Globalist Architecture in Kenya

by Kalinda Gathinji, appearing in Volume 34

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, was completed in 2015. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, was completed in 2015. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

My experience of Kenyan sacred architecture left me hoping to encounter more of the rich, vibrant colors of the culture: the patterns and textures of its textiles, the delicacy of its bead work, and the character of its sculptures revealed, celebrated, and translated into the sacred architecture. What I found instead was that many of the churches are of an austere, minimalist aesthetic which hardly evokes the sacred nature of the space and the vibrancy of Kenyan culture.

The new Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, is one of these.1 The design raises two key questions. First, is the design sacred in that it communicates the Divine to the mortal realm? Second, is it distinctly Kenyan in that it is relatable to the local culture and its customs? Or is it built from the outside of a culture, reflecting the history of colonialism?

Kericho (Kehr-ee-choh) is located on the western side of Kenya, approximately 150 miles southwest of Nairobi. Situated in the highlands, between the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria, the landscape is bucolic with lush tea crops lining its rolling hills. The town itself is largely constructed of low masonry buildings with corrugated metal or tiled roofs. It is home to a thriving Catholic population.

Building the Cathedral

Led by the Bishop Emmanuel Okombo, the new diocese hired John McAslan + Partners of London to design the new cathedral to seat 1500 faithful for a budget of $3 million,2 funded by an anonymous foreign donor.3 The old cathedral had been decaying for years.

Bishop Okombo requested that the nave widen as it approaches the altar to maximize the engagement of the faithful in the celebration of Mass. This request led to the unusual trapezoidal or keystone-shaped plan of the building. The roof gets higher and the nave wider as it approaches the altar. Although not a traditional cruciform shape in plan, it does introduce exterior seating areas to either side of the sanctuary which extend along the front of the nave and harken back to the transepts of the traditional Latin cross plan. This reference is identifiable only in plan, as it is not expressed in the massing on the church exterior.

From the exterior, the Cathedral is raised up on a stylobate or base hewn from local gray granite that is gradually enveloped by the topography of the site. The walls are clad in light-colored terrazzo. The roof is the most prominent exterior feature, finished in red clay tile from Nairobi arranged in a subtle pattern. According to the architect, the pattern was intended to be an abstract representation of wheat, representative of the Eucharist and God’s bounty. The sweeping volume of the roof is visible from the surrounding areas and the massing of the building was intended to be an abstract representation of a bird symbolizing the Holy Spirit.4

The large roof is supported by a series of triangular concrete A-frames that are arched at the top and get taller as they approach the sanctuary. These frames are supported by large rectangular piers which separate the nave from the side aisles. From the piers, the frames gradually arch over the side aisles and then cantilever horizontally overhead through the exterior wall to provide deep, shaded porches on either side of the cathedral.

A shaded porch covers the double doors along the length of the cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

A shaded porch covers the double doors along the length of the cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

Double doors line the side aisles to allow the free flow of air and the movement of the laity to the side porches. In the mild climate of Kenya, many churches open along the exterior to increase ventilation. Functionally, the frames wrap the narthex around the church to accommodate overflow seating, a cry room, and gathering functions. The concrete frame is fully exposed on the interior and is infilled with stained cypress slats with small spaces between them. Light cascades through the slats from the skylights above which are built into a large gap at the ridge of the roof, at times creating radiating beams of light on the wall behind the sanctuary.

All the materials were acquired and fabricated locally. The architects described their goal as creating “a structure that integrated seamlessly with its landscape setting, in both aesthetic and functional terms.” They state that the cathedral is “distinctive and universally welcoming.”

With the overview of the design in mind, let us return to the two questions.

Is It a Sacred Building?

First, the question of whether Sacred Heart Cathedral fulfills its sacred purpose. Although technically the building provides an adequate space for the liturgy and attempts to incorporate abstract references to wheat and to the Holy Spirit, it falls short of representing the heavenly realm come down to earth in several ways. First, its theological references are so abstract that they are hardly perceptible to those not familiar with the architects’ intent and thus there is little distinction of the exterior that speaks to the elevated nature of the sacred building within the larger public realm.

In other words, the building could just as easily have been a school. Even the stark light-colored tower with its flat roof directly above a rectangular void fails to communicate the sacredness of the cathedral. Aside from the simple, thin white cross that adorns the top, the tower could as well have been a clock tower for a shopping center.

Second, the building offers no celebration of the threshold or entrance into the church that would indicate a transition from the profane to the sacred. The heavy concrete rectangular frame around the main entrance doors and the rectangular window above make the building seem more agricultural than sacred. There are no stairs to ascend nor is there any carving, sculpture, or other sacred representation. The only indication of its being a church from this vantage point is the stained glass in the window, which can rarely be seen from the outside due to the strong equatorial sunlight.

The interior of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

The interior of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

Third, inside, there is minimal aesthetic differentiation between the sanctuary and the nave of the church. The sanctuary is modest and austere, emphasized only by its three risers and wainscoting, all hewn from a beige natural stone. Although the beige stone attempts to raise the importance of the sanctuary materially, the color is so similar to the rest of the nave that it is hardly perceptible. The height of the wainscoting is low and unmodulated and therefore seems to reduce the wall of the sanctuary to a residential scale.

Within the nave, very little iconography or visual hierarchy inspires the ascent of the laity’s experience toward heaven. The crucifix applied to the blank wall above the altar is largely reduced to silhouette due to the light flooding in through the rectangular window directly above. One might question the theological hierarchy of placing the window with its views to the exterior above the crucifix. This window also interrupts the pattern of light and shadow from the slats on the ceiling and therefore reduces its effect of the radiating light from above.

The tabernacle is uncelebrated and fully recessed in the wainscoting, and curiously located off center to the right of the main altar. Aside from the crucifix, the sanctuary remains completely void of statuary, icons, or adornment to contribute to its sense of sacredness.

The architect’s claim that the Cathedral “honors the faith and frugality of this rural African context” gives one example to their flawed approach. The architect assumes that imitating the culture’s frugality in its new sacred space will inspire the ascent to Heaven. But the laity are in great need of glimpses of Heaven on earth, not just spiritually, but physically as well. As embodied spirits living in a fallen world, we need to engage all of our senses in the contemplation of heaven and its beauty.

For these reasons, the Sacred Heart Cathedral does not fully communicate sacredness to the laity.

Is It Distinctly Kenyan?

Next we must address the question of whether the cathedral is distinctly Kenyan. Kenyan churches can be classified in four categories: Globalist, Traditional European, Adapted Kenyan, and Kenyan Vernacular.

The Globalist examples feature a Modern aesthetic that is hardly recognizable as being Kenyan. The church could just as easily be located in California or Finland. A good example of this is Saint Benedict’s Church in Nairobi, with its modern layering of materials, frames, and floating walls.

Traditional European examples feature Traditional Gothic or Italianate forms that seem at once foreign and at home amongst a smattering of Colonial era architecture. From the buttressed side aisles to the arched trusses supporting the roof, the architecture is very recognizable as Western.

Adapted Kenyan examples take European or Western forms and adapt them to look more Kenyan. All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi is a good example.

Examples of Adapted Kenyan feature Western patterns with Kenyan details. Nyeri Cathedral in Nyeri is a good example. Its massing follows a traditional cruciform shape with a bell tower, but the details from the elliptical shape of the arch to the shallow pitch of the roof render it more recognizably Kenyan.

Kenyan Vernacular examples feature distinctly Kenyan and non-western patterns. Examples such as Don Bosco Catholic Church in Nairobi and Saint Joseph’s Church in Kahawa Sukari are of the tholos type: a round shape with the emphasis on the center. Traditionally, many of the pastoral and nomadic tribes of Kenya settled into small villages of circular huts arranged around a central outdoor gathering area, the focus of which was often a fire pit. It is no surprise that Kenyan Christians adapted this type of gathering space for their sacred spaces, with the fire pit at the center replaced by the altar to take advantage of existing cultural customs.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral falls somewhere between the Globalist and Adapted Kenyan categories. While the materials are local, its Modern, minimalist aesthetic reflects a Western identity that very well could have been at home in Texas. The steeply sloped roof is quite uncommon in Kenya and the skylights at the ridge of the roof are extremely vulnerable to the torrents of rainwater common in the short and long rainy seasons.

In other words, the design of Sacred Heart Cathedral, despite attempts at incorporating the culture through the use of local materials and climate considerations, is largely foreign.

The West’s Imposition

While I would argue that Catholic ideals and beauty are universal, what is beautiful in a Western European context can’t be imposed on a non-Western culture. That seems to continue the colonial assumption of superiority and the West’s paternalistic duty to improve a culture it considered lesser.

Sacred buildings ought to be designed from within the culture they are built. The builders should tap into the font of faithful talent to create an architecture and sacred space that connects more directly and personally to the specific community for whom the church is being built, while at the same time maintaining the universality of the faith.


As Kenya continues to emerge, free of its colonial past, perhaps too its sacred architecture can emerge more vibrantly representative of its rich culture, to inspire greater devotion and movement toward heaven.