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Wednesday23 July 2014

Working abroad: Kilburn Nightingale

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More than 25 years of taking on the tropics has built this London firm.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more exotic project list than Kilburn Nightingale’s.From Mozambique to the Mountains of the Moon, via Caribbean islands, Estonia, Niger, Pakistan and the obligatory Chinese commission, it is as if the practice seeks out the more unusual parts of the world in which to build.

It could be accused of courting Boys’ Own excitement, but, with the exception of Islamabad where its eco-retreat is on hold because of political turbulence, its projects have been largely untroubled.

Yet, because its pro-risk approach extends to its buildings as well as their locations, Richard Nightingale and Ben Kilburn – whose practice in King’s Cross, London, previously known as Cullum & Nightingale, was established in 1985 – can reel off a list of “disasters” that would give other architects sleepless nights.

Take the practice’s eco-lodge in Mozambique, where some conveniently dead coconut trees were used to support the bamboo roof – until they collapsed, revealing their diseased cores.

Or its British High Commission in Kampala, Uganda, which won an RIBA International Award in 2008. The firm decided it would be a nice touch to have the imprint of banana leaves on the underside of the enormous concrete entrance canopy. This, despite the fact that when it tried something similar with coconut fronds in a Caribbean guesthouse, the leaves kept floating up through the concrete, risking permanent entombment in the ceiling.

Repeating this on a much larger scale in Kampala was an apparent success – until the architects arrived for a site visit and found the whole thing had been obliterated.

“The high commissioner asked what the pattern was and immediately had it rendered over because the banana leaf is a symbol of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army,” recounts Nightingale.

“It could have been interpreted as elephant skin, but they took it very literally. Our mistake was to tell them what it was. But the point is you have to be prepared for your work to be altered.

“Building abroad is about setting up the right circumstances for the building to come right. You can’t be too prissy and architecty about what emerges. Or, if you are, you are unlikely to be too happy with it because you are dependent on local techniques and local people and sometimes there are surprises.”

The team’s creativity feeds off the unexpected results but there are times when work simply has to be undone.

Nightingale describes the firm’s approach as the opposite of the likes of Foster’s which is parachuted in to deliver a “brilliant idea, fully formed”.

“Inevitably, we are parachuted in too but we build from what we find,” he explains .

The high commission in Kampala is built from local bricks because that is what the buildings on the road from the airport are made of. The pair’s first impressions are frequently displayed in their final designs.

The British High Commission in Nairobi – its big break in 1989, won in competition against John McAslan – uses local stone
hand-chiselled on site. As well as negating the client’s demand for air-conditioning, it was much cheaper than the glass and steel imported from Dubai for so many of the capital’s “aspirational” edifices.

Nightingale created his first building – a farmhouse for his brother in their native Kenya in 1981 – from rammed earth and timber offcuts. But a plan to build estate cottages the same way was rejected because the workers considered them “primitive”.

Elsewhere such “traditional” methods have been embraced. In Uganda, at the Ruwenzori Sculpture Foundation, the firm is using hand-fired bricks, soil instead of cement mortar, and mud colouring on the facades instead of paint.

And on Bequia in St Vincent & the Grenadines, the local contractor working on the practice’s guesthouse made site visits a delight with his endless questions.

“I thought what we were designing would be very familiar to him because we were using materials we saw in the buildings around us,” says Nightingale. “But at the end of the job he said it had been an adventure because it was such an avant-garde project.”

The low cost of local materials and labour, as well as other countries’ relaxed approach to procurement, is what makes Kilburn Nightingale’s risk-taking possible. When a huge piece of terracotta on the Kampala high commission cracked, it just made another.

“It’s slightly less straightforward experimenting in the UK,” acknowledges Nightingale. “Our approach needs a bit of trial and error but here you are not allowed to make errors.”

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