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Why Nigerians Lack An Architectural Identity

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One can usually tell a lot about a people and their history from their music, food, art and Architecture. They are some of the biggest indicators of the value system of any given people.

Housing- in particular-gives the most insight on the lifestyle of the people.

A country’s housing system is often shaped by practical climatic factors and socio-cultural beliefs, even in the globalist age.

For example, most houses in Europe were, are, and remain built with stone as opposed to wood or other materials because its insulative properties help them better withstand the harsh winters in those regions.

However, a walk through most of uptown Lagos, or Abuja, or Port harcourt will immediately reveal to the observer, cities wholly designed on western architectural principles, without any regard whatsoever for mitigating local factors.

Skyscrapers and high-rise towers dot the landscape; the trappings of modernism lie as far as the eye can reach.

But, this is not a problem of modernity, it’s a problem of cultural uniqueness.

Prior to colonization, architectural symbols were mostly concentrated in the urban bases serving as the centres of large empires in the country.

Examples include Benin, Ife and Kano, the centres of the Benin, Yoruba, and Daura empires respectively.

The Benin and Yoruba empire building traditions buildings mainly stipulated large compounds with big square shaped houses bounded by high walls and thatched roofs, and courtyards as communal spaces, while Hausa Tubali construction method was employed all over the North.

Colonization

While still in use in the more rural outbacks, these techniques disappeared from urban centers with the advent of colonialism.

When the missionaries came in the 18th century, they brought with them their religion, culture and construction methods.

The result was a culture-shift evident not only in the way of life, but primarily in urban planning and architecture.

The British countryside style buildings with deep verandahs and overhanging eaves quickly filled the streets of Lagos and other cities in the country.

This trend dominated until independence.

Independence

At the same time as the new government expanded its sphere of activity in the organization of space, the economic and demographic forces continued to draw migrants into urban cities in search of work.

The population of greater Lagos (Nigeria’s capital at the time) rose from 1.14 million in 1963 to 2.55 million in 1976 and up to 4.07 million by 1982, with many of the newcomers squatting or living in illegal housing.

Thus, as the new Nigerian elite, for the first time, concerned with urban housing, attempted to build and maintain sanitized, European-style public areas, the bulk of Nigerians found themselves participating in and advocating for other urban forms—shantytowns, informal markets, streetside production, and unregulated, mixed-use spaces.

Those two trends—the government‘s new responsibilities in matters of architecture and urbanism and the unplanned growth of shantytowns and an informal economy—were the motors driving the development of Nigeria’s architectural and urban forms in the decades after independence.

In response, government officials and Nigerians were each forced to articulate their own visions for the architecture of the country.

Through an examination of prestige architecture, housing estates, shantytowns, it can be argued that policymakers in independent Nigeria initially had a bifurcated architectural vision: they favored tropical modernism, as the official style of government offices and major downtown buildings while at the same time preferring by-the- book copies of European residences for housing estates.

The bulk of the citizens, by contrast, initially responded to the demands of low wages and a burgeoning workforce by favoring built forms that allowed them to maintain a complex informal economy and to keep alive some aspects of indigenous building traditions.

All of those visions for postcolonial Nigeria, however, were constrained by larger economic, demographic, and historical forces which we’ll cover in the next article.

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