Image courtesy of Urko Sánchez Architects
Urko Sánchez: Innovation, Identity and Implementation

Interview with Urko Sánchez, a member of the Steering Panel 2017.

Urko Sánchez in discussion with Karen Eicker about Architecture in Africa, his practice and some recent projects.

In his recent visit to Johannesburg during ArchiWeek in June 2016, Urko Sánchez took part in the first meeting and panel discussion of the Steering Committee for the Africa Architecture Awards, which was chaired by Professor Lesley Lokko of the UJ Graduate School of Architecture. The experience left an indelible impression on the founder and director of Urko Sánchez Architects, a practice that has a foot each in Kenya and Spain.

Because of his passion for travel, Sánchez has visited over 40 countries and has worked in, among others, Nicaragua, Bosnia, El Salvador, Angola, Kenya and Somalia. The team at his practice is flexible and multicultural, and Sánchez’s extensive experience working in varied contexts allows him to craft innovative and versatile architecture, resulting in unique solutions for each project.

He says, “Africa is a vast and diverse continent, and the architecture needs to respond to the place, people and climate. We need to be innovative in how we translate African traditional architecture in response to contemporary needs, otherwise we risk losing part of the culture. At all costs we should avoid ‘fast food architecture’ that results in spaces without identity.”

He adds that experimentation should be an inherent part of the architectural process. “When you experiment, you don’t know upfront what the result will be, and sometimes you will fail. You should be conscious of the consequences but brave enough to try; and be strong enough to see the process through.”

Sánchez reiterates that, thanks to urbanisation and economics, and the availability of technology and communications, Africa is currently experiencing unprecedented development. Unfortunately, solutions are being imported and copied from other contexts without the necessary questions being asked in the early stages of a project – which means that not nearly enough innovation is happening.

“To find answers we should constantly be asking how we want to live, what we like, how can we get the best out of a project, and how can we make the most of the available resources. This process of questioning also includes conducting a proper analysis of the site and nature of the climate.

“We should be using elements that can be found locally in innovative ways. In Kenya, for example, labour is very cheap and, with proper training, people are very capable and skilled. We have a project underway in Tudor, Mombasa, where the structure would be impossible in Europe because of the amount of labour required and associated cost. Here, it is working very well and providing employment for local labourers.”


Photographer- Ahmed Shamuty


Photographer- Ahmed Shamuty

The structure of this residential building comprises steel and reinforced concrete. Because of its form, a new system had to be developed in collaboration with the contractor. This requires certain skills and a tailor-made way of developing the formwork, bending reinforcing bars, and pouring and vibrating the concrete. The result is a long lasting, well built, low maintenance structure that uses its skin as structural reinforcement, thus freeing up the floorplate.

A very different example of contextual innovation and implementation is the Red Pepper House, which proposes a new way of living in a forest while echoing traditional lifestyles. Located in a very remote area with difficult access that prevented the use of trucks and cranes, the house utilises what is available on site in a slightly different way in order to create something new. The building is constructed from palm tree leaves for the roof, mangrove poles, coconut rope, coral stone, and lime mortar finishes – all of which had to be brought to site on donkeys. Situated in existing open spaces in the forest to avoid tree cutting, the form responds to a holistic way of living in the environment, with good cross ventilation, a big roof and few walls – allowing a full experience of living in the forest.


Photographer – Alberto Heras

“There is no set methodology that can be followed when creating a building with identity,” Sánchez comments. “The result relates to the questions that need to be asked as a starting point, which should express ideas of who I am and where I belong.


Photographer – Alberto Heras

“Importing solutions without this proper analysis results in a lack a sense of place, and an opportunity lost. Against the background of a homogenous society, buildings all look the same, shops offer the same merchandise, and food tastes the same regardless of where we are.

“In Africa, we still have the opportunity to express different traditions and identities that can be integrated and continued into contemporary society – thus creating architecture that is true to itself with a vibrant sense of place.”

A commercial example of this process is embodied in the Vipingo Ridge Club House in Kenya, located in a dominant position in the centre of a golf course and at the highest point of its site. The client brief was for an iconic building that would express the values of the company – strength, confidence and character, together with responsiveness to nature and place. Research was conducted around vernacular buildings that expressed a sense of power through symmetry and elemental shapes – the circle, triangle and square – which were then combined with local materials and aesthetics. The result is a building that emanates a strong presence and identity.


Photographer – Alberto Heras

Commenting on the challenges and opportunities around implementing projects in East Africa, Sánchez observes that the lack of enforced regulation brings a degree of freedom to the processes of design and construction; and that with freedom come responsibility and consciousness.


Photographer – Alberto Heras

“Fortunately, developers are becoming more and more conscious of the impact of our work on nature. Up till now, their main motivation has been purely economic, driven by a fever for getting rich fast. This is a very dangerous approach that leads to mistakes that last for a long time.

“We are also experiencing the evolution of a closer collaboration between disciplines, where we join efforts with our colleagues with a shared vision to do things we feel proud of – to create something new and innovative that will stand the test of time for future generations.”

Commenting on the experience of participating in the Awards panel discussions in Johannesburg, Sánchez says, “It was an amazing opportunity to learn from others and have the chance to exchange ideas. In meeting architects from other African countries – such as Doreen Adengo from Uganda and Issa Diabaté from the Ivory Coast – we could share experiences common to our practices and discover interesting new approaches to work. It is a great honour to participate in this event and be part of this journey.”


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