Modern in the making: The rise of Afro-modernism in Nigeria.
Architecture is powerful. It is an embodiment of culture, physically expressing a region’s social, economic, and political fortunes. It is a veritable tool with which one can identity both a place on a map as well as a place in time. As such, architecture has not only defined people and places but also eras throughout history.
This is why you when you come across certain images of
buildings, you instinctively know where they’re from. Be it 1st
century Greek and Roman architecture sporting large columns and archways, or the
peculiar roofs that typify 8th century Japanese and Chinese
architecture, or even the motifs and ornamentations of 15th century
North African Islamic architecture. You might not shell out the dates like I’ve
done above but chances are you’ll be able to tell where or when the building is
“Nigerian architecture”, is no different. While we
may not be able to accurately point out peculiar elements of it, (because its
largely diverse and broad), we too have had our own “styles” (mostly borrowed
and imported) that have defined certain “eras”.
From the Pre-colonial
traditional architecture that saw the use of local materials like mud, clay,
timber and thatch to the 18th
century Colonial architecture of the British and the Brazilian style residences developed by repatriated slaves, these
styles defined a prominent era and eventually evolved into a sort of Vernacular
architecture for the period. The 30’s-50’s saw the introduction of a more modern
style of architecture employing the use of flat concrete roofs (which proved
inefficient given our heavy rainfall) followed by the 70-80’s era of what some
refer to as an international style, which made use of an array of geometrical
forms with exposed parapet walls that were more aesthetic than anything else. More
and more styles turned up in the 90’s and early 2000’s till today’s era where
we find a diversity of styles adopted by different architects for different
The Vista Rama beach house in Lagos by CMD+A features large windows and local willow-reed cladding. (Photography by Medina Dugger Images courtesy CMD+A)
So, now that we’re done with the history lesson, one may ask
what defines today’s contemporary architecture? Is it this diversity? The
answer would in all honesty vary, depending on whom you asked, but one
undeniable trend that most would be able to point out is the resurgence of a
peculiar style of modernism that has emerged within the last decade thereabout
– an ‘Afro’ Modernism.
Before I go further, let me clarify that contemporary
architecture and modern architecture or modernism are NOT the same. Contemporary
architecture speaks to time, a term used to define the architecture of present
day (remember that “diversity” I mentioned previously) while Modern architectureor Modernism speaks to style, a
specific style, made popular during the early and mid-20th-century.
The ANAI Foundation residences in Lagos by Ade Shokunbi features tyrolene finished walls and an extensive use of bamboo
So back to this “afro-modernism”. This style, which is most
prominent in residential and some commercial architecture, resembles the previously
mentioned international style blending tenets of modernismwith contextual principles that pertain to tropical design. The
ideology rests less on visual cues and cosmetic elements that help “identify”
the style and more on principle-based methodology that centers around the
function and context. In short, its less about what it looks like but more
about how it functions and responds to its location. This in no-way means
aesthetics takes a back burner, if anything, it’s pushed out into the
forefront, but hand-in-hand with function as its guide.
The Adele-Adewole Villa in Ikoyi by Bravura Architects features a Spine wall clad in stone’s from Abeokuta.
The major objective of today’s architects that produce work within this design style of Afro-Modernism, is to create not just a building but an experience. They understand and recognize the human need for contact with nature so they craft spaces that blur the lines between the indoors and outdoors. They use larger windows and collapsible walls of glass that offer garden views and admit more natural light and air. Energy efficiency is also a concern for them so they use passive solar design to keep the temperature of their buildings down and reduce the need for air-conditioning.
The Alara Store by Adjaye Associates features an engaging steel lattice that serves as a bespoke brise soleil that adds character to the building’s facade
They understand the economic benefit of using local and
recycled materials, so they find inventive ways to integrate same into the
finishes of their buildings whilst retaining the ethos of modern design. They
see the concept of sustainability beyond just a marketing buzz word or trend
and design their buildings to convert energy from the sun or harvest rainwater.
By choosing to consider culture, climate and user
experience, while embracing local materials, and technology, these architects
are inadvertently evolving the language and system of Afro Modernism into
something that could very well become the standard by which design for this
space and time is crafted.