Shining levels: John McAslan + Partners’ Kericho cathedral embraces Kenyan design language

Shining levels: John McAslan + Partners’ Kericho cathedral embraces Kenyan design language

The Kericho diocese is set in the highlands of Kenya in a vividly green spot west of the Great Rift Valley, around 250km south west of the capital Nairobi. Here, the air is perfumed by thick swathes of greenery and tea plantations. And perched on a grassy knoll, with commanding views of the surrounding valley, terraced village and distant hills, the diocese has built a new, beautifully articulated cathedral for its Roman Catholic congregation.

The London-based John McAslan + Partners was tapped for the job after the client attended a lecture the firm had given about its Malawi schools projects.

The design and construction of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, clad in washed terrazzo, involved two primary challenges. The first ‘was to discover a truly authentic Kenyan language for the design which would root the building in its context and the great tradition of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical architecture’, says the architects’ Aidan Potter. ’The second was to deliver the quality of construction, particularly in the formation of the expressed concrete structure, that is the primary constituent of the cathedral’s architectural expression.’

The first challenge was solved by inserting an enormous ascending vaulted volume beneath the clay-tiled pitched roof. The second involved applying a palette of simple, locally-sourced materials, all worked on by a team of skilled artisans – Kericho-grown cypress timber slats for the curved ceiling, doors and furniture, Kenyan granite and Nairobi Blue stone floors and podium, and statues carved from local soap stone.

Both literally and figuratively, an ineffable sense of light infuses the space. The soaring interiors are capped by a length of filtered skylight, while the nave is punched through with a vertical window. Both transepts open on both ends for natural cross ventilation.

‘We were fortunate to have a client who believed that the integrity and honesty of construction and style related to context was worth fighting for,’ says Potter. The result speaks amply to this belief.

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