Sir George Gilbert Scott R.A. ( July13, 1811 - March 27, 1878) was a prolific British Gothic Revival architect who was associated mostly with the design, building and renovation of churches and cathedrals. He designed or altered over 800 buildings during his lifetime including many iconic buildings such as: Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, King’s College London Chapel, all in London, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow and the main building of the University of Glasgow and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.
He started his career by designing workhouses, which were in high demand at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, created by the increased number of unemployed and the economic downturn that followed. The atrocious conditions in workhouses are well documented in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.
Poor Law Commissioner George Nicholls writing in 1854 stated: “These workhouses were established, and mainly conducted, with a view to deriving profit from the labour of the inmates and not being the safest means of affording relief by, at the same time, testing the reality of their destitution.” Over a period of 10 years Scott and his partner Moffat designed over 40 workhouses, making a tidy fortune in the process.
Inspired by Augustus Pugin, the pioneering English Gothic Revival architect, Scott was reviled by the ugliness of the workhouses whose only design function was to provide space without any consideration of form or aesthetic appeal.
Scott was passionate about Gothic architecture and he considered the style to be the embodiment of all things British; art, religion, spirituality and fine craftmanship. In his view, every element of the Gothic style told a story: pointed arches, embellished capitals, architraves, rose windows, vaulted ceilings, frescos and gargoyles. He became the leading proponent of the Gothic Revival movement travelling widely in Europe to study the architectural style.
Scott won the favour of Queen Victoria and was commissioned to design many government buildings, churches and cathedrals. When Queen Victoria’s beloved consort Albert died in 1861, Scott’s exquisitely gilded design won the competition which produced the famous Albert Memorial.
Author Simon Jenkins described Scott as “the unsung hero of British architecture”. No corner of Britain was left untouched by Scott and his style influenced every aspect of British life. Scott died in 1878 and is buried at Westminster Abbey. Not too shabby for a boy from a poor family! His son George Jnr. and grandson Giles carried on his work building landmark civic and ecclesiastical facilities from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. The Scott family took the Gothic style of the past and adapted it to the industrial and technological world and in the process defined the architecture of the 20th century.
Kenya became a part of the British Empire in 1895 when it was declared a Protectorate. It is no wonder then that many of the buildings that were designed in Kenya in the early part of the 20th century reflected the influence of the Gothic Revival movement in Britain at the time. A good example of Gothic architecture is the All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi. We were surrounded by beautiful architecture with impeccable taste.
Unfortunately, after World War 11 a group of radical architects launched a revolution against earlier traditionalist styles believing they represented colonialism, racism, slavery and exploitation. American architect Louis Sullivan (also known as “the father of the skyscraper”) expressed the credo of the modernists when he said that “form follows function”, which implied we should stop worrying about what a building looks like and focus on what it does. The modernists rejected the established order and with time the “Avant Garde became the establishment” (Prince Charles).
The French architect Le Corbusier stated “We must produce a mass-production state of mind” demanding that every city in the world adopt the same style of bleak concrete totalitarianism which would in a sense be social engineering through architecture.
Kenya was not left behind and today we have massive concrete structures towering over our skyline and dwarfing the old monuments which attest to our past. We are about to start work on Jabavu Village Towers in Upper Hill, slated to be Africa’s tallest building; another concrete and glass structure.
Buildings define space and inform us of who we are in our culture, spirituality, ethos, art and in our totality. When we degrade the public realm, we automatically degrade the quality of civic life. If you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless. What will these concrete and glass buildings say about our heritage as Kenyans in one hundred years’ time (if they will not have collapsed by then)?
Our architects need to look at the styles of the past (including African architecture) and adapt them to reflect our Kenyan heritage. We started off well after independence when the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre, a spear-like curvilinear structure, was built juxtaposing the beam and pediment design of the Supreme Court and City Hall in the same square.