Conservationists battle to keep developers off Kampala old buildings
An emerging trend in Kampala where old buildings are brought down to pave way for shopping malls and multi-storeyed structures is worrying conservationists, who fear it could erase the city’s heritage.
Even as the Attorney General’s office is putting in place relevant statutory instruments for the Museums and Monuments Act, 2023 – which could help authorities list down buildings considered part of the country’s heritage – there is already a fight over the Watoto Church building (formerly Norman Cinema.
Owners of the building argue it is private property that can be changed or developed at any time, but the government and conservationists term it part of Uganda’s history that should be protected from the rigours of urban redevelopment.
Norman Cinema was the first cinema hall constructed in Uganda, by Norman Godinho. The social hub was later turned into a theatre before becoming a church hall in 1984, under the Watoto Church Ministries Ltd, previously known as the Kampala Pentecostal Church.
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According to Mark Olweny, an architect, the building is built in an art deco style favoured by many architects during the 1940s and 1950s.“In the context of Africa, this design style is most visible in Asmara (Capital of Eritrea where many of these buildings have been retained and are a key attraction for visitors. In Uganda, the few buildings in this style can be found in Mbale, Jinja and Kampala,” Olweny says.
“This is a building that acknowledges its site and makes the most of it through the resulting architectural form. The interior would have continued the elegance of the outside, particularly in the main foyer. Most striking, however, is the prominent curved entrance canopy that defines the entrance and invites visitors into the building via a grand staircase,” Olweny adds.
In 2018, Watoto Church commissioned Symbion Uganda Ltd, the architects, to design “Watoto Downtown Mixed-Use Development” plan that would see the old building demolished to pave way for a 12-storey building that would feature a conference centre to sit over 2,100 people, ample institutional space, youth related-functions space, retail space and a three-star hotel.
Conservationists, however, raised the alarm and started a campaign dubbed ‘Don’t Demolish Our Heritage’ and #SaveWatotoChurch, asking the church to review its development plan and preserve the unique architectural history of the building.
Accordingly, in 2019, Watoto Church submitted its redevelopment plan to the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA for approval, but KCCA declined and instead asked for a plan that caters for the preservation of some aspects of the historical building.
Dissatisfied with the decision, the church petitioned the National Physical Planning Board (NPPB but received the same technical advice.
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In 2022, Watoto Church sued KCCA and NPPB, terming their decisions irrational, illegal and unfair. It wanted the court to overturn the decisions and award it general damages for inconvenience and costs of the suit.
On July 7, Justice Douglas Singiza of the Civil Division ordered KCCA to consider the church’s mixed-use development plan within three months.
“In future, should KCCA wish to declare any property within its geographical limits a national heritage, a by-law should first be enacted to give it effect,” Singiza said.
KCCA was advised to enact a by-law within three years to list all properties in Kampala that deserve protection as national heritage sites.
“It is my judgement that in the absence of any by-law by KCCA listing Watoto Church as a national heritage, it is unreasonably wrong for KCCA and NPPA not to approve their mixed-use development plan,” Singiza said.
The government says it is preparing an official list of historical sites and monuments that will be protected, preserved and managed at a national level.
But authorities will also need to sensitise owners of historical buildings about the significance and benefits they can get from these sites if preserved.