Out with the old

27 August 2020

Aspirational Nigerian architecture has long been obsessed with modernism in all its dreariness, with glass towers and glitzy offices making the skyline of contemporary Lagos look like that of boom towns the world over. But by looking to the country’s heritage, a new generation of architects is starting to create buildings that are far more appropriate to local conditions and help the local people along the way. Andrea Valentino talks to figures across the industry to learn how the country is creating something both contemporary and entirely its own.

Where can you find the best Guinness on earth? Ask a Dubliner and they’ll point you to the skulking brewery on Portland Street or one of the countless pubs on Temple Bar. Ask an American – or anyone that knows their way around a stout – and they might direct you to the local Irish dive, all shamrocks and leprechauns. But ask anyone in Africa where to find the perfect pint and they’ll probably send you to Lagos, to a shabby industrial zone north of town, with puttering tuk-tuks buzzing past potholed lanes.

Built in 1962, just after independence, Nigeria’s Guinness factory is a marvel in more ways than one. When it opened, it could brew a million bottles or 150,000 barrels of beer a year. Even now, the company that owns Guinness still makes 45% of its profits from selling the beer to African markets. Architecturally, too, the building is remarkable – its modernist lines and whitewashed walls are typical of the breezy cosmopolitanism that gripped Nigeria and other African countries in the decades since 1960.

A large proportion of contemporary Nigerian buildings are marked by the sores that afflict developing cities from Quito to Mumbai. In their lazy internationalism, they utterly ignore Nigeria’s own architectural heritage. In their devotion to glass, steel, Italian tiles and doormen, they’re hopeless at fulfilling the needs of working Nigerians. At least the Guinness factory pumps out malty heaven in a bottle.

“Of course, at least in your early years, you’re going to work as you were trained. i think it’s almost subconscious as an architect.”
Baba Oladeji

Yet, as cities like Lagos become global titans and the country emerges as a confident power across the region, local architects are thinking about their streets in new ways. By looking over their shoulders to precolonial Nigeria for inspiration, and actually engaging with how regular people live, they might soon transform the way its citizens engage with their built environment – if their colleagues have the courage to try.

Absence of mind

From 1861, and for the next 99 years, Nigerians lived in cities not their own. British civil servants made laws and dispensed justice, of course, but Nigeria took on an alien appearance too. The legacy can still be seen amid the smoke and noise of contemporary Lagos. Jaekel House, built for a British railway official in 1898, looks like a cross between a Swiss chalet and the cricket pavilion at a middling public school. Also, the Cathedral Church of Christ, its grey tower looming over the skyline, wouldn’t look out of place on a wet afternoon in Walsall.

After the British left in 1960, Nigerian architects finally had a chance to build their own way. But by and large, they stuck to imported styles instead – first embracing Le Corbusier’s concrete utopianism, then the glass offices and tower blocks found in developing cities the world over. In part, explains Baba Oladeji, this is a question of education. “They studied in England,” says the Nigerian architect, who learned the trade in Brighton. “Of course, at least in your early years, you’re going to work as you were trained. I think it’s almost subconscious as an architect.”

Adeyemo Shokunbi, another British-trained architect, agrees. With the wealthy minority – that can actually commission architecture – getting their design tips from Instagram, he says, there’s an expectation that to be successful means absorbing Western styles.

And, though some have been prodded towards incorporating elements of ‘Afrofuturism’, Oladeji argues that they’re often just shuffling round the edges of a far wider problem. African textiles and animal skins might adorn new builds, he explains, but few Nigerian architects are fundamentally reimagining their profession. All this is compounded by the economy at large. With the population predicted to double over the next three decades – reaching over 400 million by 2050 – many Nigerians would just be happy with four walls and a roof.

That’s especially true in Lagos, an unabashed megacity where 60% of the population lives in poverty across an array of shanty towns and informal settlements. In some places, up to 80 people share just two bathrooms, and less than 50% of the city’s population is connected to the official water supply. With so much demand, and property prices spiralling, there’s little time and less space for anything other than cheap. “Because of the costs, most of the buildings in Lagos are made out of concrete rather than steel,” says Oladipo Shorinola, a project manager at Raum Architects. And though more traditional building materials are available, adds Shorinola, the ever-present spectre of Western assumptions means that, in practice, steel and concrete usually win out.

Back to the outdoors

Upon catching up with Shokunbi, he explains that he’s on-site for a project. It is certainly loud – the wind whistles down the line as he speaks. Being on-site feels appropriate for architects like Shokunbi, frantic as they are to transform their country’s built environment. Unlike earlier tinkerings with Afrofuturism, this starts with the fundamentals. “How do you make space?” asks Oladeji. “How do people actually use space?”

Answering these rhetoricals means reconfiguring how Nigerian houses are planned. For years, most have been built in the European style, with an imposing front facade. But with 70% of Lagosians worried about being the victims of crime, many park their cars and dash in through the kitchen instead. In response, Oladeji has begun twisting builds to their flanks, giving those side entrances the attention they deserve. “I want to shed off the baggage of the special configurations that we’re used to because, in the end, these houses don’t work.”

Courtyards are increasingly popular too. Though common in precolonial Nigeria, they’ve been usurped by the tyranny of air conditioners. With his team at Patrick Waheed Design Consultancy (PWDC), Shokunbi is changing that by, for instance, centring a Lagos accountancy office around a shaded internal courtyard. Another project, a house in the smart Lagos suburb of Lekki, is flanked like sentries by shaded alleyways and open patios. And why not? As Shokunbi says, Nigeria’s tropical climate is perfect for “going back to how we used to live – outdoors”.

At the same time, local architects are thinking more critically about the types of commissions they take on. Rather than pandering to the fancies of a monied elite – away from the slums, Nigeria’s five richest men are collectively worth $29.9bn – some architects are embracing a more democratic mood. An excellent example is the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), built by Oladipo Shorinola and the MASS Design Group. Once again, questions of space and climate are critical. Public spaces on the bottom floor are separated from a biosecure laboratory above, explains Shorinola, with open areas protected from the blazing sun and monsoon rains. Once finished, ACEGID will be the first genomics research lab of its kind in Nigeria, crucial in the fight against both Ebola and coronavirus.

“We need to work hand-in-hand with people and understand their problems.”
Adeyemo shokunbi

Part of something bigger

Squatting within the fertile plain of Osun, an agricultural state about 200 miles inland from Lagos, ACEGID is probably the most remarkable illustration of this public-minded spirit. Yet there is the sense that it’s only the start of a far bigger trend. In 2012, for example, one local architecture company built a floating school to educate the children of poor fishermen in a Lagos slum. Six years later, designers were invited to submit ideas for repurposing a 100 acre landfill into a park. “We need to work hand-in-hand with people and understand their problems,” says Shokunbi, asking if the time when architects could appease clients with expensive Italian tiles might soon be ending.

Though the coronavirus lockdown brought the mania of modern Lagos to a temporary halt, the city is already stumbling back to life – but what about architecture? Can the jolt of the pandemic bring the advances made over the past decade to an even wider audience? Oladeji is optimistic, suggesting that the pressures of social distancing might force the profession to build more sensitively, with a greater emphasis on outdoor space and community. The Black Lives Matter movement may also have an influence, though Oladeji emphasises that wholesale revolution can only come with less economic inequality and a greater appreciation of local materials like laterite. “You can’t disassociate architecture from the economy that makes it happen. We’ll struggle for as long as we’re unable to untie architecture from the strings of the capital.”

Shokunbi makes a similar point, noting that bodies like the Nigerian Institute of Architects are sometimes too busy politicking to really promote change. “Everybody’s just thinking about how they’re going to be the president of the association. They’re not looking at the bigger picture of how that affects the profession.” Maybe so – but speak to thoughtful young architects like Shokunbi and one has to wonder how much that really matters. Even if the old establishment sticks to what it knows, in short, there’s clearly plenty to cheer about. Just as well that Lagos is still home to some of the best pints on the continent, even if the building that produces them increasingly feels like a hangover from a disappearing world.

A.N.A.I: the building makes use of natural materials available.
Lekki residences, designed by PWDC.
Lekki residences: flanked by shaded alleyways to emphasise the outdoors.
ACEGID, a research laboratory design by MASS Design Group.
Alter Native Artists Initiative (A.N.A.I), a non-profit foundation for visual arts, designed by Adeyemo Shokunbi.

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