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Seeing is believing

We keep finding ourselves in strange places and our latest trip was no exception.

We have a project in Kenya – a proper lighting job. None of our usual avant garde work; it’s a straightforward lighting consultancy job consisting of a private house on the beach.

Our forward thinking client suggested a trip to the site. Nothing strange in that you might think, except the site is an overgrown plot on the most beautiful beach and no building work has yet been done.

Not ones to turn down an adventure, we arrived in Mombasa full of high-tech and wonderfully creative ideas for this new project. After seeing the local lighting shop – full of locally-made basket shades; carved woodwork; and painted gourds, albeit stuffed with Chinese imports, we were still unphased. Then we met Ralph. Ralph is the experienced proprietor of an island holiday resort who set about telling us how it is.

We found out that the ultra-chilled, beautiful, tropical-looking location is actually a deceptively harsh and sneaky one. Ralph showed us rusting metal, discoloured plastic and rotten fittings. He told us which lamps work and which fail after a week. He showed us natural materials and expensive synthetic materials covered in mould and tough looking wood that needs treating every six months. He told us how supply and support is impossible in Kenya and what it’s like to rely on inferior product from China.

It dawned on us that we couldn’t approach this like we normally would. Every time we came up with something clever, he shot it down as something that had been tried and failed. He also showed us two new building projects: one a private villa and the other a part of a hotel add-on. We saw the techniques used to build locally, got a grip on the materials, and marvelled at the swimming pool being hacked out of coral – everyone looked at us as if we are mad when we said that in the UK, if there was that much stone in a location, the pool wouldn’t be built there.

But we got what our client’s intention was – all this stuff had to be seen to understand the project. If we had sat at home and designed this house, we would have got it wrong. The design would be wrong, the product spec would be wrong and the whole thing would probably have failed within months. So after seeing the world’s only wooden Land Rover; a bath tub hewn from rock; beautifully carved wooden sinks; and wrestling an iPhone back from some monkeys, it’s back to the UK to work out how to make this house look beautiful with what we have learnt.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Arjun L. Gunawardene

    This is absolutely true! One should not design without investigating and scouting the proposed site initially. Personally, I like to stand at the center of the plot and visualize the scale and concept/s that pass through my mind. Plus, as mentioned in the article, being there also rubs off people and cultural preferences which I believe is the key to design. It brings personality and character into the finished article and help create that - Wow!.. effect.

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