A Samburu lowlands house. Photo: Martin Nolan

In May 2019 Ireland became the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. The climate emergency is one of the most intractable problems facing humanity and our planet today. It is transboundary in scope, encompassing ecological conservation, migration, water scarcity and gender equality. Climate change is often taught in siloed, abstract ways but solutions to it will not be the exclusive domain of any one field. Understanding climate change has as much to with culture and politics as with science and technology.

Samburu woman preparing a house upright. Photo: Silvia Doherty

Samburu Stories: Exhibiting Architecture in the Climate Emergency, on view at the Irish Architectural Archive, is curated by students from University College Dublin. It recounts the story of the collaborative experience of building the n’kaji, the vernacular house of the Samburu lowlands of Kenya.

The construction stages of the Samburu lowlands house. Drawing by Eoghan Smith

An aerial view of a manyatta, a Samburu homestead. Photo by Samu Bockarie

This form of architecture is an excellent conduit for understanding facets of the climate emergency that are often deemed theoretical. Through studying the house from a holistic, transdisciplinary perspective, we can better understand the complexities of global warming and consider how climate change will impact the ways we build and live over the coming decades.

Detail of a Samburu house. Photo by Marin Nolan

Through a range of media, we aim to engage in a wider public dialogue about the intersectionality of the climate emergency. At the same time, we are also reappraising some of the conventional Western and Eurocentric approaches to studying architecture.

Weaving the roof of a Samburu house. Photo by Martin Nolan

A house in the foothills of the Lenkiyio Hills, Samburu. Photo by Claire Cave

Specifically, this exhibition provides an opportunity to appreciate the sustainability of traditional craft building practices. Much like the rural Irish cottage, the Samburu house has a negligible environmental impact. Whilst physically small in footprint, this initiative addresses some of the big questions about sustainability and pressing global challenges.

An excerpt from an experimental map created by Silvia Doherty, Aakriti Sood and Peter Whelan illustrating the reciprocity between urbanization and nomadic-pastoralist settlements in the vicinity of Wamba, Samburu County.

A view toward the Lenkiyio Hills of Samburu: The trading post of Lengusaka is in the immediate foreground. Concrete block and corrugated metal structures are the predominant building type here, but some traditional Samburu houses are present as well. Photo by Martin Nolan

The genesis of this exhibition was an active-learning initiative organised in 2019 by the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at UCD. ‘Crossroads of Change in the Global South’ was an experimental outdoor learning laboratory in the Samburu lowlands, a conservation area 400km north of Nairobi. In the field, local Samburu women taught us how to build a nomadic-pastoralist house from the ground up. This house is a modern day version of an ancient process.

Reimagining Architectural Exhibitions about the Global South
André Goyvaerts

This exhibition is the first of its kind in Ireland. While focusing on the architectural approaches of a local community in the Global South, we also have foregrounded a collaborative learning environment. Put categorically, Samburu Stories serves as a vehicle for reappraising how we curate vernacular and non-Western architecture. Furthermore, it aims to inspire and educate a wide audience on what we can learn about climate change when we expand our horizons. There is a profound duty required of us to seek inspiration outwards during this climate emergency, establishing an understanding of our errors and educating ourselves on better practice.

Panorama of the Samburu Stories exhibition in the Irish Architectural Archive. Photo by Silvia Doherty

Emily Ann Byrne, Noah Brabazon, Ciara Fahy, Andre Goyvaerts, Niall Murphy, Kate Newe, Aakriti Sood, Peter Whelan, student curators, UCD Architecture

Dr Samantha L. Martin-McAuliffe
Academic lead, Lecturer/Assistant Professor of Architecture, University College Dublin