Archives for category: Architecture

What might be Lagos’s most internationally recognizable building project since the 1980s isn’t a skyscraper or a suspension bridge — it’s a one-room schoolhouse. The now well-known A-frame bobs in the murky surf of Makoko, one of Lagos’s largest slums, providing a learning space for a community of 100,000+ people not officially recognized by the city government. Designed by Nigeria’s rising star Kunlé Adeyemi, the project made waves in the architectural world last year for its simplicity, adaptability, and humanity. I first read (and blogged) about the project last fall and was struck by the auroral beauty of the blue-roofed building set against the cooking smoke and plain timber structures of Makoko where new homes are often constructed on a soggy foundation of raw sewage (see episode 2 of the BBC’s documentary Welcome to Lagos). Here was a project that had actually succeeded in that often sought but rarely realized gauntlet of creating low-cost, high-design buildings from recycled material to benefit poor communities. Write-ups poured in from the New York Times, The Guardian, and many others, and Makoko Floating School splashed across my newsfeed for several weeks.

Last summer when I was in Lagos for the first time, I saw the school from the Third Mainland Bridge moments before glimpsing the city’s skyline and I have to admit that the school stole the spotlight. The Third Mainland Bridge is the longest bridge in Africa, meandering from Ebute Meta to Lagos Island, and, about halfway along, it provides the perfect balcony to view Akeyemi’s school (where I took the photo below). Akeyemi certainly knew how to make the most of a small-scale project that other architects might have scoffed at. For making a name for himself Akeyemi had good training — he worked at Koolhaas’s firm OMA for nearly a decade before founding his own firm NLÉ in 2010. His relationship with Koolhaas adds a fascinating dimension to Adeyemi’s project since Koolhaas’s Harvard Project on the City produced some of the most provocative writing on Lagos to date. Koolhaas challenged outside observers to see Lagos as being at the “forefront of globalizing modernity” — a dynamic urban space that had outgrown Western notions of the city and carrying capacity to become a “self-organizing” entity that completely disorientated visitors but somehow “worked.” Within this paradigm, it’s not surprising that Adeyemi saw that the future was in Lagos and returned to set-up shop. But of course his move and the civically-concerned design he’s been involved in since being back puts a twist on Koolhaas’s “self-organizing” thesis.

Away from the stratosphere of starchitects, the school itself has become the pride of Makoko, a place for a handful of youths to get an education long denied to the unincorporated fishing community. Every day local children park their hollowed out wooden canoes around the floating school and gather on its open-air decks for class, and in the evenings the buoyant building becomes a community center for local leaders. The project is only the prototype of a much larger masterplan that Adeyemi envisions for Makoko, and if funding comes through all of the neighborhood’s stilt-supported shacks will one day be replaced by floating A-frames. When that happens, it may just be a sight to rival Eko Atlantic — the megaproject of office buildings developing on the other side of the city and architectural spectrum.


(Mark Duerksen 2014)


In 2009 David Adjaye and Philip Freelon’s plans for an inverted and stacked trapezoidal building encased in bronze screens won the design competition for the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). When the building opens in late 2015, it will have been 100 years since African American Civil War veterans first proposed a DC memorial honoring various African American achievements. This centennial timeline illustrates how long the struggle has dragged on to construct a monument to African American history, it also reminds us just how recently millions of Africans were enslaved in America by the fact that men who actually fought to end slavery were connected to this ongoing project. The building itself mines the more distant connection of the African origin of American slaves for its defining tripartite trapezoids, which evoke Yoruba carved wood columns–specifically the crowns at the top of the columns (not a king’s “crown” as many articles mistakenly assume)–found on traditional buildings in southwest Nigeria. The reference to Yoruba pillars subtly suggests the prominence of African American scientists, artists, and politicians in the creation of America, and also–to use the museum’s term–“the darker corners” of the reality that America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Revisions to the original winning design, including a third tier, have further brought out the form of a sculpted Yoruba column, whereas before the plans looked equally like a shimmering fire above a base of a flat funeral pyre…not exactly the imagery a museum to African American culture wants to evoke. The redesign removes the red-stone base, integrating the crown with the ground level. While these have been improvements to the original vision, budget concerns have scrapped plans for an entrance that would have crossed a series of intricately landscaped waterways, reverently breaking the stride of visitors as they approached and serving as a reminder of the middle passage crossing. Another victim of the budget has been the bronze facade, which will now be fashioned from some kind of coated composite. There are concerns whether the new material will shine and if it will eventually flake off. Perhaps, in an America where pernicious racism chips away at any optimism for a united union, nothing could be a more fitting symbol for the dream of a nation that recognizes and honors the contributions and heritage of African Americans…except for maybe a funeral pyre…or, maybe yet, the shift in the form of the building’s tragic flaw from funeral pyre to a million paint specks speaks to the shifts in the way American racism operates.


Yoruba columns in the house of Susanne Wenger (Mark Duerksen, 2014)

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Columns carved by Olowe of Ise (source)


Original design (source)


Redesign (source)

A few quick updates:

First off, a big thank you to The Guardian for including me in their updated list of The Best City Blogs from around the World (link to Arcade Africa under general sites, fifth from the left). I’ve gotten a lot of traffic (relative to next to none previously) through their link recently!

Secondly, a few days ago was the two year anniversary of starting this blog. Yay. Two years ago I was fresh out of college and hadn’t even applied to grad school yet, but I already knew the topics I’ve been following here were something I wanted to learn more about and share information on. Here’s to hoping it’s still going in two more years.

And finally, an update on a project I’ve been following closely and have posted about before: it looks like the much delayed NYC Museum for African Art has suffered another setback and is now scaling back plans for the Museum’s architectural embellishments in order to cut costs since its fundraising has dried up. Billionaires, and millionaires, open your wallets and fund this worthy project that will inform and thrill thousands and thousands of visitors with Africa’s rich art history. It only needs $11 million more…a single Fang sculpture (below) alone recently auctioned for nearly half that much.

Again, more posts on Lagos/Nigeria to come soon–working on them in a word doc now–so stay tuned.

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I flew out of Murtala Muhammed Airport at 11pm and, after a short stop in Heathrow, I landed at Shannon Airport on the west coast of Ireland and was soon gliding through lush, stone-wall-lined country roads on an Éireann Bus headed to Galway City. As I sleepily stared out the window, I–at first casually and then more methodically–noticed the similarities between the architecture of Irish homes and those I had just left in Nigeria. The simplicity of the shapes–boxy, mostly single floor homes that maximized living space within the small plots–was the first noticeable parallel between the houses, and so was the material–concrete cinder blocks stuccoed and painted a variety of colors. Another common feature was walls around the plots. In Ireland yards were surrounded by the traditional, pastoral stacked-stone walls (some with and some without mortar) between 3 and 5 feet tall, and in Nigeria housed were barricaded behind tall concrete, booby-trap topped walls that provided their residents with security (but that I suspect also have connections to longer traditions of Yoruba architecture in which compounds were surrounded by walls not so much to keep people out, but to create a sense of belonging amongst those within the walls–more on this in another post soon). Then there was the paved yards around the homes–a not so attractive feature shared by Nigerian homes (to tamp dust? To provide more parking space for numerous visitors?) and Irish homes (to give homes and vehicles a more stable foundation on the water logged soil?). Having been in Ireland for a few weeks now, I’ve noticed other similarities shared between the former British colony Nigeria and arguably the first British colony, Ireland. There’s a second hand feel accompanied by a resourcefulness that’s noticeable in Ireland similar to that in Nigeria, which was especially apparent compared to the conspicuous wealth and opulence found in the former colonial metropole, London. Unconnected to colonial history, there’s an interesting similarity between Bronze/Iron age Celtic art and ancient Yoruba art (this region of Africa developed bronze and iron smelting independently of Europe/Asia). Any art historian could probably pick out just how different they are, but broadly speaking, I think there’s quite a few similarities in patterns and forms (especially the eyes: Irish Sheela na gig and Yoruba Orisha.

That’s a lot more than I was planning to write on the simple observation that a few things in Ireland remind me of Nigeria. Now I’ll work backwards and post more thoughts on Nigeria and Lagos over the next few days/weeks.



Somewhat Upscale House in Lagos (Mark Duerksen 2014)


Typical city home in Galway (Mark Duerksen 2014)

A few cities (mostly in South America) have recently built or are planning to build gondolas to lift people up and over traffic to take them throughout the city as an efficient, low(er) cost, and scenic means of public transportation. This is the second time I’ve run into this urban mobility solution in the last couple of weeks and given how successful some of these projects have been, I’ve been wondering why it has not yet been more widely implemented. Compared to the disruption and all the technical difficulties in digging tunnels for underground metro systems, building these hanging subways is far less disruptive (and cost “between $3 million and $12 million per mile, comparing favorably against $400 million per mile for subway systems and $36 million per mile for light rail systems”} and although they don’t have the carryings capacity of underground trains, they can be visually “timed” and offer a visible link to the heart of the city for residents of historically marginal areas (or “urban islands”) that are then connected to gondola lines. The article claims that plans for a gondola system is in the works for Lagos (I’m not sure if it’s part of the proposed but slow to develop plans for a Lagos train metro system). This is a phenomenon worth following.


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A great blog post on Nigeria’s plans to build a new centennial “smart” city (more of a district) for 100k people in its capital Abuja (itself a planned city that was built in the 1980s). While praising the socially and environmentally conscious planning approach that promises “a mature vibrant ecosystem,” the piece reminds us that new cities in developing countries are almost always reliant on fickle market driven investors hoping to reap huge economic playoffs from these “green and sustainable” international business hubs by quite simply plundering its countryside. These ambitious, environmentally conscious, new city projects are in themselves fantastic examples of planning and social responsibility, but as the post points out, at some point we have to take a step back and question whether our capitalist economy and its byproduct of violent ecological damage are themselves sustainable, and how do we plan and build a better version?


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Billing itself as a kind of anti-megacity that have been the focus of urban studies in the developing world, the Anam New City project is creating a new “rurban” (mixed rural and urban) area in east-central Nigeria for approx. 30k people to live in. Funded by the Chife Foundation, the aim is to create a model for sustainable development that mixes agriculture and pastoral space and lifestyle with dense community living (and the service delivery that is possible with it) in a clustered, mixed use master plan. I’m very curious to follow this project as people move in. Unlike past African city plans, this one seems to have a better appreciation for the “rurbanism” that eventually works its way into nearly all African cities–I read somewhere that the cows in Nairobi produce some massive quantity (in the 1000s of pounds) of dung a day. Of course this is a project funded by an wealthy NGO and unlikely to be reproducible across the continent where a more likely widespread approach is the privately funded planned cities to cater to international economic development. Still it seems like the NGO is going to eventually upload a manual onto their website that shares information on how to build similar cities. Master planning isn’t nonexistent even in places considered the epitome of “adaptive self-organization” such as Lagos where the current mayor Babatunde Fashola is building planned urban housing projects for the city. It would be interesting to see the effect of aspects of Anam New City incorporated into a kind of “nodal development” of a megacity, creating hubs of pre-planned order with services and uncongested transportation. Here’s a link to the Anam City blog.


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It looks like Zimbabwe’s plan to build a kind of Epcot of Africa might finally break ground in the foreseeable future. The plan would create a $200 million theme park/city minutes from Victoria Falls. It sounds like one idea for it would be like Epcot or a world fair of Africa, displaying food, art, and buildings from all over the continent. Zimbabwe’s government says it would cater to Africans themselves as a low-budget vacation destination, citing the exorbitant costs for Africans to visit “African” tourist destinations such as Victoria Falls as the motive to creating this cheaper alternative. Which makes this response in the Telegraph citing “African tourism experts” amusing for condemning the project as ruining “authentic Africa” and not something European tourists want to visit. Not that there aren’t concerns about this scale of a project being constructed so close to Victoria Falls, but the assumption that the park’s target audience is foreign tourists says a lot.


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A brief interview with Andrew Esiebo about his latest photography project:  West African barbershops, one of the most consistent and ubiquitous forms of architecture and public art in African cities.


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Part II of Brett Petzer’s article on 10 African future cities. Below is an image of Angola’s Cidade de Kilamba, a Chinese funded middle class housing project 30km from Luanda for 200k people, currently sitting mostly empty as potential buyers struggle to obtain financing.


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When the old isn’t working or is just too cumbersome to overhaul….simply build a brand new city from scratch! At least that’s what these projects intend to do. Most of these future cities are in the initial/early periods of funding/construction but they will be fascinating to follow as they begin opening for business. They’re all located next to some of the continent’s largest decaying/overcrowded urban areas–what will become of those when these glitzy new international business orientated centers are fully functional? I can imagine a mass rush of people pouring towards the promises of these new cities (if only as day commuters since they’ll likely be exorbitantly expensive places to live like Victoria Island in Lagos in currently), abandoning the rusting infrastructure and informally organized cities just miles away. Will there be an influx control mechanism built into these new centers? A passcard system? We know how well planned capitals like Dodoma and Abuja have played out in Africa; will an urban area backed by international corporate investment lead to different results? Part two coming soon.  Eko Atlantic project constructed on man-made sandbar in the harbor of Lagos:


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Museum of African Art mulling adding policy center to its initiative


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Great slideshow of a historic city that has been dark to the outside world for almost two decades. 



….And a Tedx event just took place in Mogadishu, which included the story of Mogadishu’s first drying cleaning business



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Nyere’s utopian capital that was never fully realized

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Would this work in Lagos? Is that question a luxury for marginal residents of Lagos?

Image source (Photograph:  Kunlé Adeyemi)