Adopted from The Standard, Friday, May 9, 1980_Weekend Standard
Amyas Connell, the architect whose legacy to Kenya included designs for some of the country’s most important and beautiful buildings died on April 19 1980, in Washington Hospital, Highgate, London. He was 79, but was still actively involved in conceptual planning for many parts of the world at the time of his death.
It was in 1951 that Connell was enticed to Nairobi to begin planning the country’s first-phase Parliament Building. Its foundation stone laid the following years this lasting monument to democracy was formally opened in 1954 and remains today one of Kenya’s most entrancing structures, the good nature of its designer evident in every line. Later he designed the second-phase extension – as graceful and efficient as anything he ever accomplished and opened for Kenya’s Independence Parliament in 1963.
Looking like the traditional patriarch, he was at heart a peaceful, philosophic man – but any saintly look-like ceased there, for he reacted mischievously and aggressively against staid bureaucracy, frequently challenged it and often toppled it.
His nose was aquiline because it was broken in a shipboard fight many years before, and, during his long life, Amyas was a vortex of many other monumental battles.
It began more than a half century ago when the young Connell, newly-emerged from articles with a New Zealand architectural office and lacking experience, determined to get it in London, then the world’s centre of design.
His close but equally penurious compatriot, Basil Ward, was persuaded to make the journey and the two youngsters signed on as stoker-trimmers aboard a coal-burning freighter, working their passages from Wellington, New Zealand, around Cape Horn to the British Capital.
“ I never knew what she was carrying”, recalled the great man, in later years, “for we were never on deck long enough to find out. But that 56-day voyage left me with hands so gnarled that I couldn’t draw a line for months afterwards.”
Their passage money saved and with just Shs. 180 in their pockets, the two youngsters set out to conquer London. Then, miraculously accepted into London University’s atelier, they chose their targets – nothing short of British architecture’s ritziest scholarships.
Only months later, the two young New Zealanders had beaten all other competitors from the Commonwealth. Connell’s presentation had gained him the coveted three-year study award at the British School of the Arts in Rome, Ward had won the two-year Jarvis prize – and two famous careers were launched.
Much of Connell’s study centred on the Villa of Tiberious, in the island of Capri – classical beauty which, through the centuries had withstood the challenge of changing fashion.
Yet, acknowledging the ancient skills, Connell was already voicing modernism in architecture. As he once explained it; “I saw no reason why housing should speak the language of the forgotten ages and, beautiful though classical design may be, it has no real place in modern time”.
Indeed, it was Connell’s fresh exploratory stance and the new idiom with which his designs were lit which gained him his first important (and highly-unlikely) client, none other than Sir Bernard Ashmole, world authority on Grecian art forms and principal of Rome’s British School.
Something in the pace-setting style of the Rome Scholar attracted the older man sufficiently for him to entrust Connell with the design of a house in Buckinghamshire to which the respected tutor wished to retire.
It took Connell 4 ½ years to get his designs past the Buckinghamshire housing authority. His ideas were termed “outrageous” and were opposed, tooth and nail, by traditionalist. He was accused of trying to debase British architecture. But throughout the battle, Connell’s distinguished client backed him, refusing all blandishments to have the design changed.
Now, on Amyas Connell’s death, that building, the famous “High and Over” at Amersham, becomes a British national monument, enshrining the very beginnings of a movement which cleared many cobwebs from British architectural studios.
Meanwhile, the young rebel had become embroiled in yet another famous architectural brawl of the 1930s. The Greater London Council refused to permit construction in Hampstead of a house he had designed and he had to face critics who termed his work “unBritish”, “French-influenced”, “German oriented”. London newspapers campaigned against the “descration” which would be wrought in historic Hampstead if Connell had his way.
Describing the scene in the normally dignified chamber of the Greater London Council, the architectural maverick said: “plans for conventional housing were being passed without demur and with little interest, but when mine were put before the assembly, the place become like the set for a Mack Sennett comedy. Doors flew open and critics entered in great profusion, airing their heated views.”
After 4 ½ hour of furious discussion, his plans scraped through.
In 1978, the firm he had founded with his New Zealander buddy – Connell, Ward and Lucas – was honoured at a special Royal Institute of British Architects’ occasion and Connell was asked to say how he had found his 1930’s inspiration. “Well”, he said, in his monotone, “first you take a comfortable position in the loo….”
The enfant terrible of the architectural world found plenty of prestigious clients, of course: and wartime saw him somewhat reconciled with his tormentors when he was appointed to a senior position in Britain’s Ministry of Works as Garrison Engineer in the barrack-town of Aldershot. But, in 1947, building restrictions in post-war Britain attracted him to Africa.
It was in Kenya, the country to which he became deeply attached, that he was also commissioned to prepare for the Ismaili community a most modern hospital complex. He incorporated into its wards and surgical rooms many new ideas, which have stood the test of time and which have delighted both patients and medical staff.
Opened in 1958, the Aga Khan Jubilee Hospital (to which Connell added extensions and the Nurses’ Home) earned for the Architect the Gold Medal Award of R.I.B.A., as the best design of those years.
Becoming president of the East Africa Institute of Architects and, by the mid-60’s, a citizen of Kenya, Connell founded in Nairobi the Triad and this firm went on to become internationally recognised, its London office managed by Connell’s eldest son, James.
A Nairobi based partner, Mr. David Bristow, commenting recently that Triad’s founder remained, until his last days, a subtle pathfinder. He said, “You can see in Amyas Connell’s design for Sheria House elements of what has come to be known as ‘post-modern architecture’ – a hybrid form which speaks contemporaneity to architects but also traditionalism to a public concerned with a way of life and comfort.
For Amyas Connell, this attractive structure was one of his last major works in Kenya. And if any other epitaph were needed it should be: “Old Master Your Work Was Well Done”.
In recent times brutalism architecture gave way to structural expressionism and de-constructivism but this building tries to merge the three in an attempted harmony and cannot be classified in either and the architect struggle can be seen in the entire building.