WHAT CAN NIGERIAN ARCHITECTURE BE?
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
So many have asked this question and it is one I have also struggled to answer. Evidence of this struggle - mine and that of others - can be seen in the landscape of a lot of Nigerian cities overwhelmed with uninspiring and downright horrendous buildings that don’t rise to the level of being referred to as architecture.
To me, the reason for this is twofold. First of all, the British happened. British colonialism interrupted what could have been the natural evolution of indigenous building practices in Nigeria. This interruption didn’t just happen with housing typology but with other building typologies, materials and craftsmanship too. The second reason is tied to the first because the progression of events brought on by colonialism created a post-colonial Nigeria that had far greater problems than creating an environment conducive for Nigerian Architecture to develop and thrive.
What was actually needed was a bridging of the gap between our precolonial building practices and the new postcolonial architectural & urban landscape we found ourselves in. The British built for the British. So many mainstays of our diverse precolonial architecture were purposely dropped in favor of what worked for the British way of life. Understandably so. The problem is when the British left, we continued building like them. We continued to build homes made of cement with boys quarters and other vestiges of colonial architecture rather than returning to the use of clay and courtyards that were better suited to our climate and culture. Despite the interruption, there were still things to learn from colonial Architecture visible in the universities, hospitals and administrative buildings the British built to support their stay in Nigeria. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen on any significant or progressive scale. There were other influences too, that of the returnee descendants of Afro Brazilian slaves, the Agudas and the Saros who were returnees from Freetown, Sierra Leone. While there remain some poorly maintained remnants of their building style it was watered down as time went on, evolving from having courtyards as the focal point of the dwellings to corridors. This transition eventually lead to the now popular ‘face-me-I-face-you’ and ‘room and parlor’ housing typology.
There are several other reasons for the poor state of contemporary architecture in Nigeria. One of the chief reasons is extremely poor regulation of the building industry and town planning. Another is our mediocre approach to our affordable and other housing needs. Also, one of the many by-products of the century’s old invasion of the British was this pervasive notion that theirs and other building practices were superior to our indigenous methodologies. I think this in part still keeps us from developing an architecture style better suited to our culture, heritage and climate. Most of our built environment is a horrible mix of building practices, styles and materials that severely diminish our quality of life, damages our environment and is just plain ugly. As humans we now contort ourselves to live and work in buildings that aren’t designed for us when it should be the reverse. This is the point of good design which could at least start with the preservation of some of our historic buildings, a lot of which have been callously demolished without repercussion. A perfect example of this is the 2016 demolition of the historic Ilojo bar also known as Casa da Fernandez built by returnee Afro Brazilians in the mid-19th century near Tinubu Square on Lagos Island.
I now realize that understanding what Nigerian Architecture is should only serve as a lesson for what it should not be going forward. The better question to answer is ‘What can Nigerian Architecture be?’ This elicits a more thoughtful design approach to future architecture while also pushing us to address the mostly ad hoc nature of existing buildings in a restorative manner. I have always desired for Contemporary Nigerian Architecture to be much more responsive to our tropical climate and culture much like the homes of our grandparents and the communal structures these homes were a part of. I should also point out here that this should not be a nostalgia project. History must always inform the future positively but now we have to play catch up, not by designing fancy buildings to compete with others across the world but by ensuring that our design approaches contribute to improving our life expectancy statistics in Nigeria, enhance our public health objectives and rehabilitate our progressively degrading environment. What we have collectively failed to realize is how significantly our building practices directly affect our health and safety particularly in high density communities; how poor regulation continues to result in building collapses or how the absence of green space & vegetation affects not just our well-being but also diminishes our flood response capabilities and exacerbates the effects of our hot and humid climate among other things. We have also all been in our homes sweating profusely when NEPA decides to torment us by not providing power. This is why our architecture needs to be responsive to our climate. We shouldn’t be victims of our building practices especially since these buildings are meant to serve our needs. So to answer the question of what Nigerian Architecture can be, let’s talk about courtyards, open space and clay.
The courtyard was an important feature of our precolonial architecture, serving as a space for various ceremonial and domestic activities. Across world cultures too, people gather, pray, eat, cook, entertain and even sleep in these enclosed outdoor spaces, open to the sky and sometimes surrounded by a colonnade, adorned with intricate mosaic or graced with a calming water feature or beautiful vegetation. Across many Nigerian cultures including that of the Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Bini, courtyards took on various different forms even though its use was somewhat similar. I sense the polygamous and thus large nature of families of precolonial times was one of the major reasons the courtyard typology was so prevalent. The Bini housing typology which was quite similar to that of the Yoruba, typically had multiple rooms surrounding several courtyards serving as impluvia which collected rainwater. The main impluvium referred to as ‘Eghodo’ served as a space where marriages were held, disputes were settled and war strategies planned.
Besides all the aforementioned cultural functions courtyards had, the other very important function they performed, especially in the hot and humid tropics, was providing thermal comfort. Courtyards allow the spaces surrounding them have window openings on both sides, giving each room the opportunity for cross ventilation which increases cool air flow into the rooms, allowing the hot air which naturally rises, flow out through high-level openings. This air circulation reduces the internal temperature within your home especially in Nigeria where power supply is erratic. Also, courtyards are one of several passive cooling techniques that architecture can utilize to keep spaces cooler. Even when you anticipate using active cooling methods like air conditioners and fans, courtyards would help reduce the cooling load which is especially helpful in the developing world where electricity is often provided by generators which contribute to greenhouse gases that adversely affect our environment.
Though our lifestyles have evolved over time, the thermal comfort well designed and shaded courtyards provide should not be discounted. It is tempting to prioritize more indoor space over including functional outdoor spaces like courtyards. However, our shared experience with poor ventilation in most houses in Lagos, should be sufficient proof that this should no longer be the case.
I must admit that I have an affinity for open space. There’s just something about parks, gardens and other open spaces that’s beautiful to watch and experience. Sadly, I’ve noticed that the concept of open space or vegetation is one that is typically met with serious contempt in these parts. These parts being Lagos, where trees are constantly cut down rather than preserved and fewer homes have backyards. This isn’t only a Lagos problem but one that’s common in a lot of major cities with dense populations and high real estate costs. I’m sure we’ve all come across buildings that are built very close to the fence, a lot of them violating the city’s setback requirements.
A huge part of the allure of the places we love to visit is the open space and vegetation they have which in turn is a huge boost to the tourism in those cities. Also, in established schools and universities across the world, open space is prioritized with parks, quads, lawns, botanical gardens and so on. Research abounds on the importance of these spaces to our health. In fact, researchers in Denmark while conducting a nationwide study discovered that childhood exposure to green space resulted in a reduced risk of psychiatric disorders later in life. Along with others, their research indicated that the presence of open space increases our likelihood to exercise, decreases air and noise pollution, improves our immune systems and provides us with psychological restoration for our over-stimulated minds.
In precolonial times, open space looked more like village or town squares where important announcements, community activities and ceremonies held. Though these village squares differed in name across cultures, in Onitsha it was called ‘onu ilo’ and when these ceremonies weren’t happening, the village square was also a place for markets to hold, children to play and other smaller social gatherings. It was and still is a multipurpose community space with its contemporary interpretation being our city centers and other open spaces and parks which are centers of commercial and social activities.
The ecological importance of open space like gardens, parks, wetlands and other natural environments are crucial for many other reasons particularly in combating climate change. And while individually influencing positive town planning in our cities is a tougher feat, we can definitely start by effecting change in our homes, schools and local communities. So prioritize functional outdoor spaces in your homes, make space for a garden with a tree or two and if you’re on the building committee at your Church or searching for schools for your children, definitely bring this up and push the school administration to prioritize outdoor time for your children at the next PTA meeting.
Clay is a very old building material with numerous benefits, chief among them being its thermal properties. When properly fired and engineered, the resulting clay products are strong, light weight, fire resistant and are made into a range of durable products including roof tiles, blocks and interior and exterior finish products. Historically, dwellings were predominantly built with clay and thatch for the roof. With colonialism we then transitioned into using cement blocks and concrete. Today the use of cement block in Nigeria is widespread due to its speed and cheaper cost. However, the beauty of clay is its ability to keep rooms cool when it was hot outside and warm inside when it was cold outside. It is this thermal insulative quality of clay that I believe a lot of buildings and their occupants can benefit from even though more research & development as well as improved infrastructure is key to reducing the cost of clay blocks and other thermally insulative building products in Nigeria.
With our tropical climate, we must continue to research and adopt passive cooling methodologies that result in more thermally comfortable buildings and a sustainable built environment. This is especially important as we start to experience the increasingly visible effects of global warming in Nigeria. It’s also important to remember that everything in our physical environment either worsens or improves the quality and longevity of our lives. Effecting some of these changes are easily within grasp for some, while others will require our collective efforts. Regardless, we must do better where we can, starting with our homes and communities.
Thanks for reading. These are just some preliminary thoughts of mine, there’ll be more to come soon. In the meantime, let me know what you think Nigerian Architecture can be in the comments section below.