Architectural Conservation

The case of the St. Francis Makerere University Chapel Renovation

By C. Matua

December 1, 2016

The first time I heard of the St. Francis Chapel renovation, I was alarmed. Shocked even. Why would an architect do that to an old chapel? Who tears down the walls of a chapel to rebuild it?

In our traditional African society, it is a taboo to tear down a place of worship. Usually, people build the new church or shrine right next to the old one. So why would an architect do this? There’s something about sentimental attachment and blind rage that causes people not to think clearly. And I didn’t want to be ‘people’, so I took a step back to understand the facts.

 The facts

Why is St. Francis Chapel considered to be a heritage building?

According to Dr A.K. Birabi a lecturer at Makerere University Kampala architecture department with a PhD in architectural conservation, in his interview in this same journal, “Those places of worship, St Francis, St Augustine and the then small mosque at the entrance of the university (opened by the sultanate of Zanzibar), were among the first buildings to be constructed in Makerere University. They are part of the built heritage of the university which, in itself has a strong history in education in East Africa.”

In addition, the artwork on the front façade of the chapel is one of a kind. It was hand-crafted by locals. Also, the ceiling of the chapel has intricate artwork, comparable to the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Because of the heritage status of the building, these features would have to be conserved.

But did you know

St. Francis chapel was furnished with the finest mahogany? The taste in material choice with the one a kind vaulted ceiling resulted in a chapel with brilliant acoustics of the chapel. From the altar, the sound from choirs’ instruments could reach a person at the back of the chapel with almost no change in pitch.

Who is the architect behind the renovation?

Oncept-I was the firm behind the St. Francis renovation.

What was the rationale behind the renovation?

There’s a phenomenon in architecture conservation called façadism. This was the concept behind the St. Francis Chapel renovation project.

“I got married in this church, so, to me, it means a lot”, said Jesse Tukacungurwa, the lead project’s architect. The church is going to be renovated such that it keeps the facades as they initially were.

The project began because the roof repairs to the tiled roof were becoming too expensive to the tune of Ugx.60-90million a year.  For a church community, such expenses were not sustainable. In addition, the project brief included that the architect was to provide a larger seating capacity double the current size, to provide toilets for the chapel which are currently lacking and to consider universal design in the chapel.

How does the architect plan to achieve this, putting in mind the heritage status of the building?

First, and foremost, the renovation is simply repairing and redoing what was initially in place or replicating the details as close as possible. To provide more space, the chapel will be expanded outwards from the longitudinal axis (along the central aisle), and a mezzanine floor will be built, to provide sitting space at the naves where formerly, only circulation was occurring.

The part of the chapel with significant art work like the front façade or the ceiling with classical art was left intact. To protect the artwork, they have been covered with polyethene sheets so that they do not get destroyed by dust or exposure to sunlight.

However, the architect chose to break down the remaining walls in order to use a new system of structural design. The old structure is a monolithic one. The building depends on its own mass to carry the load of the roof. This makes the entire construction expensive because the block work used would have to be at least 600mm at the base of the walls and about 450mm upwards. “The column and grid system is so much cheaper, especially if you are planning to increase the load on a structure significantly”, said Arch Tukacungurwa.

The drawings for the project suggest that the language used in the building envelope of the old structure is going to be replicated to sufficient detail in the expanded project.

“We took details from the old cornices and architraves and things like that. Mouldings are going to be replicated exactly the way they were. Even the floor. We took note of where the red tiles are and those that need to be replaced will be put in their original position. So, really, a person that did not know about the construction of the chapel, when they enter it when the project is finished should wonder ‘what’s different?’ because the space will look exactly like it did. Just bigger.”

Windows from the old chapel are being recycled in the expansion project, which is think will also contribute to the overall similarity of the project. Besides the inclusion of ramps, extra exits to the chapel which is a brilliant consideration in case of an emergency like fire or earthquakes, and the toilets, the resemblance to the old chapel should be uncanny: ceteris paribus.


Ugandan architecture is a field that is growing. I believe we should be accommodative of different architecture styles because we are only just beginning to start to want to define our heritage in architecture.  As long as the project is justified, if the architect can follow through with a consistent line of thought that benefits the community, then his/her architecture should find a place in our skyline.

One of my lecturers insists that the essence of the building must stay in an architecture conservation project. I agree. But how? That is the subject of many debates. Architecture aims to please. If the programme is met to a satisfactory standard in a way that is sustainable to the community, the architect should have design freedom. Look at I. M. Pei’s expansion of le Louvre in Paris, he used contemporary architecture to compliment the historical museum, and it works.

While we may argue that it is important to freeze buildings and do gymnastics to keep the facades intact, I disagree. I think the essence of the history is important. If we can figure out how to keep the essence, if the essence requires that the building’s external envelope is left intact, then let that be the direction for the conservation project. Otherwise, we have Jinja. It is basically rotting away. Yet amidst all this borderline violent conservation talk, nothing is being done to utilise the rich history therein. On the other hand, we see the case of Ghaddafi mosque. Iddi Amin, bully of our nation demanded fort Lugard was destroyed, made architect I. Karim draw up plans for a new mosque in a month and now, we have the Ghaddafi mosque! A tourist attraction.

Maybe we need a lecture or CPD on conservation of architecture. But one thing is certain, our architecture shouldn’t be defined by sentiment alone. There’s way more to it.

Image Credits

Oncepti Architects