Erica Mann

An architect and urban planner noted for her work in Kenya; she is credited for her role in the creating the 1948 master plans for Nairobi and Mombasa.

Born Erika Schoenbaum in Vienna to a Jewish family, she was raised in Bucharest. The only female in a class of 300 students, she studied architecture in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts.

She met her husband-to-be, Igor Mann, in Paris after a whirlwind romance. When France fell in 1940, she was forced to flee and head home to Romania with Igor. They later crossed Europe to get to Egypt and their final destination, Northern Rhodesia, where they lived in a British-run refugee camp; from there, they moved to Kenya in 1942, where they remained, eventually taking British Citizenship. In Nairobi, Igor became a meat inspector, and Erica applied to work in the British-run Town Planning department, where she thrived and worked on the city’s masterplan with Thornley Dyer and Helga Richards.

According to historian Rachel Lee, ‘After moving into Nairobi in the 1950s, Erica Mann’s town-planning work became increasingly focussed on regional and rural development, with projects aimed at improving living standards and quality of life by empowering women’.

This work became an important focus for her. In 1972, she founded and developed the Kenyan Council for Human Ecology, which sought to improve women’s lives in rural areas by teaching them skills such as bookkeeping and bricklaying. Her project Women in Kibweze was recognised as one of the 100 best practices in the world in 1976.

In 2003 she was awarded the title Architect Laureate for Kenya. It was many years before she was properly recognised internationally.

See the documentary Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots,  a 2013 film made by Erica’s daughter, Kenny Mann



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