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Media attention overload: the collapse of Makoko's floating school

If NLÉ’s project successfully prevented the eviction of the local community, its tragic collapse forces us to rethink the viability of photogenic architectural solutions in vulnerable settlements

A couple of weeks ago, at the Venice Architecture Biennale vernissage, I was admittedly having a light-hearted conversation with Kunlé Adeyemi on the fact that we were the only people there that had recently been on board both the Makoko Floating School in Lagos, and its improved replica version, which goes under the nickname of MFS II, and is currently exhibited at one of the Arsenale docks. The parallel between the Venice and Lagos lagoon settings had already been made in the piece The Architectural Review published on the school back in 2013, but the distance between Makoko’s reality and the daily concerns of the self-referential architectural intelligentsia at a Rolex-sponsored event is quite striking.

It’s therefore with incredible sadness that I learned on Tuesday of the collapse of the structure in the lagoon outside Makoko, Lagos, after a torrential rain. With it came the disillusion of reading the press statement by architecture studio NLÉ that the structure, which failed in what ‘seemed an abrupt collapse’, had been decommissioned, pending reconstruction, ‘after three years of intensive use’. Indeed, the subject line of the 8 June press release by NLÉ, ‘Makoko Floating School Comes Down for Upgrade’ is worryingly misleading. The fact is that the prototype’s load-bearing structure fell apart, and with it the hopes of the community.

‘The prototype’s load bearing structure fell apart, and with it the hopes of the community’

I can confirm that during my visit in late April the building was not in use, but up until a few days ago the architect had ostensibly been silent about the decommission. The Frequently Asked Questions fact sheet that NLÉ posted on its website last January asserted that, ‘since its completion in March 2013, several government delegates from various ministries had carried out due diligence assessments of the structure and reported positively on its performance’. Similarly, it tried to minimise the ‘minor risk of drift in heavy storms if improperly anchored’, which, however, had been a challenge for quite some time. The initial solution with four anchors and mooring posts at each corner failed at some point at the beginning of the year, and caused the floating school to drift. This led Noah Shemede, the founder and director of the Whanyinna Nursery and Primary School and the Makoko / Iwaya waterfront community leaders, to the decision to stop using the facility as a school. The state of abandonment of the structure caused the rapid wear and tear of some of its fixtures, and the inside of the classroom space and the toilet would have needed serious maintenance and repairs before resuming operations.

Makoko floating school collapsed under heavy rain

Makoko floating school collapsed under heavy rain

Source: Emmanuel Osodi

The extreme photogenic nature of the ‘watercraft’, and its setting, that have led to the global recognition of the project, have definitely captured the imagination of many, and at this stage, you are left wondering how much of the use of the building as a school was staged. When I was in Makoko, Noah admitted to a sense of urgency and mixed concern about the actual use of the floating structure as a school. In his words, ‘parents and community leaders want children to be safe, and they feel that until the mooring of the structure is completely secured they will not risk sending them there’. But today, after the collapse, there also seem to be different actors trying to profit from the post-disaster social media attention, such as a journalist reaching out for help on a Facebook page since the ‘300 school children from Makoko waterfront community have been rendered class-less’, whereas at most 40 children or so ever took classes there for a few months in total.

‘At this stage, one is left wondering how much of the use of the building as a school was staged’

The collapse of the structure of the Makoko Floating School faces us with a fundamental question of how to articulate judgement and inform an opinion on the role architecture has. Its ‘iconic and pragmatic’ potential, celebrated also in the Venice Biennale Jury’s decision to award Adeyemi the ‘Silver Lion for a promising young participant’ is well established, and arguably gives hopes to a new generation of architects educated in the Global South that they too stand a chance to be recognised and celebrated in the international discourse. At the same time that very discourse tends not to directly engage with the lives – or indeed even the opinions – of the users, which too often only represent the backdrop. The Floating School is a paradigmatic example of projects viewed from a distance, both in Lagos, since most of its daily viewers only looked at it from the Third Mainland Bridge commuting to and from Lagos Island, and abroad, where thousands of consumers of social media were captured by what Dan Hancox has rightly called in these columns ‘fetishisation of poverty architecture’.

Makoko floating school collapsed under heavy rain

Makoko floating school collapsed under heavy rain

Source: Emmanuel Osodi

I would argue that the huge popularity that the project enjoyed in Nigeria and abroad, confronts us with the ‘epistemological abyss’ that Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall point to when they speak about scholarship of Africa, in as much as redefining the canon – or the front, to use a word currently in vogue – simply is a necessary precondition to understand the impact on single small-scale structures when they ‘encounter indeterminacy, provisionality, and the contingent’. The fact that both the research development and construction of the Floating School were funded through international aid, and indeed relied on foreign donations to provide free accessible education to the community, is a plastic reminder of the structural inequality of the world in which we live.

This feeling is further strengthened by the narrative that conceives the emergency as the precondition to operate. Makoko was, and is, a vulnerable settlement, located on a waterfront edge that has become prime real-estate land. The government tried to evict the local Egun community, that has been living there for over a century, in 2012, and by early 2013 the presence of the Makoko Floating School – with its international success – contributed to the various efforts of resistance against demolitions. This is, in my view, the most innovative component of the project, using the buildings as a vehicle for a message of resilience towards both climate change, and the growing project of inequality that is increasingly marginalising poor communities. Intrinsically herein lies the challenge of trying to serve the children of Makoko, while at the same time raising awareness of the community’s existence on a global map.

‘The most innovative component of the project is its message of resilience towards both climate change and growing inequalities’

Which is why today the collapse of the structure is alarming, since it paves the way to a new emergency. Hopefully – given that the government of Lagos’s view has shifted from the 2013 statement by the then commissioner for waterfront and infrastructure development in the state, Prince Adesegun Oniru who said at the time: ‘the simple answer to the floating school is that it is an illegal structure and it shouldn’t be there’ – all the actors involved will be reminded of the huge responsibility connected with operating in, and with, communities whose lives are a daily struggle for survival. The next steps will tell us if the goal of providing much-needed safe and adequate classrooms for children, a primary human right, can be achieved without so much media attention. Leading us to reflect on the opportunity to really build the prototype again, in its new, improved iteration, or explore different, more lasting and why not, less seductive, ways to offer a better future to Makoko.

Tomà Berlanda is Director and Professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa