First Look: Kenyan Library
By Kelly L. Beamon
6 March 2018
Photo courtesy of Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects
Professor Emeritus of Architecture Stanley Saitowitz of Natoma Architects recently completed a project to transform a rainwater collection tank into a children’s library in the Nyeri West region of Kenya, a four-hour drive north of Nairobi.
The rainwater collection tank transformation was initiated by the Nobelity Project, a Texas-based organization that builds critically needed school infrastructure. The organization is known for finding unconventional and less obvious ways to meet the needs of a community.
A few years prior, the organization conducted a renovation at the Nyeri West school. The organization’s cofounder, Turk Pipkin, noticed the water tank and saw the potential for a library.
The 70-year-old tank was unusually large in size — it had a diameter of 25 feet inside its thick, plastered brick walls, which rose 9 feet high. The tank resided perfectly behind the school’s classrooms, which have been crafted from cattle sheds.
The tank holds symbolic importance for locals as it was given to the community after Kenya declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1963. The tank, and the rest of the property, used to be a British-owned dairy farm.
Pipkin aimed to maintain the integrity of the tank so as to remind locals as to how far the community has come. Pipkin enlisted Saitowitz who “who was born in South Africa, knew the continent’s colonial history, and was struck by the potent symbolism of preserving the existing structure.”
“I grew up in Johannesburg,” says Saitowitz. “I understand that water has always been a precious resource in Africa.”
The architecture, which features a square shape atop a circle shape, is a nod to Kenya’s not so distant colonial history. The design “merges the rectilinear geometry common to Europe with the rounded forms of traditional African architecture.” Furthermore, Saitowitz blends materials as he combines corrugated-steel sheeting with the indigenous brick structure below.
“Growing up in South Africa, I was able to see how, when you go into the countryside, this other architectural language will emerge,” Saitowitz says, referring to the familiar sight of buildings composed of both imported and local components.
Saitowitz also wanted to maintain the original functionality of the tank, thus he added a roof with an inverted pitch so as to collect water which feeds into a small receptacle behind the structure.
“The entire design essentially arose from dealing with the constraints of the tank,” says Saitowitz, who was determined to leave the cistern untouched. Saitowitz avoided cutting through the circular wall to create an entry and, instead, designed a stair leading into the square volume above. “It is an elevating experience to go up to the books and then down a stair to the main gathering space back at grade,” he says.
The top level of the tank has been fitted with a wraparound corrugated-steel landing which is lined with bookshelves that have been built into the walls. Louvered glass behind wire mesh allows for daylight and breezes.
From the top level, a steel staircase spirals down to a circular room below which serves as the heart of the library. The bookshelves serve as small reading nooks while simultaneously supporting the top level. Saitowitz’s only addition to the historic walls, aside from a fresh coat of plaster, was to to “half-moon slivers of bent steel on its surfaces to create child-height reading seats in the nooks.”
“For this community,” says Pipkin, “the library says that good things can happen here.”