An African Modernist Reflects on the State of Nigeria’s Post-Colonial Classicism
Two summer ago, I attended a summer architecture course in Sweden, in the company of the crème de la crème of classical architecture. The distinguished faculty featured a long list of classical and traditional practitioners, including Robert Adam, the 2016 Driehaus Prize winner (the classical equivalent of the Pritzker). The students (about twenty of us) were designers and architects from diverse architectural and design backgrounds, many of whom had illustrious careers of their own. Having largely trained and practiced as a contemporary designer, the program was my first real glimpse at hardcore classicism. Like most modernist-trained designers, my only prior exposure to it was the few customary classes at design school about the classical orders.
At one of the evening sessions after dinner, talk switched to the inevitable topic: the classicism vs. modernism schism. A few of the architects recounted the challenges they faced while studying architecture at modernist-leaning design schools and the frustrations of being unable to find beneficial mentorship. When I was asked about the state of classical architecture in my country, and how well modernists and classicists “got along,” I told them that my experience as an African was a bit more complicated, given classical architecture’s deep colonial roots in Nigeria.
The question, however, did make me reflect on our architectural legacy, both classical and modern. At independence in 1960, the departing British colonial administrators left an impressive collection of classical buildings scattered across the urban landscape of Lagos. Everything from Palladian villas, such as the old State House in Marina, to the Cathedral Church of Christ in Marina Lagos, a Gothic pile whose foundation stone was laid in 1925 by King Edward VIII (Prince of Wales at the time). The colonialists did not restrict this architectural style to Lagos alone. Across several big cities and small provincial towns all over Nigeria, they left their architectural imprints on railway stations, schools, colonial administrative offices, and residences. One of the finest pieces of colonial classical architecture—Mapo Hall (1929) in Ibadan—remains in use today.
While there’s no universal consensus on what led to the demise of classical architecture in Nigeria, the most obvious reason was its close association with colonialism (a messy, little affair the then newly independent Nigeria wanted to put behind it).
Classical architecture declined post-independence, especially with the advent of the International Style that had just picked up steam on the continent. The then-booming Nigerian economy was awash with petro-dollars and architectural commissions flowed ceaselessly from the government of the day. Several university campuses and other public buildings were built in the prevailing International Style, most of which expressed aesthetic ideologies that tilted towards constructivism, modernism, postmodernism and all the other “isms” that characterized that period. While there’s no universal consensus on what led to the demise of classical architecture in Nigeria, the most obvious reason was its close association with colonialism (a messy, little affair the then newly independent Nigeria wanted to put behind it).
Years later the proclamation of Abuja as Nigeria’s new capital city and the accompanying massive construction in the city in the 1990s saw a curious resurgence in classical architecture—albeit as caricature. Buildings with classical elements and iconographies sprung up all over Abuja, especially in the city’s residential mass housing districts. Sadly, the prototype for some of these early “classical” buildings often got the iconographies and proportions wrong. The structures were usually a combination of several mismatched classical elements, arbitrarily proportioned without recourse to any architectural pattern book. Some included notoriously oversized hip roofs (my staff cries “Send-down-the rain!” when they see them). The roofs often sit—somewhat incongruously—atop one story houses. They remind me of overloaded fruit carts.
This bizarre style has been promulgated across the city’s landscape by real estate developers who are building them in hundreds of locations. Tragically, it’s also popular with clients, who compel hapless designers to copy this empty trope. And yet, in its kitschy absurdity, this aesthetic almost constitutes an architectural style all its own, a sort of Nigerian neo Classicism, stripped of its dignified roots and almost cartoonish in its awkward dimensions.
Architectural practice in Nigeria (and for most of Africa) is largely bereft of any form of philosophy or ideology, beyond the puritanical objective of earning an honest living. For this reason, students tend to learn design and drafting skills—and little else. The democratic disposition of architecture schools here (even if by accident) offers every architect and designer in training, the opportunity to practice any style they choose without the pressures of aligning with any particular camp. There is, however, a downside to this ideological free-for-all: students are often unable to get appropriate mentorship to master any particular style. While the local design scene has been spared the needless habitual bickering between the classicists and modernists, it has also denied patrons the opportunity to get the best of either camp. In truth, I would rather classicists and modernists engaged in open bare-knuckle street fights than the current yawning indifference that has resulted in the current patchwork of anomalies and absurdities.
We need to look back even further. I will continue to advocate for a renaissance of traditional African architecture, that in due course might birth a wave of Neo-African architecture across the continent. In the meantime, it’s important to replicate appropriately, inventively, whatever style we imitate. Whatever we build must speak eloquently about both the architectural style it represents, and the time—now—that it’s built in.
Featured image: photograph by Wahab Oluvafremi. The house is located in Abuja, adjacent to the Abuja Hilton, in the Maitema District.