“Architecture in Lagos is like a whole range of different stories. There are so many stories and so many types of architecture.”
On a cool Lagos evening, Olamide Udoma sat with Robert van Kats and Remco Rolvink at a boutique hotel to discuss solutions for a leading African city and how DASUDA is starting to take action. This is the third part of the three part interview.
by Olamide Udoma
Politics and Economics
Olamide Udoma : What role do you think Lagos plays in Africa?
Robert Van Kats: Lets start by saying, a major role. Because of its size, it is an important part of a big economy within West Africa, maybe even within the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. You may argue with the figures but they are indeed now number one, the biggest economy, beating South Africa. This says something about their positions. Also looking at Nigerian data, one out of five Africans is Nigerian. When you look at statistics like that you realise where the country really stands.
And the speed of population growth of cities like Lagos is stunning. And the economy as well, which plays a major role. But the thing is that Lagos has to take that position and own it. The figures are there, everybody sees what is happening. It is about every professional, every individual owning it, it is also about governance. But everybody has to take that role of leadership and then show Nigeria, show West Africa, show Africa, show the world that things can be done differently. It is now our turn, to turn problems and opportunities to solutions.
Remco Rolvink: You can compare the growth of Lagos and its structure with cities like Mumbai, Mexico City and Shanghai. If you also look at the political background of those cities they are different, I think that in China it is very controlled and that is not the case here or in Mumbai. In Mexico City, control got lost – drugs became a big problem and started running through normal society
Population growth is one of our interests. It is very interesting, the speed at which the city is growing but it is definitely one of the worries that 20 million, will become 25 million, which will become 30 million. So the city becomes an entirely different landscape and a country on its own. But how do you manage that without extreme control, because that is not the answer in my opinion. Let’s be democratic.
OU: A lot of people do argue that maybe we need some kind of dictator in Nigeria, to make things different. And then maybe after a while you can start to implement democracy again. But right now something needs to change or the country will break. Others also suggest that the States should be autonomous so that decisions can be made within State lines.
RR: This happens everywhere – every country where you have one big metropolis, which is actually not the country anymore, its Paris in France, its Mexico City in Mexico, its Lagos in Nigeria. Sixty percent of Nigeria’s income is made in Lagos.
OU: If you do not include oil revenue in Lagos.
RR: Maybe this is not the right time to express this but if you take one step back there is a balance – the city is benefitting from the fact that it is part of an entire country. This connection should be used better.
If you look at Lagos, the whole hinterland of the metropolis, then all the neighbouring states in the area, for the sake of food security it would be very beneficial to stay in some of the more regional towns. For this to happen transport lines need to be developed. But if you actually break away and become your own, where ‘we’ are a country, and ‘they’ are a country. That is nice propaganda but it is never going to work.
OU: I do not think that is the case for Lagos. It is the wealthiest and maybe most progressive state in Nigeria, but I do not believe that Lagos State Government are moving towards a separation. However, it seems people believe that democracy works in Lagos but not the rest of Nigeria.
RR: People in Lagos think that and that is simply because they might not know.
RR: The same thing happens in Amsterdam. People always say that people in the north of the country do nothing. We ask, have you been there, and they say, ‘Oh no, I never go’. They don’t bother to go there but they make these assumptions. It is just the popular opinion of people in the biggest city.
Nigeria does have fractions – economically, culturally and religiously – this is clearly visible by the violence in the North – but zoom out and look at other countries, it is all the same. Let’s face these issues head on and do something about it rather than thinking of a utopian world that will never exist.
OU: What is your impression of Lagos Architecture, is there a Lagos Architectural style?
RVK: Architecture in Lagos is like a whole range of different stories. There are so many stories and so many types of architecture. Take a look at the more historical architecture like Yoruba houses, definitely that is a style. You can also look at what is being built nowadays and that can be defined as architecture. Some of them you hate and some of them you like but definitely there is a whole set of different stories and architecture.
OU: Do you think the buildings that are being built now are just trying to be bigger, bolder, brighter and more in your face?
RR: Muscle Architecture.
RVK: Yes, it is ‘showing-off’ architecture! It is like having the fastest and the biggest car. It is a competition.
In Lagos we work with local architects on project from a small house to large commercial buildings. With local partners we have defined a new kind of architecture that somehow shows positivism of the future. We are building modern buildings that fit the climate and culture. Hopefully, by doing these types of projects, we are showing that Lagos is ready for another type of architecture that is local and modern. If you want to see it as competition, it can definitely beat the architecture that is very generic, international and standard, where you do not know what city you are in because of the type architecture. Lagos is definitely able to beat that architecture by introducing a local Nigerian architecture. Just call it a new type of architecture that is smart, that doesn’t need air conditioners.
Local knowledge is readily available on ground – You may have to dig into history but it is there. That is the fun part for me, working as an architect, working together with people like Kunle and lots of others trying to invent a new type of architecture. That is the nice thing about Lagos, the possibilities. There are clients that say ‘do it’.
OU: But It seems those types of projects are mainly personal projects where they allow the architect to go wild?
RVK: That is an assumption, and I think that assumption is wrong. They ask you to do a project, so many rooms, so many this, so many that. They are not asking you to go wild or go boring. All you need to do is address the brief. Sometimes there is no need to discuss the architecture, just design the best building.
OU: I know some architects, local and international, that have said when working on a project they want to include things that are little bit more environmentally friendly or that suit the aesthetic of the building, however the client is saying I need 10 ACs on every floor or I need thisor that.
RVK: It is important for the architect to ask the right questions. If a client says to me “I need 10 ACs”, I will then ask, “Do you need 10 ACs or do you need a comfortable space to work in?” Of course some clients do want to show off that they can afford ACs, but as a professional you have to ask such questions. Nine out of ten times you will definitely have this discussion with your client and you are able to provide him with the space or building that is built for what is needed. If you can manage to design a space that is comfortable without ACs then do it without ACs. But that is where your expertise comes in. Maybe that is not the easiest way but definitely that’s the way to design.
Architecture in Lagos
OU: In this age of globalisation, what do you think the role of foreign architects are, working in countries they do not live or have an affiliation with?
RVK: Firstly, if you are a foreign architect and you work in an environment like Lagos, or any other foreign city or place, even rural places, not just in Nigeria, you always have to look at what value you can add to a specific project. That is where it starts.
In the past, projects were designed in an office in London and built in a completely different country – the architect never went to the site, not even the country. I strongly believe I have to literally be on site. You have to understand what is happening in the city, what is happening in the daily lives of people that live there. You have to learn first from the country, the city, and the people and then with all your knowledge and expertise, design. This is where you see what an architect is capable of. An architect sees all the ingredients and combines them to a specific type of architecture for a specific place.
You can bring in specific expertise. I think the Makoko floating school is a great example where this happened. Kunle asked me to join his team. Kunle is a good architect he can design great architecture, he is experienced. However, he still needed specific expertise for his projects. And only the Dutch can get a school floating. It was partly architecture, partly concept design.
In the discussions with Kunle, we developed a project by sketching. For architects, this is a way of discussion – sketching on the same sketch together. We researched all the different options to get the building done in Makoko. Once decided it should be floating, we had to bring in experts. It is not just about having your own expertise but adding to it from your network and if you do not have them close you need to start searching. In the case of Kunle, we know each other and our office is around the corner from his.
The world is international – There are specifics locally in Lagos as a city but there are lot’s of things around us, the tables, mobile phones, they are imported goods. And also the other way round – There are Nigerians all over the world and therefore knowledge is gained everywhere. It is an international knowledge-based society. All these kinds of relations came together in one project in Lagos, the Floating School.