,” he observes, “all the garbage from the houses higher up collects in the trench, flows past the courtyard where the students are having lunch or playing and pools at the bottom of the yard.” To understand just how much of a health hazard this is, look up Kibera’s infamous “flying toilets” – polythene bags filled with human waste that are thrown out from homes. Imagine these gathering in a pool at the bottom of your children’s playground.

Is a school still a school if its teachers cannot teach and its students cannot learn? In his seminal essay, ‘Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture’, Umberto Eco writes about the different meanings that can be projected or derived from a building. The first he calls the denotative meaning – the purpose or function that is communicated by a specific set of materials assembled in a specific way. If you encountered five walls set out in a line rather than arranged to create an enclosed space, an architect could not convince you that those five walls were a house. We associate the idea of a habitable building with walls and ceiling creating an enclosed space; no matter what liberties an architect may take with deconstructing the house, once that core form is lost, the structure is no longer a house – to most minds at least.

The second type of meanings Eco notes are connotative meanings – the philosophies, ideologies and projected meanings that come from a collection of materials assembled in a certain manner. Sometimes these are intentional, as when a designer incorporates pillars on the porch of a MacMansion. These pillars have no structural function but their presence connotes wealth. Thus a building can have a meaning beyond what it physically represents. According to Eco, “one is not obliged to characterise a sign on the basis of either behaviour that it stimulates or actual objects that would verify its meaning: it is characterized only on the basis of codified meaning that in a given cultural context is attributed to the sign vehicle”. The value of an architectural object cannot be measured independently of its cultural context. A school can come to mean more than just a building where students can go to learn.

The Hamlets School in Kibera is facing an existential crisis as its denotative and connotative meanings diverge. Interviews with teachers who work at the school suggest that its function as a school is undermined by some of the design choices made: insofar as students are unable to learn there, it becomes difficult to label it a school. Further, the behaviour of those who administer it has imbued it with connotative meanings far beyond the scope of what the architects envisioned. A year into its life, the school has accrued considerable baggage – meanings or symbolisms that threaten the survival of the building and the institution that inhabits it. “The people who run the school,” a resident who worked on the project tells me, “they don’t go well [lit.] with the community”. This isn’t hyperbole – it’s clear that users of the school sense this tension, even if they do not use Eco’s words to describe it. At the time of its construction, the school had 200 registered students across eight grades. During my visit nearly a year later, Onzere tells me that only 30 students are now registered at the school across all grades. Some classes have three students, some have 10. The vast majority of parents have withdrawn their children from the school, and some neighbours have gone as far as threatening to destroy it.

The school’s administration, which is reluctant to speak to the press, consists of the proprietor and his mother, who functions as an administrator without portfolio. The team started the Hamlets School as a space where poor children could learn acrobatics as a means of diverting their energies and getting them off the streets. It’s not uncommon for informal schools in Kibera and other settlements to offer a specialised arts or sports programme as a way of merging school and after-school activities. Over time, the institution grew into a fully-fledged school and Adam, like most other residents, was impressed by what seemed to be a success story in community organising and general good neighbourliness. The offer of a free upgrade to the school’s facilities was a kind of reward that encouraged the owners to keep up the good fight. But anyone who has studied development interventions knows that such projects can backfire spectacularly if not sensitive enough to local political conditions. Here, “political” doesn’t mean having to do with elected officials or formal institutions. It is rather “political” in the broader sense – pertaining to the use and the distribution of power. Recall that Kibera is a highly contested space with layers of politics that are difficult even for the most seasoned insider. Adam, who liaised between the international design team and the local community, was born and raised in Kibera. He speaks the language and knows the people well. Yet even he seemed genuinely taken aback by the ways in which the building’s politics appear to have escalated over time. “I expected a lot more from the people – especially the management,” he says. “The structure was supposed to initiate something new in [them]”.

Part of the issue is that high-profile interventions of this kind disrupt established rhythms and hierarchies in all societies, particularly those as interconnected as Kibera. For instance, a hypothetical project to distribute high end smartphones to local midwives such that they can access apps that help make deliveries safer seems like a great idea. But you would have to consider access to electricity and mobile phone towers so that the phones can be charged and the information downloaded. And even if you did manage to account for this, the phones may come to symbolise what is called “kujiona” in Kiswahili, roughly translating as feeling oneself superior. Handing out $200 smart phones to villagers creates wealth inequalities that may make recipients the targets of malicious gossip, theft or even violence. This is part of the semiology of objects – they come to symbolise something unintentional owing to the local context. But what is the giver’s responsibility if the meaning is beyond what they intended?

Many schools in Kibera offer instruction in extra-curricular activities that can lead to gainful employment. In the Kibera Hamlets School, the brightly coloured supporting beams double as gymnastics bars for students learning acrobatics. IMAGE Iwan Baan.

Consider the economics of school choice in Kibera and other informal settlements. Hamlets is an informal school in an informal settlement awash with informal schools. Parents as consumers have significant choice in where they place their children, and given the small physical size of the settlement, their considerations may not be the same as those of parents in other parts of the country. They may not really care about how far the school is from their house, because everything is walking distance. They can’t rule a place in or out based on facilities, because all the schools are underserved or built from substandard materials that rattle whenever the train rolls by. School owners know this, and the only thing they can do to distinguish their school from others is offer attractive rates or expand their after-school programming to include activities that may lead to gainful employment – like acrobatics or football. So generally, the power balance is tilted slightly in favour of the parents, who are able to keep owners in line by withdrawing their students or allowing them to remain. In the case of the Hamlets School, gifting the building to the owner and his mother arguably shifted the power balance in their favour and away from the parents. One person who worked on the construction of the school, but who prefers to remain anonymous, tells me that almost as soon as the school was finished, the owners raised the tuition fees because they felt that a better building gave them the right to charge higher fees. This triggered the first wave of withdrawals. Then the acrobatics programme slowed down, triggering the second wave. Finally, a series of major disciplinary issues and instances of professional misconduct led to the largest wave of withdrawals, leaving only 30 students in a space designed for six times that number. Over time, according to the workers, the school has come to symbolise negativity and greed. On one hand, the simple fact that the building is nicer than any of the other buildings around it was always likely to trigger envy. But now that the rumour mill is sodden with negative stories, the symbolism of the building is loaded with baggage that the architects could not have prevented but could perhaps have foreseen. For example, might an agreement to freeze tuition fees for up to five years in lieu of payment for the building have helped?

“People seem to be struggling to appreciate the building,” Adam notes, sadly, given that the building represents a professional milestone for him. Which leads to the question: at what point does an architect’s responsibility for a building end? For Ocampo at Helloeverything, the responsibility of the architect ends when the building is finished: “What is important is that we built a building for a school that already existed. Beyond that what can we do?” he wonders. “Do you stop yourself from helping just because of the risk that such things can happen?” From Ocampo’s perspective, an architect has a responsibility to build something solid and good, and perhaps help with the maintenance of elements that might require specialised support. But ultimately, he contends, it is the building’s users that shape its narrative. Baan agrees. “An architect’s role ends when a building gets used, and sometimes buildings get used for something else,” he observes. For him, the children are the users of this building and based on his own visits, they are satisfied. For Adam, as the local liaison, responsibility seems to continue indefinitely – despite his best efforts to extricate himself. Almost as soon as we walk into the school a concerned community member corners him to let him know about the latest drama, asking him to douse escalating tensions. Adam declines to get involved but the person persists. “You have to do something, Abdul,” he implores, “things are bad. I’m not sure this school will survive if you don’t.”