Emslie Horniman Award – Constance Smith

Home Past Awards Emslie Horniman Award – Constance Smith

Award Holder: Constance Smith
University: University College London
Title of Research: Present Pasts: Materiality, History and the Home in Nairobi, Kenya

This research set out to chart some of the legacies of colonial urban planning for home life in contemporary Nairobi, Kenya. Following the material and social life of a public housing estate in that was built in the 1940s, it quickly also came to encompass residents’ anxieties and aspirations for the future, both for themselves and the estate they call home. 

Amid an official rhetoric of ‘Vision 2030’ and the reinvention of Nairobi as a ‘world-class metropolis’, the city is awash with rumours of demolition and redevelopment. The recently launched Nairobi masterplan proposes the ‘urban renewal’ of the colonial-era Eastlands housing estates, radically reimagining public housing in the city. By studying original colonial designs and intentions and combining this with histories of household management and modification I was able to trace how the community and materiality of the estate came into being. But more intriguingly, what emerged was how deeply this history is implicated in navigating an uncertain future, as residents seek to negotiate potential displacement, their rights to housing and, more fundamentally, recognition by city authorities. In this way, I explored how residents’ processes of self-making are in part generated by their entanglement in the materiality of the housing estate, where material legacies of the past and conflicting visions of the future are simultaneously encountered in the present.

The study combined fourteen months ethnographic fieldwork – living with an incredibly generous family in the estate – with archival research, analysis of architectural plans, photography and sound recording. To study the more unconscious relationship of humans and architectures, I also experimented with techniques for studying the agency or influence of material forms themselves. Drawing on Lefebvre’s (2004) concept of rhythmanalysis, I conducted what I have termed ‘material observation’. This foregrounds the architectural environment, considering how transient assemblages are formed with other humans and objects. For example, I observed and mapped movement around the estate, including the pathways within and between homes, to highlight the inscription of material spaces by daily practices. In addition to visual observation, this process attends to other sensory experiences such as acoustics, smell, temperature and light. Using this range of methodologies enabled the development of a textured, multi-sensory understanding of how colonial architectural design, histories of long term residency and contemporary urban politics and management have intersected in a symbiotic urban landscape in which people and place are co-constitutively produced. This report reflects on one particular aspect of my fieldwork: residents creative relationships with time, the past and the future, and the way these were generated by engagements with the architecture of their material world.

Nairobi’s Eastlands housing estates were built by the British colonial government between the 1920s and 1960s to provide cheap housing for Africans in the city. Today they are still owned by the city council, though they are very run down, and they remain home to tens of thousands of low-income Nairobians. Part of the new metropolitan plans for Nairobi includes the Eastlands Urban Renewal Strategy, intended to combat ‘urban decay’ in the city, under which the estates are slated for demolition and regeneration. Exactly what this strategy means in practice, however, is hard to tell: there have been a number of conflicting announcements, and exactly what will be demolished, what will be built, and if residents will be evicted or rehoused remains unclear. Unsurprisingly, as residents try to continue their day-to-day lives amid this climate of uncertainty, rumour and speculation are flourishing.

As with many estates all over the world that get labelled as ‘dangerous’ or ‘decayed’ and earmarked for regeneration, the neighbourhood where I conducted my fieldwork was once a model estate, intended to generate a bright future for its new residents. Built in the 1940s and based on Garden City ideals of urban design, it was one of the first estates in Nairobi aimed at African families. It marked a period of British colonial urban planning in Africa that moved away from functional “bed-spaces” for migrant labourers towards a more ideological model that would intervene directly into the design of domestic life and build the exemplary colonial subjects of the future. Ann Laura Stoler has encouraged us to consider the political life of imperial debris, “the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things” (2008, 194). Contemporary residents thus inhabit an estate where the past is very much present, in the form of an architecture designed to implement colonial ideologies of class, race and domesticity.

But it is also a site where the future looms large, in terms of multiple, and often conflicting, plans for urban renewal. Living under the looming threat of redevelopment, residents anticipate a future in which time is both compressed and stretched out. They do not know if or when their houses will be demolished: it could happen next week, in five years time – or never, as with several previous proposals for redevelopment. This uncertainty generates a future that is simultaneously frighteningly immediate and a distant concern. Faced with such pervasive yet phantasmatic urban regeneration, residents’ responses have been diverse and often startling. In particular, my research revealed how estate residents have come to see authority over the past as key to the renegotiation of official visions of the future. Residents’ attempts to negotiate the uncertainty of potential demolition and regeneration generated practices of historymaking that reflected their long term engagement with the architecture of the estate, provoking alternative narratives of tenancy rights, national heritage and community participation.

The relationship of materiality to redevelopment issues is keenly felt by residents, and in conversation several commented to me that they feel it is not only Nairobi’s iconic public buildings that should be protected, but the everyday architecture that marks African presence in the city. It is not enough, they argue, to simply record historical narratives of these sites. The tangibility of places is what gives them their significance for historical memory. One resident was particularly eloquent on this theme, commenting that the neighbourhood should not be demolished because of emotional attachment to it, and that this is crucial for community, and even Kenya as a whole. “It would affect the history of this country”, he said, adding “without the buildings you cannot remember, you have no memories”. He compared the estate to the new Thika Superhighway, saying how that area changed so much that it is now unrecognisable to him. Importantly however, he said not only can he no longer remember what was there before and how it looked, but “I can’t remember what I used to do there”. That is to say, he has lost his embodied knowledge of that area, its location in his lived experience. He said “if the buildings come down, this place will be gone” – it won’t even exist as a memory, it will be erased. The materiality of the estate is therefore seen as crucial to its historical existence. This suggests how the relationship between people and architecture is generative; their relations with the buildings generate ways of relating to the past and practices of history-making.

It was rare however for me to speak with anyone who out and out challenged the idea of ‘upgrading’ or ‘redevelopment’. After years of neglect, residents do not reject the idea of investment in their estate, or even the promise of new homes, but they want to be participants rather than bystanders in this process. Instead of forcing developers out, residents hope to force their way in, to be involved in developing alternative visions of the future. There is no consensus on what the best approach to assuring participation might be, but some are turning to community mobilisation via a residents’ association, others to legal guidance on housing rights and tenancy issues, and pursuing information and support from local politicians. Beyond these reasonably predictable avenues, however, were some more startling alternatives.

Some residents dispute the very ownership of the estate, and thus the county government’s fundamental right to redevelop it at all. They argue that City Hall never in fact owned the land or the houses, and were only meant to be managers of the estate. Some have suggested there was a clause in the original colonial tenancy agreements stating that after a number of years the ownership of the houses would pass to the residents, in effect arguing that the rents they were paying were a kind of mortgage system. Still others argue that at independence the lease was not formally transferred to the new government and that in fact “the title deed is still with the British”, and thus the houses are not the property of the city at all but “still belong to the Queen”. This may sound improbable, but several individuals have gone to great lengths attempting to uncover the evidence to prove it, spending days trawling through documents in the National Archives, writing letters to the British High Commission and the British Government, and visiting the offices of a Nairobi law firm who they say were made the trustees of the estate when the colonial authorities departed. They argue that if City Council were simply managing the estate for the British leaseholders, then the whole premise of urban renewal is based on fundamentally mistaken ownership rights.

So far residents have not uncovered evidence that incontrovertibly proves the ownership of the estate, or details of any mortgage scheme. But many see this as an example of just how far the authorities are prepared to go to cover up the reality of Eastlands land rights. One resident noted that previous redevelopment attempts by the City Council came to nothing, something he attributed to the fact that deep down they knew they did not have the rights to the estate: “otherwise this place would not be standing”. “They are waiting like vultures”, he said, to grab the land as soon as they have found a means of doing so.

In collecting these alternative histories, what I found fascinating is the underlying assumption of many residents that the story of the past is not fixed but a narrative that needs securing in order to maintain or undermine endeavours in the present. They see the conventional history of public housing built on public land not as factual, but as a perspective employed by those in a position of power. This is a key trope of postcolonial theory, yet without apparently any schooling in, or awareness of, the politics of postcolonial historicity, these same fundaments have become the basis of the struggle for the future of their homes. Residents see clearly that the future is not only shaped by the past, but by those with the authority to tell the stories of the past. There is an active process of history-making at work, done both subconsciously and very deliberately, as residents navigate fraught negotiations and struggles for tenancy security, access to resources and local political leverage.

It seems to me that these practices of history-making are a crucial part of generating a sense of belonging – an ownership over the land and architecture of the estate, but also a feeling that the residents belong to the estate: people and place have grown up together co-constitutively, entangled in each other. This is a form of property that goes beyond purchase power or legitimate title deeds. The rich urban landscape, its texture itself a result of decades of habitation and modification – helps to generate an engagement with the past, a way of relating to the material structures of the estate that in turn helps to grasp the future, bringing its messy uncertainties into the present.