The biggest city in Africa needs an architectural impetus commensurate with its growing size and importance, say John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood
All eyes are focused on Africa and its projected 8.5 per cent annual growth. But will this benefit Africa or its trading partners? Nigeria is desperate to improve its infrastructure, education and health, and to revitalise its industrial base, once fast-growing in the wake of independence, but now assailed by cheap goods from China, which benefit only importers to the detriment of domestic production.
The hub of this activity is Lagos, the jewel in the crown of the Economic Community of West African States. Next year will be the centenary of the foundation of the colony of Nigeria. Lagos, which existed as a crown colony from 1861, was the nation’s first capital.
Immediately before and after Independence in 1960 was a boom period for construction in Lagos and the regional capitals. Building was at first restricted by the availability of materials and craftsmen, and construction often rested in the hands of young expatriate architects working with local contractors. Inspired by the work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, they pioneered a new vision of tropical architecture supported by the British Building Research Station and the AA School of Tropical Design.
After the Nigerian civil war, crude oil and international confidence impelled Nigeria forward until the World Bank ‘advised’ it to devalue the naira. In 1973 the debt crash came but fortunately we were, and still are, left with the oil resources to support (albeit in a state of poverty) a fast growing population, too many of whom are illiterate and non-productive.
Lagos’s population has grown exponentially to around 22 million. We are not coping but ‘managing’. A planning strategy was approved in 2006, and certain urgent priorities are now being tackled. The first is that Lagos, having spread beyond its state borders, must unify its planning policy with its neighbours.
The second is the imperative to develop transport by road and rail, in which the Chinese are now very much involved. Equally imperative is a reliable supply of electricity but hopefully a recent agreement with the Canadians will dislodge the vested interests that control the supply of expensive diesel fuel and the associated highly profitable business in diesel generators.
Architecturally, Nigeria is still in a state of experimentation, unable to be positive about the artificial conditioning of living and working environments because of its unreliable power supply. Yet paradoxically solar energy remains unharnessed. The profession is constantly in conflict with clients and government over the payment of fees while foreign construction companies import skills and services and do what they like.
Project management tends to be a box-ticking exercise based on overseas norms. There are no design competitions, exhibitions or the kind of exposure where constructive criticism can catalyse innovation and confidence.
The new capital at Abuja has not attracted a high standard of architecture and this bodes badly for Eko Atlantic City, a privately financed Dubai-inspired extension to the upmarket commercial and residential area of Lagos bordering the Atlantic. Here is a huge opportunity to promote local talent, ideas and energy, ideally through a national competition. But will it be seized?
Architectural education is at a crossroads. The University of Lagos recently attained Commonwealth Association of Architects validation which bases its approval on the ‘validation of variety’. This has the potential to release current teaching from an institutional straitjacket inherited from colonial days.
Either we change or die, and serious thought is now being given to restructuring the teaching curriculum to enable students to work constructively within a developing social order.
If students are taught to think rather than just to believe, perhaps the long-standing love affair between the Nigerian public and the invincibility of everything beyond its shores might finally begin to evaporate.