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Learning from Lagos: Floating school, Makoko, Nigeria, Kunlé Adeyemi, NLÉ

Using local materials and skills, this school in a floating slum is a brave exemplar for a community in dire need, yet the Lagos state government is threatening to demolish it

Makoko, a Nigerian shantytown on the marshy waterfront of Lagos, is not exactly Venice, but there are marked similarities between the two. Both are built on wooden piles driven into saline mud and tidal ooze. The streets of both are famously full of water. Both were settled by fishing communities, Venice − officially − in AD 421, Makoko at some time in the 18th century.

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Their populations are of a similar size − 60,000 in Venice, around 80,000 in Makoko − although no one knows for certain. Both have been threatened: Venice more by floods than war, and Makoko by its status as an illegal settlement. Last year, machete-wielding men employed by the city of Lagos severed countless wooden piles, causing the collapse of hundreds of flimsy timber homes.

At this point, the difference between these two water-borne settlements becomes horribly clear. Venice − La Serenissima − was once among the world’s wealthiest cities; today, it retains its power to captivate the dullest soul, and since 1987, city and lagoon have formed a World Heritage Site.

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Makoko, meanwhile, has sprawled into the marshy waters fringing Lagos over the past century. Like Venice, it is almost impossibly picturesque, luring adventurous photographers from around the world who, without a ripple of a doubt, produce some of their most memorable work here: in which direction can a photographer point a camera in Makoko without winning the art director’s jackpot?

Here is the fish market with its daily catch of gleaming barracuda, red snapper, crab and prawns. Over there, young women in their Sunday best paddling their canoes to church. Morning mists and spectacular sunsets add to the superficial lustre of Makoko.

But, Makoko is very poor. Houses, sleeping several families in single rooms, share common latrines discharging raw effluence into rubbish-strewn waterways. Cholera and malaria are rife, while polio, still very much at large throughout Nigeria, strikes children at random. Medicine is largely traditional. Outlaws from along the west coast hide out here. Life expectancy is under 40.

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So, what should Lagos do? With plans to rebuild this west coast cosmopolis into a city for 40 million people − with skyscrapers the world can do business with − Makoko is seen as a boil on the face of Lagos in urgent need of lancing. Where will its poor go? No one knows, and few in power seem to care.

There is another way of looking at Makoko, as Kunlé Adeyemi and NLÉ, his Amsterdam-based practice, has done in recent months; Amsterdam is, of course, another water-based city. With the aid of various NGOs, including the UN, and local people, Adeyemi has designed and built, using local materials and labour, a floating school in the watery heart of Makoko.

An extension, he says, to an existing school in the shantytown, it offers classrooms for up to 100 local children on two floors set in a three-floor triangular − or A-frame − timber structure floating on 256 blue plastic barrels. The school was built between last October and February this year, designed with the help of the Dutch naval architect, Erik Wassen.

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The first floor − essentially an open platform or deck − serves as a playground, of sorts, for the children as well as a communal space for fishermen to mend their nets, and for people to gather and talk, their canoes moored to its sides. The main classroom space,which can be divided by partitions as necessary, is on the second floor, and cooled and shaded by timber louvres. The top floor incorporates photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.

The Makoko floating school is, without doubt, an attractive, romantic and practical building that has won praise from, among many others, Ade Mamonyane Lekoetje, Nigeria’s director of the UN Development Programme. At the school’s opening in March, Ms Lekoetje said the project would serve as a model to transform other coastal communities in the West African region.

Paul Okunlola, architect and Programme Officer of UN-Habitat, cited it as ‘part of steps to upgrade slums around the world’.

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It might sound far-fetched, and yet just as architects, planners, local authorities and local people in Brazil, Venezuela and elsewhere in South America are transforming dense slums into unexpected hill towns, so Makoko could yet be turned, if not into a simulacrum of Venice, then into a healthy, educated and very special district of Lagos.

At first it might seem odd that the designers of the floating school themselves live in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities working on highly advanced and expensive projects: Nigerian-born Adeyemi (the son of an architect from Kaduna, he studied in Lagos) worked for OMA in Rotterdam for nearly 10 years and was lead architect on the New Court Rothschild Bank in the London and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange; meanwhile, as construction work began on the school in Makoko, Erik Wassen, of Dykstra Naval Architects, was a guest speaker at the Superyacht Design Symposium in Miami.

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And, yet, this very sophistication, married to local needs, local skills, local materials and to an acute sense of place, has the power to shape special buildings for what should be truly special places − and not just for adventurous photographers, however good − in poor and difficult parts of the world.

As Adeyemi himself says, ‘the overarching aim of the practice [NLÉ] is to bridge critical gaps in infrastructure and urban development by creating coherent networks and global exchanges that work for people … whether a chair for charity in South Africa, a revolutionary rotating art space for Prada in Seoul or the visionary plan [with OMA] to eliminate traffic paralysis in Lagos, in each project the essential needs of performance, value or identity − critical for success − are fundamentally the same for me.

Although quantitatively different from place to place, the responsibility of achieving these needs at maximum, with minimum means, remains the same globally. I am constantly inspired by solutions we discover in everyday life in the world’s developing cities.’

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Not everyone, however, shares Adeyemi’s altruistic vision. As far as Prince Adesegun Oniru, the Lagos State Government’s Commissioner for Waterfront and Infrastructure Development, is concerned, Makoko school itself is an outlaw. ‘The floating school has been illegal since its inception’, says Adesegun, ominously.

‘It was erected without permission of the state … it shouldn’t be there.’ Nor, then, should Venice. The fishermen who first came with their families some 2,000 years ago asked no city, no authority, no prince if they could build houses on the insalubrious, malarial marshes, yet here they laid the foundations for one of the most beautiful cities the world has yet known.

It might take many generations to make Makoko as truly special as it could yet be, but with the Lagos State government threatening to demolish this floating, flag-waving school − although NLÉ, currently in negotiation with the Lagos state government, believes no immediate action will be taken − the timetable may yet have been set back again, even as global skyscrapers, apparently learning little from Africa, rise behind the Lagos shoreline.

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Fact File

Architect
Kunle Adeyemi. NLE
Photographs
Iwan Baan

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