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What makes a building truly belong to its context? An exercise in understanding this inquiry brings us to assess a new community arts space in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Designed by London-based practice New Makers Bureau and Kampala-based studio Localworks, a rammed earth and brick edifice is the new home for 32°East | Ugandan Arts Trust–a not-for-profit organisation promoting East African artists and contemporary art. The building is conceived as Uganda's first-ever purpose-built art centre for artists and creatives alike, and the project recently finished phase one of its two-part development.
While 32°East’s former home used to be a set of four shipping containers that housed artist studios and collaborative spaces, their new single-storey art hub, per the design team, is a low-carbon, ‘hyper-local’ intervention. Located in Kabalagala, a central district of Kampala, the centre is surrounded by a dense neighbourhood, populated by pitched terracotta-roofed homes and a few vacant plots taken over by vegetation. Adjacent to one such green area, the centre is born on a piece of land which formerly encapsulated two disused buildings. The architecture is composed around a courtyard, and reveals an ingenious layering of materials and details, in addition to a visual and tactile synergy which the land it is built on. Because of the clay-rich content of the soil in Kampala which gives it a rust-red hue, the architects drew from this natural features to formulate the structure and aesthetics of the centre. The technical expertise of Localworks in site-sensitive contextual design combined beautifully with the seasoned architectural know-how of New Makers Bureau—the firm led by architect James Hampton, which specialises in homes, cultural buildings and learning centres that are low in embodied carbon.
"There is a sense that this building really couldn't be anywhere else but right, exactly where it is. It's literally 'of the earth.' It has this amazing quality—soft and smooth but rough at the same time.... and really tactile,” Hampton tells STIR. Two pitched roofs clad with eucalyptus timber shingles seem to appear floating above the building. According to the design team, "The roof pitch sets at an angle across the plan—lifting up to the highest point to create a clear entrance to the building and give the individual elements direction. This simple twist creates a gentle curve in the roof trusses and a dynamic ceiling in the main space." One arrives at the centre by entering through a garden area that leads to the main courtyard surrounding the built space. A pillared stone walkway guides one to the spaces inside which include four artist studios, a library, restrooms, and a café designed to double as an interim gallery and workspace before phase two is completed. Sited on a slope, the building nurtures an inherent connection with the green courtyard it overlooks, each program spills into the garden—both visually and spatially.
Layering of local materials, both in the realisation of a self-sustaining architecture and a rooted aesthetic, finds a key role in the project. The raw material for rammed earth and bricks were taken off the site's soil. Sifted and pressed, the earth was moulded into blocks to form bricks. Alternating layers of brick, rammed earth, wood, and concrete creates varying degrees of perforation to allow natural light and air to filter indoors. Lintels are shaped using concrete cast against corrugated metal, a commonly found material in Kampala. The foundations are built of solid local sandstone, local eucalyptus for rammed earth framework, and waste left from previous buildings used in fill and as aggregate. The design team shares that the layering of elements on the elevation references the steep topography of the site, the arrangement marked by “a solid local sandstone base with rammed earth above, and then textured brick mediating between walls and roof."
The idea of the building being hyper-local reflects in several treatments, especially in its protection of the interiors from Kampala’s harsh sun. The absence of any mechanical systems for ventilation and cooling within the building is a testament to the efficiency of the design. Foremostly, the roof form is shaped to temper the intensity of the sun and for interiors to remain cool and shaded. A slim polycarbonate skylight punctures the roof, allowing controlled streams of daylight inside. The use of shutters is prioritised over glazed windows, the design of the roof overhangs provides shade to the courtyard space, and an open hit-and-miss textured brick treatment on the façade filter dappled light.
When asked if given a chance, is there anything in the design that Hampton and his team would want to revise, he tells STIR, “There are always small details that you would look at again, but as a whole the building works really well. It's also not complete yet as the second phase will complete the courtyard—with really intense greenery and planting in the centre.” Phase two, due to be completed towards the end of 2024, will also include a gallery with mezzanine, four artist guest rooms, two artist studios, offices, and kiosks. “We also didn't get the lighting quite right in two of the studios, which we are adjusting now,” he adds.
The green of trees and vegetation on the site accentuates the rust-red elements—textural patterns and surface geometries further create a visually harmonious piece of architecture. Touching on what makes the project special, Hampton says, “It's taken a long time for this project to be realised (almost eight years from inception)—and through that time some really great relationships and collaborations have developed both with the client team and Localworks. These relationships and the sense of the building being built with a shared purpose are what has made the building special.”
Name: 32° East Arts Centre
Location: Plot 212, Block 245, Kiuliriza, Kampala, Uganda
Architect: New Makers Bureau
Area: 470 sqm (site); 160 sqm (gross internal area)
Completion: March 23, 2023 (phase 1); end 2024 (phase 2)
Design team: James Hampton (Project architect), Laura Keay, New Makers Bureau
Local architect, structural engineer, cost consultant, M&E engineer: Felix Holland, Localworks
Main contractor: Localworks
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