The Story of Symbion’s Michael Lord: Reflections of an Icon

The Story of Symbion’s Michael Lord: Reflections of an Icon

If a law was to be enacted stipulating that every building must have a plaque of the architect, the name Michael A. Lord would feature prominently on many landmark buildings in Kenya and the wider Eastern Africa region.
And while to many Kenyans the name might not ring a bell, the Executive Director of Symbion Kenya Limited is considered a powerhouse in the building and construction sector on account of his numerous projects and influence in matters of the built environment.

Indeed when the history of Kenya’s building and construction sector is finally written, Lord will feature prominently as being among the people who significantly shaped its evolution over the years.
Some of the buildings that would bear Lord’s plaques include Aga Khan University Faculty of Health Science/Doctor’s Plaza Building, Australian High Commission – offices and chancery, UAP Business Park, Standard Chartered Bank Headquarters, Chiromo Road and Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel. Others include Polana Hotel, Maputo, Mozambique, Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, Rwanda, The Citadel, Uganda among many others.

“I have been involved in many architectural projects,” says Lord, 58, which is putting it very mildly.
As a second generation architect of European decent, Lord came to Kenya out of necessity rather than choice. He was born in Uganda and his tender years were spent in Kampala where his father worked in the auto industry and his mother was a teacher.

The second born in a family of three (he has two sisters), Lord went to school in Kampala until he was 11 years when he joined boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. His life, and that of his family, was however forced to take a different turn in the early 1970s following the rise to power of Idi Amin Dada in 1971 through a coup. “My family came to Kenya in 1972 after Idi Amin came to power due to security issues. Since then Nairobi has been my home,” explains Lord.

For Lord, the decision to become an architect was informed by a famous architect in Uganda by the name Thomas Watson. During one of his summer holidays, Lord got a job in Watson’s practice and immediately fell in love with the world of architecture. At Watson’s practice, Lord was inspired by the creation of iconic designs. This influenced him to study Architecture at the School of Architecture at Manchester University, from where he graduated in 1982.

While still at the university, Lord worked for a year at Planning Systems Services, one of the leading architecture firms in the country. It was at the firm where he got initiated in the country’s building and construction sector. Back then, however, the sector was still at its infancy and projects were few. Besides, Kenya was going through a political transition following the death of founding President Jomo Kenyatta; the country was in a state of trepidation. Things took a turn for the worse in 1982 following the attempted coup on the then President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

During this uncertain period between 1982 and 1985, Lord worked in H & M Architects, Rathfarnham (Dublin) where he first got acquainted with a branch of architecture that he passionately idolizes – medical projects. One of the key projects he was involved in was the redevelopment of St James Hospital, the largest teaching hospital in Ireland. In 1985, he relocated to South Africa and joined Day, De Wet Y Bouchanan Architects in Cape Town where he was also involved in key government hospitals projects.

Unknown to Lord, the experience he gained both in Dublin and Cape Town working on key medical projects would in later years define his career. This came to pass when he joined Symbion in 1986 and was tasked with the mandate of setting up Symbion International in Seychelles. When he joined Symbion, the practice was relatively new having been established in 1980. In Seychelles he was able to fully establish the practice, which was instrumental in key projects cutting across commercial, residential and tourism segments. “I started the Seychelles operation and we delivered some key projects there,” states Lord.

By the time he came to Nairobi in 1989, Lord had become a central pillar in Symbion’s growth plans and ambitions to compete with other firms for key projects in Kenya. Being a practice with some of the best brains in the architectural field, Symbion was determined to penetrate the market that was largely dominated by a few large firms. And although Symbion had made Nairobi its hub, it had plans to expand by opening offices in other parts of the country and also in selected countries in the region.

When he landed in Nairobi, Lord brought vast experience from different countries to the Kenyan architectural space which was just starting to flourish. Among his initial projects in Kenya were the Accidents and Emergency Unit at Aga Khan Hospital and the first phase of Barclay Bank Kenya head office along Moi Avenue. The Barclays Bank building has remained a landmark in Nairobi. “Nairobi has been our hub and from here, we have expanded the business to other countries,” explains Lord, who is married and has two daughters.

The growth of Symbion has in many ways been synonymous with Lord. After he was made partner in 1991, Lord was instrumental in the expansion of the practice to countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana and South Sudan where Symbion has fully fledged subsidiaries. The firm also has another branch in Mombasa. “Our ambition has always been to be a regional based practice,” states Lord, who rose through the ranks to become Symbion’s Managing Partner between 2002 and 2008 and Managing Director between 2009 and 2014 before stepping down to become Executive Director in 2014.

According to Lord, Symbion believes in a philosophy of encouraging local ownership and directorship in all the countries it operates. “Today I am largely a consultant to the business,” he states. He adds that although he is not directly involved in the management of the firm, he is deeply involved in the affairs of the practice in all aspects ranging from design, overseeing project teams, administration and finance, inspection, client’s meetings, discussing projects to visiting the subsidiaries.

Even after taking a backseat in the running of Symbion, Lord is proud of the firm’s growth and achievements over the years. While there is no doubt the firm commands respect and market leadership in medical and tourism sectors going by its impressive portfolio, it takes pride in a broad spectrum of projects that have been accomplished.

For Lord, two projects clearly stand out from the rich portfolio of projects he has been involved in over the years. One of them is the northern circuit project for Serena Group of Hotels in Uganda. “This was an exciting project because we came up with the design and even the location,” he says. He adds that Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel, the other project, stands out because of the archetypal appearance that makes it a marvel.

For Lord, who loves fishing, travelling and playing tennis, squash and golf and intends to spend more time engaging these hobbies when he retires, this is the best time to be an architect in Kenya. The momentous growth of the building and construction industry in recent times has opened up vast opportunities for industry practitioners. “The architectural profession has a bright future in Kenya. I am positive about the future because there will be enormous work,” he says.

Despite the impressive growth of the industry, Lord feels that lack of proper planning regulations has been a downside to a success story going by the mushrooming of poorly planned buildings particularly in Nairobi’s residential estates. “There is little structured planning in majority of Nairobi estates. I think the profession need to take a strong lead in pushing for proper planning policies,” he says. He adds that Kenya also needs to come up with a cultural touch in terms of designs so that the country can pride herself in buildings that part of her history.

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