Kampala Serena Hotel
Client: Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development
Architect: Symbion Architects
Interior Design: Symbion Architects, Paul Smith
Landscape Design: Glenn Wagner-Landmark Studios
Almost 100 years ago, in 1908, a young Winston Churchill dubbed Uganda “The Pearl of Africa.” And it was. With its fertile soil and natural resources, it was a Garden of Eden in the heart of the continent.
Since 1986, Uganda has found a new confidence and stability. Its luster has been restored and the capital, Kampala, now vibrates with optimism and energy. So it is no surprise that the prestigious Serena Group decided to transform the old 65-room government-run Nile hotel, built in 1975, into the region’s most sophisticated and stylish resort. Owned and operated by Tourism Promotion Services, an arm of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), Serena also owns and manages properties in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar and Mozambique.
The company awarded the project to Symbion International, a Nairobi-based architectural and interior design firm with which it had collaborated on a number of hotel projects over the years.
Symbion architects Jon A. Cavanagh, Pius Muli and Michael Lord, along with interior designer Paul Smith, drew on the country’s cultural and natural heritage for inspiration. Says Cavanagh, “We have brought the colors of Africa—the lakes, rivers and fertile soils—to almost every aspect of the project.” These themes appear in both the exterior features of the hotel and in the room décor, where softly flowing fabrics, muted colours and organic themes prevail. The skills of numerous local artists were also called upon to create the stunning carved panels, mosaic pillars, beaten copper fretwork, sensational traditional jewellery, beaded wall hangings and hand-carved ‘bambara birds’, which bedeck the communal areas.
At the opening in 2006, Prince Amyn Aga Khan, a principal shareholder through AKFED, reiterated this concept. “We took the Nile as our theme,” he said, “the Nile as the place where different peoples met, different philosophies, cultures and aesthetics crossed each other and which, from this intermingling, produced a continuous swell of artistic creativity and originality.”
Says Cavanagh, “The building was positioned on the upper portion of the 17-acre site, which allowed the landscape to wrap around it.” All of the 152 guest rooms and suites have views of the city and surrounding hills and the lush garden.
Photo Credit: Tim Beddow
Boasting luscious grounds which provide shelter for a wide selection of indigenous trees; and protection for a beautiful array of flowers, birds and butterflies, the hotel’s extensive grounds provide a haven of calm in the centre of Uganda’s most cosmopolitan city. Water is a theme that appears throughout. A thin curtain of water falls from the top level of the reception area into a substantial pebble-lined basin at the bottom and from there magically sweeps out of the building into a man-made lake. Meandering paths link bridges over ponds and rocky outcroppings and lead to a giant cascade, created by Kenyan rockwork specialist Julius Mutungi, that falls into a serpentine swimming pool.
Nearby, in the Lakes Restaurant, the water theme continues. Columns are covered in a mosaic depicting Lake Victoria’s fish and aquatic plants. Fish motifs are also incorporated into the wrought iron balustrades, the beaten-copper frescoes and the organically carved mahogany columns throughout. And in some of the guest rooms, the carpets have a wave pattern.
Mist Bar acquires its jungle theme from Uganda’s forests and mountain gorillas. Giant plaster reliefs with jungle scenes adorn the walls, and the bar front has panels carved with a leaf motif by Ugandan artist Expedito Mwebe. Handcrafted artificial tree trunks, cane furniture and jungle fabrics help to establish an exotic atmosphere.
In the Explorer Restaurant, the designers took their cue from some of the region’s early explorers. It is filled with 19th-century safari memorabilia, reminiscent of a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Woven-cane chairs are mixed with period pieces, adding to the safari ambience. “We wanted to evoke the romance and mystery of early explorations, that feeling of discovery,” Smith explains.
Cavanagh and his team at Symbion have, at the Kampala Serena, created what can only be described as an opulent, world-class hotel, one that is wholly appropriate for its site. Says Cavanagh, “The harmonious synchronization of the interior and exterior themes was certainly the most rewarding aspect of the project.” Also central to the hotel’s success are the attentiveness and efficiency of the staff. Here Ugandan hospitality shines through. This landmark hotel, like Uganda itself, truly is a Pearl of Africa.
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The Kampala Serena, A Celebration of African Culture