“…in Rotterdam we thought it was so amazing and the reaction in Nigeria was the complete opposite.”
Ayo Denton heads to Tosin Oshinowo’s design studio to have a chat about upcoming projects and grand architecture in Lagos
by Ayo Denton
Ayo Denton: Why architecture, what is your story?
Tosin Oshinowo: These are the kind of questions I would imagine they would ask when you are in your 50’s when you have time to reflect over your life’s achievements.
My story is very simple I didn’t really have plan B, whilst doing my A ‘levels I was told most people would not end up practicing what they studied at university but with the old professions like medicine law and architecture people tend to still stay within their profession.
I am from Ikorodu and I recall how my parents made emotional investments, building houses in the village, I call them emotional because as of today they are still not occupied.
I remember when the drawings were brought home I was the only one who could pick my room from the plan. And I use to follow my dad to the sites. I had always been very good at art and technical drawing in school. So when I look back at my year book I discover I am the only one who ended up in the profession I aspired for whilst in secondary school. I am in architecture because of my true love for it. It is also an amazing stepping-stone where you could end up as a creative product designer.
A.D: Since graduating what kinds of projects have you done? What were the most tasking or endearing projects?
T.O: I have been in practice for ten years which is still quite short, in Europe I would be regarded as a young architect because over there a young architect is someone who is beginning to form their own creative identity. You’re an architect once you have crossed over and started to have finished buildings and people are beginning to see a style of architecture related or unique to you.
I have worked on a lot of projects from various offices. Before I left London I worked with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP SOM an American practice on a project in Qatar. When I left London I worked in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture Rotterdam and one that stands out the most was the proposal for the fourth mainland bridge, which will be between Ajah and Ikorodu road. We did a concept for a double decker bridge with a pedestrian section on the lower deck and vehicles on top. I was part of the bridge design team of six people for two and a half months. The process was very intense, very creative and forward thinking.
Spoke with someone yesterday who works in Lagos State Government and he said when the bridge was presented in 2009 they thought it was crazy and wondered why anyone would think of such, but it eventually grew on them. It’s funny because while we were over in Rotterdam we thought it was so amazing and the reaction in Nigeria was the complete opposite.
When I got back to Nigeria I worked with James Cubitt Architects for four years. One particular project, which stands out, was the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas project in Port Harcourt. The most important thing I learnt from that project is the involvement of stakeholders and how you have to carry everyone along during the planning process. It would be nice to see the building when the project is finished; how the multi layered decision making process has been translated into reality and how people use the space.
A.D: Those are large projects, how about now, what are you working on?
T.O: We currently have under construction a shopping mall and on the scale of shopping malls it is quite small. The Maryland Mall is replacing the old Maryland shopping complex. It’s a five storey building with a basement for parking, a Shoprite, four Genesis cinema screens. We are proud it’s an indigenous shopping mall. For me what has been a frustration or challenge since coming back to Nigeria is the reliance on foreign architect and how people say we need the South Africans or the British to design for us.
The thing is, I am part of the ongoing generation sent away for school and then you come back home and still hear the same things being said before you left. That was the reason our parents paid huge fees for us to study abroad. It was for us to bring back knowledge in whatever capacity and give our own two cents back to society. Yes we have had some bad people who have abused this trust, so there are people who think locals can’t do things better than foreigners, but there are a few of us who still know what we are doing. So it’s nice to see that this client had enough faith to give us the opportunity to deliver on this project.
A.D: Earlier, you described a young architect as someone who is beginning to form their own creative identity. What’s your style and do you specialized in a form of architecture?
T.O: The nature of our profession is to understand a problem and create solution. It’s not to be a specialist in hospital design, shopping mall design, housing design etc. that might come from the routine of doing it so many times that it becomes easier to take on work in that direction. But our education is to teach you to understand space. And when you understand that space you can create space and we hope to show that when the mall is finished.
A.D: I like that philosophy and I look forward to visiting the mall once it is complete. I am of the school of thought that women can do certain things better than men. Do you think the quality of the built environment suffers from a lack of female architects like yourself?
T.O: I do not usually like thinking a lot along gender lines because you could get into messy waters. My buildings can be described as masculine because most of my projects have heavy massing and are chunky. So some people get shocked when they look at my buildings and realize it was drawn by a woman. I am not sure if they would think I would draw something pretty with ribbons hanging everywhere.
I do not think urbanism can be related to by using such words as masculinity or femininity. I do not like to bring gender into it. But maybe women are more conscious about details. As a matter of fact when I design spaces now I think about things like “is the building child friendly”. When I think back to when I used design and now the only difference is that I am more conscious about safety. For example if the railing height is too low or the gap between railings is wide enough to fit a child’s head through I automatically think this design is not good enough. So I always put myself in the space, the building, the street or the zone.
A.D: You are obviously doing great things in Nigeria. Apart from you, are there any role models for young women architects other than yourself?
T.O: There are not that many female architects but I do know of three. Mosun Ogunbanjo, I do not know if she practices that much now. She did a lot of the early GT banks. She is one of those who gave GT bank the contemporary look and feel.
Jumoke Adenowo who does lots of public speaking now has a few interesting buildings. Finally Segun Abiodun who is very good and has a particular style, Florida influenced architecture. She has done a lot of mansions in the Ikoyi district of Lagos state. I am not a fan of her style but of her signature. She has been able to create a style in Nigeria (which existed before) and brand herself with that style. So if I see a Segun Abiodun building I will immediately know it was her who did it. And she gets tons of work from referral because people recognize her work and go after her. That’s the biggest compliment you can get as an architect, people recognizing your work and wanting the same.
A.D: So what is coming up next for you, both in business and life?
T.O: I have a young practice called cmD+A, we are a technical team, five strong and we are very ambitious. We literally take projects as they come and we are not very picky on what projects. It’s nice to still explore where our strengths and weaknesses are. So we will see where the wind blows. But the important thing is that whatever we put our hands to do, we do it at 110% because every job is important and personal, from shopping mall to the façade of a tiny shop we put our sweat into it.
A.D: Thinking about Lagos, do you know of any of the long term visions for Lagos?
T.O: That has been in the pipelines for a long time, they have been talking about model cities in Apapa, Victoria Island, Ikeja etc. I don’t really see how they will achieve this ‘mega city’. What does that really mean? Is it a mega city in terms of population or infrastructure? In Lagos the infrastructure has not grown with the population. For business to thrive and people to have a good standard of living we need good infrastructure. I think this ‘mega city’ needs to address the existing road network. We don’t have enough connections and the ones we have are not maintained well. If we can get a good circular flow of people it will solve a lot of problems.
A.D: Does this mean we are not going in the right direction?
T.O: No we are improving, the last administration created two nice bridges which lifted traffic problems in Victoria Island. With these two additions they have been able to reduce shuttle time considerably. Which means more time saved for the commuter. If I had an opportunity to serve the state and keep improving the quality of life of people in Lagos I would take it.
A.D Finally, where do you unwind after a hard day at work? Where are your favourite place in Lagos?
T.O: Funny enough am at a stage in my career where I don’t do a lot of unwinding because am at the stage where am attending to a lot of projects, but I do like the beaches in Lagos. The private ones like llashe, Ikaare beach etc. which are still very quiet but not so clean. It’s good to have a get out of Lagos experience without getting out of Lagos. I am an urban chic; I like the outdoors a place where you can sit calmly have a sip of red wine and eat suya.