Bullets to Books

Bullets to Books

Courtesy DLR Group

Two years ago Chris Osore, a designer in Des Moines with Chicago-based DLR Group, was reminiscing with a fellow Iowa State University graduate about his alma mater. In May he was pitching a master plan for a school halfway across the world to Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya.

The alumna Osore chatted up was Olive Mugenda, the first female vice chancellor of Kenya’s Kenyatta University. She was in Des Moines for the annual presentation of the World Food Prize when Osore introduced himself. Their common ground goes beyond their alma mater—Osore’s parents moved to the U.S. from Kenya in the 1960s. That leant a personal touch to the work Osore soon found himself immersed in; Mugenda explained that Kenyatta University was struggling to deal with an exponential increase in students and needed a design firm to help guide a rapid expansion.

“A huge need is education,” said Osore. “It’s a stepping stone for them to improve their standards of living.” Brain drain is still a challenge for the East African nation, but as Kenya’s middle class booms it is looking to stem the flow of young professionals out of the country.

Kenyatta University’s expansion plan includes a 30,000-seat stadium and rec center.

Kenyatta University has grown from some 8,000 students in the late 1990s to more than 40,000 students across five campuses today. Its student body is expected to approach 70,000 in the next 10 to 15 years. So even though its campus network comprises a sprawling 1,000 acres, university leadership is already talking about growing vertically.

The main Kenyatta University Campus, located 15 miles northeast of downtown Nairobi in Kahawa, used to be the British government’s Templar Military Barracks until colonial rule ended in 1965. “A military base is for moving vehicular traffic,” said Osore. “A campus on the other hand is the exact opposite—it’s focused on the student and the pedestrian experience. We had to allow the pedestrian to take over the campus again.” That included introducing the first bike-share program on a Kenyan campus and arranging for a campus loop shuttle system for long distances. But the bulk of the master planning was focused on pedestrian traffic. DLR Group designers consolidated academic programs formerly scattered across campus into nodes arranged around a central campus green, linking pathways with a series of clustered courtyards.

Their work also involved creating a home for new programs, like the 96,000-square-foot School of Architecture Building on Kenyatta’s Ruiru Campus, located five miles north of the main campus. The form of the $13 million building references Kenya’s topography. Rising in a jagged sweep across several volumes, the structure recalls the hills of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. A black mesh plate folds over the courtyard separating the building’s tallest volume from its lower counterparts, sheltering a central outdoor area from the hot Nairobi sun and inviting passersby into the “valley” to intermingle. Construction should begin by the end of this year.

The project’s initial phase also includes a 30,000-seat stadium. Kenyatta vice chancellor Olive Mugenda is still looking for $53 million to pay for the massive arena and recreation center, although she has said she would like to see a soccer match there before her term is up in two years. In addition to soccer and rugby, DLR Group’s Jeff Fenimore said the facility is designed for maximum flexibility, so the space will not go unused between large games. Public events, classes, and meetings could all use the recreation center and stadium spaces, he said.

For Osore, who has visited Kenya on vacation with his parents, the project’s value goes beyond hitting architectural marks. “I am proud to work for a firm that believes we can elevate the human experience through design,” he said.