By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
It is perhaps the most remembered of all buildings when one talks of Makerere. For those who have been and those still inside the gates of this historic university in East Africa and beyond, the building stands out as the most magnificent due to its unique early 20th century British architectural design. With its thicker walls and arch designed doors leading into the hundreds of rooms dabbing as offices, the main building is reminiscent of Makerere’s glory in the colonial days. In this wonder of architecture is where Makerere University gets its endearment (or nickname); the Ivory Tower.
Constructed in 1930s, the T-Shaped main administration building houses various offices of the university’s top administrators including that of the vice chancellor. The building was designed basing on architectural design of Britain’s prestigious University of London. Located in the centre and top of Makerere Hill ridge, the Main Building stands out as the most authoritative architectural piece at the university campus. This beautiful building, which currently appears to be getting old as evidenced in the germinating algae on its fading brown tile roof is neighboured by the Faculties of Arts and Agriculture to its south and north respectively. The two chapels of St Francis and St Augustine are located in the west of the main building’s main hall. The Freedom Square and University Road are in front of the main building in the east.
Erecting such an elegant state of the art building required so much sacrifice. According to writer Margret Macpherson, in her book: They Built for the Future, construction of the main building began in early 1930s and dragged on up to 1941 due to difficulties caused the Second World War. The war interfered with importation of all construction materials that were to be shipped right from Europe. In fact, due to challenges posed by this war, especially scarcity of the much needed finance, other materials like doors were made locally in the Makerere College’s workshop. This is probably why the doors in the main building look dull in spite of the building’s spectacular exterior appearance.
Talking about Makerere University the most memorable architectural piece to many is perhaps the main administrative building plan. This building with the ivory tower rising at least two metres above its roof is the icon of the old British traditional architecture. The splendour architectural design of this building gives it an imposing presence. Its presence reminds a person who has traversed the world especially Europe and Britain, for that matter, the colonial rule that once eclipsed the chequered history of Uganda.
With the surrounding environment envisaged by pretty trees, gardens, the faculties of Arts and Agriculture, and the chapels of St Francis and St Augustine, Makerere’s main building is artistically designed with the ability to attract the attention of the passer-by. Its marvellous view makes a person passing by unable resist the temptation to marvel at the level of creativity and blending of the main building’s awesome architecture design and plan. Between the foundation and window plane the rusticated ashlar stone laid in rectangular courses form the brick bonds there by giving the building an artistic design.
Ancient architecture and shared history The windows and wooden doors with curved arches above them present beautiful scenery of the building that works as the face of the oldest university in East Africa. The light blue painted metallic framed windows works out the magnificent view of the great ivory tower.
The Main Building has witnessed the turbulent times Makerere has gone through especially in 1970s where the university’s best brains left the country due to heightened insecurity in Uganda. During this time virtually every development at the university had to come to a stand still. Neither the building sector was spared. This terrifying period parallels the 1939 to 1945 war time in which the construction of the main administration building nearly came to a halt after the colonial government authorities were sucked in the Second World War. In fact, some lecturers left Makerere to join their home government, Britain, in fighting the aliens. More critically the building materials and the much needed funds which were to be imported and come from Europe were delayed. This situation put the thought of ever completing the construction of the main building in dilemma. It was not until after close to ten years that construction was completed.
Makerere's buildings reflect its chequered story. The main building, with its 1920s British colonial architecture and its sporadically chiming clock, dominates the campus, but the newest building that houses the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology rivals its height. The Ivory Tower with a chiming clock at the top of the hour lends credence and a spectacular view of Uganda’s oldest and prestigious university.
The cream paint on the walls gives an aural and feeling of peace and class while in this up and down stair case hall. As one enters inside, the rest of the walls of the rooms or offices inside the Main Building are painted in the black, green and white colours which showcase Makerere University’s logo and flag. This building has no lift; an indicator of the generation of buildings in the early 20th Century. The manual steps with black background at the bottom of the wall and grey paint catch the eye’s attention sore as one strides into the numerous offices housed in the Main Building.
The impressive power of the building Building styles and designs connote culture, religion and political power as well as social class. Islamic buildings can be identified meters away. European architecture, in this case British, dominates most of Makerere University’s buildings. The Main Building’s design gives the audience opportunity to appreciate the colonial/traditional architecture of the early 20th century that appeals to one’s senses. Standing besides this splendid building raises the aural, visual, olfactory, and tactile architecture. As people move through a space, architecture is experienced as a time sequence.
In ancient civilizations, architecture was sometimes used to manifest the power of the state. This is why buildings of the leaders were extraordinarily ornamented in different forms and styles as opposed to those of the local people. This is evident in the outstanding structure and texture of Makerere’s Main Building. The ancient Greeks, Mesopotamians and Egyptians architecture and urbanism reflected the constant engagement with the divine and the supernatural to show their dependence on Mother Nature.
Opened officially in 1941 the Makerere’s administration building remains as one of the best known buildings at Makerere University and is probably one of the 20th century most important architectural landmarks at the university. The opening of the building that coincided with the celebration of Makerere’s 20th birthday was after close to ten years of construction work. Designed by a British architect only known as Newton, who later died in 1948, the main building is home for the university various offices of top administration including the vice chancellor, university secretary, bursar, dean of students, and accounts among others.
The Main Building’s beauty is supplemented by an adjoining chime-like tower protruding through the front side of the low-pitched hip roof. The ivory tower is symbolic of the authority that governs the university. The tower houses the chiming clock. This tower is directly placed above the entrance of the main administrative building.
The building often goes through rigorous renovations the most recent being in March this year. From the Freedom Square, the main building looks like a cream castle dotted with its blue-painted widows stretching into a long rectangular go-down house, with one part wider and taller front view than hind view. Its appearance and design are more exceptional when compared to other buildings at the university campus.
Mr Eliud Water, a third year Mass Communication student from Kenya, marvels at the beauty the building adds to Makerere. “After refurbishment you might think it was put up the other day. The builders of the main building, without a doubt, built for generations,” said Water. “The way and design the main building was built meant it should last for long. It appears to be very strong given its thick walls.”
The spectacular look of Main Hall The main building houses the university’s Main Hall. Inside the hall, the gallery forms a gentle helical spiral from the ground level up to the ceiling of the building. A large skylight generously lights the hall. But this skylight is not enough leaving the ronduta to be lit largely by artificial light. The use of light, shadow and surface decoration, greatly enhance its structure. The walls of the hall are painted white. The wooden podium and the floor add to the elegant appearance of the Main hall even more poignant. The footsteps of people coming into and outside the hall makes one realize the awry noise made by the wooden floor.
Makerere’s main hall serves several purposes. The main hall, in fact, wears many faces. It sometimes doubles as a conference room, at other times it works as a lecture room while at other times it is a theatre hosting performances from various drama actors. And of course during exam periods the main hall serves as an examination hall. It has a wooden podium in addition to a floor made out of the faded brown timber bullets. Footsteps especially those that make sharp and ear piercing noise from a lady’s high heel open shoes can be uncomfortable if one comes late. It causes disruption as the feet hit the ground with a resulting friction on the wooden floor.
The platform is separated from the hall by a green background curtain which has marks of the university’s logo. The platform whose floor is artificially made of wood has a direct view of the hall’s gallery. The frame of aisles leading into the stair case, in their black bottom paint amidst the brown color on top, paints a picture of a spectacular ancient architecture exhibited in the this great ivory tower.
Up in the stair case (gallery) one gets a beautiful view of those performing in its fullest. The gallery just like the floor is made up of brown vanished wood. Rising steps are painted black together with the frames that make the aisle into the Main Hall’s gallery. The green background of curtain separating the podium from the main hall is adorned with logo of the university makes the view more beautiful.
The building is accessed through the University Road that stretches right from the main gate and joins the roundabout opposite JICA building (faculty of science). The tarmac walkways to the main building add elegant scenery to one of Makerere’s oldest buildings.
For over the last three scores and twenty years, Makerere’s main building has seen thousands of students pass through East Africa’s oldest university. The first 14 boys that started with Makerere technical college could not have the opportunity to use the main building in 1922. But by 1945, the building was a grandeur architecture to be proud of.
The crest of the University of Oxford
The main building has worked and is still working as the face of Makerere for decades. Entering this four-storey building introduces you to the crest of the University of Oxford which hangs over on the left side of the wall at the entrance.
Makerere University College in early 1950s sought a special academic with the University of Oxford although it is said this relationship did not work out as smoothly as hoped. The University of Oxford as a British university was supposed to offer planning assistance to Makerere in 1940s up to independence time. According writer Margret Macpherson in her book: They Built for the Future, Makerere considered this special academic relationship with Oxford greatly significant and honoured it by having the University of Oxford crest in the main building.
A gaze outside the building with its blending slopping water and sewer pipes stands out of the crowd in the designs and plans of other buildings at the university campus that has enjoyed collaboration with many internationally reputed academic institutions.
The interior of the Main Building
Architectural works are perceived as cultural, political symbols and works of art. This is the feeling one gets while inside the main building. Skylight hexagon-shaped windows denote the artistic talent of the architect. The blend of a plywood ceiling in the main hall gives the aural feel of the height atmosphere in the audience. This is supported by the cream painted walls complementing the white paint on the square joined ceiling that hangs over the spectators’ heads. The beauty of the six suspending electric lamps holders add to marvelous scenery of the interior of the main hall. The main building has most of its wooden doors painted brown with dimly shining glass portions inscribed at top part of the door. Corridors leading to the Vice Chancellor’s office are lit by decorative circular electric bulbs in square box like lamp holders. This supplements the genius creativity of the building’s architect.
Compared with the architectural appearances of the new generation of buildings at Makerere University as presented in the new extensions of the Main Library, the new Computer and Information Technology Faculty and that of the Faculty of technology; the design of the main building still remains unique. In fact, it is still the only one of its kind all over the university. Its nearest comparison comes with that on the entrance of Anglican cathedrals such as Namirembe. The main building’s design is still revered and liked by many people at the university whom this writer talked to.
This implies architecture meets the dynamics of cultural change and also the change in life-styles and the corresponding negative impacts on the social and economic relations, coupled with the accelerating pace of technological developments. The positive role of Architecture is needed in the proper management of the community needs and environmental concerns, says Charles Opira, a student doing a degree in architecture in his fourth year.
Mr David Gumisiriza, the former public relations officer of Makerere Uvniversity, says the main building has an edge over other buildings in the university campus as its design despite being traditional still stands out. “The main building is a centre of power in the university with a fabulous architectural design,” Gumisiriza said, adding that; it is for this reason that the building has and will for ages remain the face of Makerere University.
To other people like Ms Immaculate Nabukeera, a third year student of Civil Engineering, the main building’s design still beats other buildings “even the new ones. Look at the thickness of the walls. The window panes and arches on doors tell it all”. Nabukeera adds: “The photograph of the main building looks gorgeous. From outside, blue painted window shutters combined with the cream painted walls makes a grandeur view of this administrative building. No wonder it is called the Ivory Tower.”
The basement When in the walkways as you enter the main building one tends to forget the building has a basement. The well adorned pathways which stretch from the Faculty of Arts to Agriculture would mislead one to believe the main building has no go-down basement. It is in this basement that you find the Makerere University Printery and some accounts offices as well as a mails office. The printery has done and still does a wonderful work of printing and publishing the works of the university and the people interested in doing business with Makerere. The university exams are printed in this rather dark room where the noise of the printing machine and its flashing light are almost unending.
The printery is a bee hive of activity just like the mass numbers of students and university staff who are always on constant movement to and fro the main building on the first floor. A river of vehicles passing by the printer adds to the noise in this chaotic floor of the building. Metals and the machines used in the work of printing are major objects that meet the eye. The parking yard of cars just below the main building contributes to the attractive environment of the administration block. The blend of trees and marabou storks while standing in the Freedom square presents a fabulous view of the upper part floor of the building and the greyed block tower.
The design of the building is unique. You will not find a similarly designed building elsewhere in east Africa or even in Africa easily. Its architectural design must have been borrowed from Britain according to Water.
The Ivory Tower According to Macpherson (in They Built for the Future) Makerere got its nickname, the ivory tower, because telephone reception was quite difficult. It is said that people in Kampala city accused people in Makerere of living in an ivory tower because there was such a great difficulty to reach Makerere by telephone. The telephone connections to the university college by then were very poor such that in 1954 when the then academic registrar, Colonel Scraggy tried hard to install the first 24-hour telephone service but he could not easily access the medical school at Mulago more so on a rainy day. Because of this, the main building was likened to an Ivory tower literally cut off from communication and the world outside its immediate environment.
When the Kampala residents poured scorn on the Ivory tower over telephone failure never did it cross their mind the building had more to offer than meets the eye. It was later to occur in the minds of the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) officers that Makerere’s main administration building befitted to be recognised as the heritage building. The unique appearance and exclusive architecture of the building won UNESCO’s admiration.
The beautiful scenery of the main building hangs on Adorned with beautiful terrace planted with bougainvillaea fence as one accesses the building through the Faculty of Agriculture, the main building stands out of the green trees that surround it. The building shares its green gardens with the two chapels of St Francis and St Augustine.
After admiring all the beauty the architecture has added to the looks of Makerere University –the Ivory Tower, one can no longer wonder presented this river of knowledge.