Ernst May (1886-1970) was a German architect and city planner. Born in Frankfurt am Main, the son of a leather goods manufacturer, his education included time in Britain (1908-1912), under the tutelage of Raymond Unwin, where he studied the principles of the Garden City movement, popular at the time.
Initially working for himself and others in the 1910s, his concepts of decentralised planning, many of which were borrowed from the Garden City movement, won him the job of city architect for Frankfurt from 1925 to 1930. Working under city mayor Ludwig Landman, the position gave him broad powers of zoning, financing and hiring during the Weimar Republic.
May assembled a powerful staff of progressive architects and initiated the large-scale housing development programme for a new Frankfurt. His developments were outstanding for the time for being compact, semi-independent, well-equipped with community elements such as playgrounds, schools, theatres and common laundry areas.
In 1926, May sent for Austrian architect Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky to join him in Frankfurt. Margarete developed the Frankfurt Kitchen ,which was the forerunner of today’s fitted kitchen.
In five years, May produced up to 10,000 building units and his work in Frankfurt has been described as “one of the most remarkable city planning experiments of the 20th century”. Unfortunately, by 1930 the city’s budget had been eviscerated by the depression.
His work had brought him to the attention of the Soviet Union and in 1930, May took his brigade of architects to Russia. It is claimed that May built 20 cities in the three years he was in Russia.
His stay in Russia was also frustrated by indecisive and corrupt officials who eventually labeled May and his group as undesirable capitalists who were undermining socialist and Russian architectural trends.
On the other hand, back home in Frankfurt, May was being denounced as a Bolshevik. Effectively rendered stateless and hence frustrated, May gave up his architectural practice and decided to seek solace in the African wild.
Arriving at the port of Mombasa at the end of 1933, he purchased a 160-acre coffee farm in Arusha on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro where there were remnants of ethnic German settlers from the previous colony.
May regarded the African landscape as a tabula rasa, where “there was no trace of visible human civilisation”. He wrote condescendingly that both the Indian and African workers, “which are here at our service…. often need to be taught even the most elemental tasks”.
He failed to see the irony that he himself was forced to abandon his work in Russia and Germany because of racial discrimination. The Nazi purity laws had already attacked him because his mother was of Jewish origin.
After three years of farming, his spirits sufficiently rested, May sold his farm in Arusha and moved to Nairobi where he set up a small practice. In 1938, he built a small shopping plaza in Kampala called City House for the prominent Goan businessman Norman Godinho, which borrowed many of its design tropes from the Siedlung Romerstadt in Frankfurt.
Later that year, under the patronage of the British colonist Sir Derek Erskine, he drew up plans for an apartment complex aimed at middle-income European settlers yearning for a modernist design. Borrowing from his own Frankfurt blueprints, May produced a simplified cluster of nine three-storey apartment buildings.
The apartments were not built until 1951 and came to be known as Delamere Flats. Situated on Milimani Road the flats are sited on a small hill. The nine apartment blocks are built in reinforced concrete and laid out in efficient, parallel blocks with an East-West orientation to minimise the influence of a hot tropical sun.
All the blocks are elevated one storey off the ground both to provide parking space and keep dust off the units. Windows and doors are often covered or recessed to create pockets of shade and cast concrete stairwells are aerated by an open lattice pattern. Each apartment features a version of the Frankfurt Kitchen, a rubbish chute and the first fully enclosed plumbing in East Africa.
Delamere Flats was one of the first properties to benefit from the Sectional Properties Act of 1987. Each flat is owned individually while the land and common facilities are owned by the individuals as tenants in common through shares in the management body. This is no doubt going to be a more popular form of ownership with the growing number of town houses and high-rise apartments in Nairobi.
Ernst May also designed plans for residential buildings in Kampala in the 1940s, segregated on racial lines. The European houses were by far the biggest, containing functionally specific room types on several levels, with elegantly curving driveways, garages and swimming pools. The Asian houses were smaller but contained a number of designated rooms, a kitchen and sanitary facilities.
The African houses were the smallest of all and contained only generic, undifferentiated rooms with cooking and eating facilities in the verandah. He was clearly reinforcing a colonial hierarchy of race and economic potential, promoting a paternalistic policy of viewing the lowest classes of Africans as needing European acculturation.
In 1952, May also designed the Oceanic Hotel in Mombasa. The hotel was completed in 1958 but was knocked down in 2010.