By Stephen Ssenkaaba
At last we can see Kampala like we have never before — with all its past pomp and glory. We can put some flesh to the bare bones of knowledge that we have had about our city. Thank the people who led us there — the photographers, the essayists; the hosts and the planners.
Above all, thank Ernst May, the reason we are witnessing all these in the first place. May is a German architect, who helped to plan Kampala city. He was invited to Uganda in 1945 by British protectorate authorities to develop a plan for the expansion of the city.
He did not only design the Uganda Museum in 1952, but also developed an urban planning scheme for Nakasero and Kololo in 1947. His scheme thoughtfully included settlements for African and Asian people, which according to an official museum catalogue had been excluded by earlier plans.
The Entebbe and Kampala Road junction showing the mural on the Bank of India building, now at the exhibition in the Uganda Museum
May’s work partly inspired by the lush greenery in Kampala sought to refl ect a ‘garden city’ that would act as a social space and provide good living conditions to all its inhabitants. Even though his extension plan was never implemented as planned, some elements of it were incorporated in Henry Kendall’s subsequent urban plan in 1951.
May’s work is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Uganda museum on Kira Road. The exhibition was officially launched at the Uganda Museum on April 9, by the German Ambassador to Uganda, Klaus Dieter Düxmann, the Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Maria Mutagamba and the Executive Director of Kampala Capital City Authority, Jennifer Semakula Musisi. It will run through to the end of the month.
Entitled Ernst May Architecture and urban planning in Kampala, this exhibition is a refl ective look at the city; its past and present and Kampala’s changing face over the years. It showcases the iconic images of May’s architectural designs in Germany, Nairobi and Uganda. It also shows photos of the different faces of Kampala from the colonial days right up to the present. It is a visual celebration of the various stages of the growth of Kampala city.
The coloured pictures by different photographers present historical buildings of cultural and administrative importance buildings like Sir Apollo Kagwa’s Basiima House, the original Bank of Uganda building, the National theatre, the original Fort Lugard and the independence arch in front of the Uganda Parliament building among others.
Juxtaposed with captivating images of Kampala’s modern architectural skyline, this display pays glowing tribute to Kampala’s transformation. This show perhaps in hindsight laments the untold destruction that such modernity has visited on Kampala by showing how some of the once historical buildings have been demolished or overhauled, even defaced. It presents a disturbing absence of continuity for an important heritage.
May’s influence hovers over the exhibition, through his reports on the extension of Kampala and through the images of his work in Uganda, Germany and Kenya. His work, largely inspired by medieval European architecture’s angular and sometimes circular designs and sprawling gardens and expansive greenery resonates with many landmark architectural designs in Uganda.
From the circular City House, to the sprawling green of what used to be City Square, May’s architectural legacy lives on. But Kampala has moved on in ways that May might or might not agree with. It has evolved into a congested city with intricate, in some cases poorly designed structures. There also are more wetland constructions than green garden. What would Ernst make of all of this?
Katrin Peters-Klaphake, exhibition curator thinks that more than anything else, this exhibition “helps people to think about the importance of preserving heritage and the role of the city as a social space where people can live a decent life.”
Rose Mwanja, the commissioner of museums and monuments, says that this exhibition has provided an opportunity to the public to understand the role of historical buildings as an important part of our heritage and the policy makers a chance to chart ways of preserving such structures.