Inside Kampala’s architectural gem

The structure is the handiwork of London-based New Makers Bureau in collaboration with Kampala-based firm Localworks. The project was commissioned by 32° East–Ugandan Arts Trust, an independent African not-for-profit entity promoting East African artists and contemporary art. PHOTOS/ BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI 

What you need to know:

  • The building is arranged around a shaded, step-free courtyard, which creates a visual connection between all spaces as well as an amenity space for social gathering plus overspill space for the making and display of larger works, writes Bamuturaki Musinguzi  

Tucked away in the Kampala suburb of Kabalagala is an architectural gem. The  rammed earth 32º East Arts Centre was erected using sustainable materials already on the site like red soil, sand, stones and wood.

A celebration of earth construction, the avant-garde structure is the handiwork of the London-based architecture practice New Makers Bureau in collaboration with Kampala-based multidisciplinary design and build firm Localworks. 
Delivered in two phases, the project was commissioned by 32° East–Ugandan Arts Trust, an independent African and female led not-for-profit entity promoting East African artists and contemporary art.
In March 2023, after seven years of untiring effort and $300,000 later, phase one of the project was completed. It includes four artists’ studios, a library (the only specialist art library in Uganda), restrooms, and a flexible café, which will function as an interim gallery and workspace until phase two is complete. 
Phase one of the project was completed thanks to funds from the Sigrid Rausing Trust, Outset Contemporary Art Fund, The African Arts Trust, Arts Collaboratory, Mercedes Vilardell, Linda Mutesi, Shayna Robinson, Susan Rosenberg and John Lazar, as well as Allison and Geoff Ng, Veghte Family. There was also in-kind support from Roofings Group, who provided materials, and New Makers Bureau, who worked on a pro-bono basis.
James Hampton, architect and founder of New Makers Bureau, told Saturday Monitor that phase one was designed to be a microcosm or distillation of the key parts of the organisation: the artist spaces (studios) and a large flexible space that can be used for gathering, exhibitions, and workshops, among others. 
“So, with the first phase the community can really ground itself,” he added.
Radical departure 
In a statement, the New Makers Bureau discloses that the flexibly designed, fully accessible building squats on a slope. It’s arranged around a shaded, step-free courtyard, which creates a visual connection between all spaces as well as an amenity space for social gathering plus overspill space for the making and display of larger works.
The arts centre will serve as an inclusive hub for the contemporary artist community in Uganda, providing three-month residencies, rented studios, and a gallery. Income generating spaces have also been lined up in phase two. These include the operational café, kiosks and rented studios.

It is, the New Makers Bureau says, a radical departure from 32° East’s former home—a campus of four shipping containers.
The single-storey, low carbon building is hyper-local. Local eucalyptus timber was used for the rammed earth formwork and then reused to make the roof shingles. Demolition materials were also reused for fill and as aggregate. 
Rammed earth is a technique for constructing foundations, floors, and walls using compacted natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime, or gravel. It is an ancient method that has been revived recently as a sustainable building method. 
“It is a readily available material, in this instance it comes directly from the site,” Hampton said of why rammed earth trumps concrete and steel construction, adding, “It has high thermal mass, meaning that it helps to cool the building during the daytime.”
Due to its low embodied carbon, rammed earth also takes little energy to produce such as, per Hampton, “a mechanical press and other machinery.”   
He added: “About eight percent of total global carbon emissions are a result of concrete production and buildings and the construction sector as a whole account for about 40 percent.”
Hampton reckons a “radical shift […] toward more sustainable ways to build” is of the essence. 
Minimising solar gain as well as creating shaded and cool spaces are a design priority in Kampala where light conditions are extreme thanks to the city lying on the equator. The building incorporates strategies to temper the intensity of the sun, with the use of slim polycarbonate roof-lights for natural daylighting and shutters prioritised over glazed windows. 
A sweeping roof also provides shade to the courtyard. A bespoke textured open brick ‘hit and miss’ in the façade also creates dappled light. The architects included polycarbonate roof-lights to provide natural daylight into the rooms. 

“When designing in a tropical climate you have to be careful to balance the need for natural daylight with the risk of overheating. So, we came up with these thin slots of light in the roofs which create daylight for each of the spaces without letting in so much light that they cause overheating,” Hampton told Saturday Monitor. 
The building has large windows projecting steel frames to let fresh air into the rooms and act as substitutes for air conditioners. 
“There are large openings usually on one side of the spaces and smaller openings [in the brickwork], which help to circulate the air through the spaces and create airflow. This combined with the coolness of the rammed earth helps to keep the interiors cool and avoids the need for air conditioning,” Hampton says. 
Roof structure
Expressive roof forms have been designed to float above the building. The large roof overhangs, which provide shade, also protect the earth walls below from heavy rain. Horizontal tile details to the rammed earth walls also provide further protection. 
The roof pitch sets at an angle across the plan, lifting up to the highest point to create a clear entrance to the building and give the individual elements direction. This simple twist creates a gentle curve in the roof trusses and a dynamic ceiling in the main space per New Makers Bureau.
The arts centre can be accessed by vehicle or foot and is adjacent to a large local green space and residential areas. The bureau has designed built-in seating on the perimeter of the courtyard to encourage impromptu social moments and pauses. Window seats are strategically positioned inside to offer views over the nearby green space.
Phase two, expected to be completed at the backend of 2024, includes a gallery with mezzanine, two additional artist studios, four artist guest rooms, offices, kiosks and a walled courtyard garden. It will also include a large double height gallery space with a walled courtyard garden, artist accommodation, workspace, more studio space and some shops.
The total cost for entire project is estimated at $1,035,000. 
Dezeen Awards

The 32° East Arts Centre is one of 85 buildings out of 4,800 entries from around the world that were shortlisted for the Dezeen Awards 2023. The 85 shortlisted projects, which are in the running for awards in 16 different architecture project categories, were designed by studios located in 28 different countries, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Greece, Malaysia, Hungary and Tanzania.   

The 32° East Arts Centre was shortlisted in the cultural project category where it is competing against the Bundanon Art Museum, Illaroo, Australia, by Kerstin Thompson Architects; Liknon, Samos, Greece, by K-Studio; Yongchun Vinegar Sightseeing Factory, Quanzhou, China, by Lel Design Studio; IF.BE (Ice Factory Ballard Estate), Mumbai, India, by Malik Architecture; and, Shanfeng Academy, Suzhou, China, by Open Architecture. 
Dezeen Awards is the most popular and prestigious celebration of the world’s best architecture, interiors and design projects – the three key areas that Dezeen writes about. This year’s awards ceremony will be held at Shoreditch Electric Light Station in London on November 28. The arts centre was featured in the July-August 2023 edition of the prestigious British independent architecture magazine Architecture Today.
“This project has been a labour of love for so many of those involved. It is a joy to be a part of something that transforms the arts landscape in East Africa, and a physical reminder of the power of community and collaboration across borders,” Teesa Bahana, the 32° East director, said, adding, “Through its expanded resources, the centre provides fertile conditions for artists to make high quality and rigorous work.”
Felix Holland, director-principal architect, Localworks, said his entity fused forces with 32° and the bureau “to create a building that will make a real impact on Kampala’s cultural scene.” Hampton adds that the “climate-focused design” and the “integrated approach to working with natural resources” makes the project that much more special.
“The rammed earth is ‘stabilised’ with lime which together with the clay in the soil and sand, helps to bond the material together and gives it strength. The rammed earth will last at least 60 plus years and more if well maintained. The earth bricks have as good compressive strength than standard fired bricks,” Hampton said of the possibility of a building devoid of cement standing the test of time. 
He added: “Lime is more sustainable than concrete as it uses less energy to be produced as it is fired at much lower temperatures. It is also a natural material and has inherent moisture control properties and again has been used in construction for thousands of years.”
Key players
Localworks is a multi-disciplinary design and build collaborative, based in Kampala, which specialises in the design and realisation of ecological architecture in East Africa.
Established in 2011, 32° East–Ugandan Arts Trust focuses on the creation and exploration of contemporary art in Uganda. 
New Makers Bureau is a London-based architecture practice founded by James Hampton in 2020. It makes imaginative low energy contextual architecture with a particular focus on embodied carbon.