How Long is Now? Lagos’ fast-evolving architectural landscape

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(left) A mural in Berlin. (right) A street vendor walks between an old, colonial bungalow and a new apartment block in Yaba, Lagos.

LAGOS, Nigeria – May 1st, International Labor Day, was a public holiday in Nigeria. In Lagos Island, partying police officers were sprawled in plastic chairs beneath an overpass next to the stadium. Vendors hawking cigarettes and beer lined the curb and called to passengers in the bright orange buses inching past the revelers.

Past the traffic, and across the Third Mainland Bridge in Yaba, David and Vincent were hanging around the small nursery school where they work as security guards. The school was closed for the holiday, but privatized security never sleeps. Or rather, it does; dozing security guards are common as 24-hour shifts are ubiquitous. But menial workers rarely get holidays, and besides, neither David nor Vincent had anywhere to go. David goes to his family home in neighboring Ogun state on Sundays. Vincent’s apartment burnt down in an electrical fire a few months ago, so he stays at work.

The school is a converted colonial bungalow, painted bright blue with sunshine-yellow accents. Large rectangular windows line the façade. Sills protruding above them minimize the tropical glare.

The school is one of several renovated old houses on Moleye Street. It is interspersed between an eclectic array of buildings, distinct both in architecture and in upkeep. There are dilapidated originals along the road, historic structures set back on their plots. Their front walls feature detailed molding and big windows, now blighted and stained. Contrasting sharply are new stucco edifices that press against tall gates separating them from the street. These are apartments, mostly, but there is also an enormous Pentecostal church in the last stages of construction. It is built on several plots and the towering peach structure is an awkward L-shape around the dwarfed neighboring single-story bungalow.

The street is a microcosm of major trends in Lagos’ physical aesthetic. The beautiful history is largely neglected, and there is a race toward the future manifested in gaudy structures that reek of demonstrative capitalism. In between are Lagos’ omnipresent boxy three and four-story tenement houses. In a few neighborhoods like Yaba, renovated old structures also intersperse the dramatic highs and lows. David and Vincent tell me the refurbished buildings are stylistically, “still ok,” because they are well maintained. “But if the owner has the money he can build another [house],” Vincent said. To him, as to many Lagosians, newer is undoubtedly better.

Lagos is growing by an estimated half a million people every year, thanks to a constant stream of migrants from across Nigeria and West Africa. Many are lured to the economic powerhouse with dreams of becoming a “big man”, or at least participating in the urban economy and excitement. But opportunities are squeezed with the saturation and many struggle to stay afloat. The population in Lagos is estimated to be between 16 and 21 million. Federal funds are disbursed based on population, rendering statistics politically contentious and they are notoriously malleable. Lagos is on track to become one of the world’s most populous cities. But geographically, it’s not that big, about 1,000 km square, so land prices are skyrocketing and there is a chronic housing shortage. The World Bank estimates Nigeria has a shortage of 17 million houses.

Lagos’ real estate market favors suppliers, and developers tend to build for the rich, despite the massive need for lower and middle-income housing. Much of the construction is substandard. Projects are rushed, masons poorly trained, and developers cut corners with an eye to the bottom line. Making matters more complicated, most of the city is waterlogged, and many neighborhoods are built on sand fill, so foundations are unstable and many houses are fissured. There are few public services, so across the spectrum from shacks to mansions most homes are self-sufficient little fiefdoms with individual boreholes, septic tanks and generators.

The state does have, on paper, a “megacity master plan” full of grandiose visions of a future Lagos. The recently retired governor Babatunde Fashola was credited with significant infrastructural development, from green spaces (many located in the center of highways and kept locked) to lighting projects. Under his watch, a law protecting historic buildings was passed, though it has barely been applied. Laws regulating building practices were invoked to demolish some dangerous structures. More visible is the public-private investment in Eko Atlantic, a new extension of Victoria Island being built from sand dredged from the sea a-la-Dubai. It will be a much more exclusive offshoot of its already highbrow neighbor.

Highly processed promotional videos paint a picture of a new, shiny, business-ready Lagos. But these are filmed almost entirely on the downtown islands, which are miniscule districts compared to the sprawling mainland where most Lagosians live. There are myriad dreams and visions of a glittery and successful future for the city. But the deeper questions of how to build for the environment and to meet the needs of the inhabitants of this burgeoning megacity are mostly relegated to the theoretical and academic spheres.

The physical consequence of all these forces is a transient mosaic of styles. “Lagos is a very eclectic city when it comes to architecture. It comes from history, from old shacks in the center of Lagos to new mansions.” Nnamdi Anombem, an architect, told me. “One only has to look at the landscape around to see styles are changing in the city. “

The notorious buzz that overlays the built environment—millions of lives racing in millions of directions along too small streets, with too many generators and too little infrastructure—makes the city feel kaleidoscopic, and at times overwhelming. Abraham Oghobase, a conceptual photographer has a series called “ecstasy, waiting to exhale.” He shoots dramatic, saturated images of himself leaping into the sky from atop parked buses. “How does one exhale in a demanding and constrictive city where millions of people struggle not just for physical space but also a mental anchor point?” he asked in his artist statement. “The inner turmoil created by a merciless city whose pressures tug at me from every side needs some form of exorcism.”

Yaba, where David and Vincent work, is a perfect example of Lagos’ mutability. The neighborhood was one of the first developed on mainland Lagos. Its streets are layered with a panoply of architectural styles; 1920’s bungalows abut 1980’s apartment blocks with sporadic contemporary misfits towering above them. Along its edges are slums comprised of exposed cinderblock houses and wooden shacks, some on stilts over the lagoon.

Now Yaba has been dubbed Lagos’ “silicone valley” for all the startups, and app developers setting up shop here. It is an education hub as well. The University of Lagos and Yaba Tech colleges are among the institutions here. Students and youth wear vibrant street fashions. It has an almost Brooklyn vibe to it, a very nascent Brooklyn. There are galleries and two coffee shops are opening. Just off the third mainland bridge, it is a convenient base for those who can’t afford to live on the Islands but want to be near Lagos’ commercial heart.

Street style in Yaba

Street style in Yaba

The central arteries in Yaba are dusty and urban, like much of Lagos. But there are back streets where well-maintained bungalows nestled into gardens and historic mansions with detailed tiling are interspersed with palm trees. On these streets you can remember that Lagos is a tropical city.

But the old buildings are being torn down at alarming rates. The bungalow adjacent to the school where David and Vincent work had romantic detailing on the front. Inside, though, it was subdivided into cramped single rooms with concrete floors, colloquially termed “face-me-face-you” style apartments. There was an eviction notice spray painted in red on the façade when I first visited. It was the subject of much discussion among the residents of the building, one of whom said she had lived there for fifty years. Worried that if they lost this home they would be priced out of the neighborhood, some were fighting in court to stay. Sunday Nwankwo, a shy passport-photographer turned taxi driver said he had not paid rent in years because of the ownership squabbles. The last he paid was 1,500 naira (US$7.50) per month for his single room.

When I returned the following week the bungalow had already been torn down. The photoshopped posters of Rihanna, Beyoncé and Serena Williams that had wallpapered Nwankwo’s one-room abode were buried under the rubble. Residents were sleeping outside or had scattered to crash with friends and family.

If the owners follow the trend in Yaba, in its place will sprout contemporary flats. Increasing land prices and growing middle class demand in the neighborhood make these new buildings marketable, even though they are often low quality and incongruous with the environment. Changes like this are shifting both the aesthetic and the population of the neighborhood. 

 

Before: The bungalow on Moleye Street  - An eviction notice spray painted on the front of the bungalow

Before: The bungalow on Moleye Street  – An eviction notice spray painted on the front of the bungalow

Sunday Nwankwo in his home, inside the bungalow - The remnants of the bungalow after demolition

Sunday Nwankwo in his home, inside the bungalow – The remnants of the bungalow after demolition

How Long is Now

Lagos was first populated by the Awori Yoruba clan and later taken over by royals from the kingdom of Benin. The traditional name of the city is “Eko,” derived from either “Oko” the Yoruba word for “farm” or “Eko” a word from Benin for “war camp”. People still refer to Lagos as “Eko” in Yoruba, and the slogan “Eko o ni baje o” (“Lagos will not go bad”) is plastered on bumper stickers, advertisements for government project sites and even a tourism-focused Instagram feed.

The first European visitors were Portuguese who stopped at Lagos Island in 1472. They started using the Portuguese word “Lagos” which means “lakes” to refer to the mangrove-surrounded stopover on their trade routes. But the Portuguese did not settle in Lagos. The first foreigners to move in were the British, who annexed the colony in 1861. The oldest buildings still extant in Lagos date from this period.

Late 1800’s colonial houses with wooden floors, large verandas and sweeping roofs still stand in Ikoyi, the former colonial residential neighborhood on the island, and in a few pockets of Lagos’ comparably vast mainland. The most concentrated cluster of these spacious buildings is in the railway compound, just a few blocks from Moleye Street, where David and Vincent stay. The bungalows that dot their street housed government workers. They are built in variations of the Brazilian style, one of Lagos’ most iconic architectural motifs. In the mid 1800’s, freed slaves returning from Sierra Leone, called Saros, and from Brazil, called Agudas, brought back masonry skills and architectural styles inspired by Portuguese colonists. The houses have detailed moldings and arched windows and doorways. Over the years those architectural elements softened, with rounded arches flattening over the decades, and the bungalows on Moleye Street show an eclectic sampling of the evolution of the style.

At the end of the Second World War, Lagos became one of the centers of “Tropical Modernism”. British architects moved into major cities across West Africa and experimented with a Bauhaus-influenced aesthetic and climate-informed design.

All of these earlier styles were built with technologies that adapted to the climate. Buildings were naturally cool on the inside, with good ventilation and windows or verandas designed to catch the breeze.

The tropical moment ended around the late 1960’s when political instability limited construction projects. In the 1970’s the oil boom fueled a parallel construction boom, but now it was informed mostly with a desire to showcase that new wealth. Buildings started to imitate American offices and suburban homes. Air conditioning became an essential component of architecture as power seemed limitless in an oil-producing country, and so most buildings had no natural cooling design.

Ozoemena Mmeboro sells air conditioners in a small shop in Yaba on the ground floor of a three-story building clearly built over several decades. The bottom floor has rounded arched doorways and wooden ceilings, the second floor has slightly flatter arched windows and fewer details, and the top floor has a flat contemporary façade. When he saw me looking at the building, he told me to come in. “It’s an old, old building, feel how cool it is!” He said, and noted the irony that he sold air conditioners out of a building that didn’t require one. As Ola Uduku, a professor of architecture at the University of Edinburgh wrote in a 2005 paper, “By the late 1960s, the post-tropical era, had commenced, marked by anonymous generic corporate design aesthetic, that adopted the faceless banality of the glass facade and the bland utilitarianism of the breeze-block structure punctured with louver-glass windows and the ubiquitous air-conditioning unit.” The air conditioner, she noted, became symbolic “not as simply a machine to provide comfort, but as a status symbol.”[1]

The various styles and the histories they represent are layered in neighborhoods like Yaba, Lagos Island, Ikoyi and Ebute Metta. But the population boom is driving a housing boom that fails to meet the needs of Lagos’ mostly poor population. With a mainstream culture that is future-focused and largely neglects history, the layers, and Lagos’ identity are shifting fast. I was attracted to that evolution and to the questions it presents about Lagos’ history and its future. Who will the city be for? What is the value of old structures in the face of dire housing needs? What can historical buildings teach contemporary architects? And as I explored all this change, my mind kept returning to a mural I saw last year on the side of a derelict building turned art space in Berlin that stated in bold letters “HOW LONG IS NOW.”

History and Nostalgia

Historic buildings still stand in the railway compound in Ebutte Meta

Historic buildings still stand in the railway compound in Ebutte Meta

Sola Akintunde is a 28-year-old self-described “almost-architect”. He completed his studies and is managing an architectural project but has yet to pass his exams. He is also the vice president of Legacy Foundation, a civil society organization that works on preserving historic buildings in Lagos.

I met him at the Jaekel house, a renovated hundred year old home in the railway compound in Ebute Metta, on the mainland in Lagos. The whole of the railway compound is idyllic and could be a movie set—in fact it has been. It set the backdrop for the Independence era thriller “October 1st”. The award-winning neo Nollywood film is among a new crop of movies elevating the historically low-budget, fast-paced industry with more lush films.

The compound is littered with various examples of historic architecture. There are the sharp eaves of British-influenced colonial roofs over wide verandas and big slatted shutters for ventilation. A 1960’s era concrete home seems inspired by UFO aesthetic: a bulbous foyer is covered with a flat roof.

Most of the buildings are in disrepair, and there is a lethargic air to the compound, set away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding neighborhoods. Banana and palm trees barely rustled in the still afternoon air. Sola was late, so I wandered around looking for snacks in tucked away street side boutiques. A woman who introduced herself as Madame Joy sold indomie noodles and pure water—Nigerian versions of ramen noodles and water sachets. She told me she lived in a house just like the Jaekel house and pointed it out down the road. The wooden window shutters had gaping holes, and the roof was falling apart. I asked if it leaks, and she said, “only when there’s heavy rain, water enters”. She lives in the house with her husband, an accountant for the railway, and several other families. “I like it more than bricks, it’s very cool, air enters, ventilation is much,” she said.

Sola eventually arrived, and echoed Joy’s assessment “These old buildings, you find they are so comfortable to stay in, so much air and the so called new buildings are so uncomfortable,” he said. Sola despises all of the stucco new buildings. “Most of the new things are not so beautiful.”

Sola is a history nerd, who waxes poetic about how cool Nigeria was in the 1970’s. “Everybody that was anybody came to Nigeria in the seventies. Everybody came and everybody had bikes too,” he said, degenerating into sentimental riffing on individual transport. “The bike is symbolic, it represents freedom, everybody doing their own thing.” He just bought a motorcycle. “Now everyone is like ‘don’t ride a bike! You are on the level of having a car,’” he said. “I’m like ‘you don’t get it.’”

He is equally sentimental about history, something he says he never learned growing up. He showed me vintage pictures on display in the Legacy museum upstairs in the Jaekel house: images of former heads of state and early regiments of soldiers. He said when he first saw the photos he was transfixed. “I thought this was fascinating, I had never seen anything like this. I was in my early twenties and I was like ‘why have I never seen this before?’ And this was the good times, because when I was growing up was crap.”

People blame the forward leaning aesthetic of the “average Nigerian” on Nigerians’ tendency to forget their history. “History was removed from the school curriculum for a long time. You ask young people about the leaders we had and they don’t know them,” Desmond Majekodunmi, current president of Legacy told me. He of course recalls the history. He is the son of the former administrator for the Western Region, Dr. Moses Majekodunmi, and a photo of Desmond as a small boy clutching the knee of his father is among the myriad black and white images bedecking the museum walls.

“It might have been an overt act of the military government,” he hypothesized about the lack of history in school curricula. “It was probably in their interest to forget history because every single one of them were illegitimately imposed on the populous.” Numerous people have told me history was struck from school curriculums, and placed the date at various points. But it appears there has not actually been an overt declaration denying history; rather the subject was folded into social studies a few years ago, due to the lack of teachers and lack of jobs for history graduates. A 1993 academic paper by Professor A.A. Adeyinka on curriculum suggests earlier roots for the lack of interest in history. Adeyinka found that students ranked history 9th out of 12 subjects in level of importance. This was due to the lack of employment for history majors and government focus on directly applicable subjects for development in the sciences and technology. But Adeyinka emphasized, “the major reason why Nigerian adolescents adopt a poor attitude to history is the fact that the society itself does not rate history highly.”[2]

Majekodunmi says his interest in the old buildings is tied to his interest in promoting historical awareness more broadly in Nigeria. “We started with buildings, and it gives you a point of context, a point of reference. From there you can ask who lived in the building, who was there,” he explained.

Sola thinks curiosity about history skipped his parents’ generation: “There was a generation gap, a generation that didn’t see Nigeria for Nigeria, that just wanted to make money,” he said. “I think it skipped that generation because they experienced the [Biafran civil] war, they were bitter about that, you can’t just start talking about negative parts of the past. I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me about history.” But Sola is now making up for lost time. He is joined by several members of Legacy who are of his generation, go-getting, educated 20 and 30 something’s. He told me his favorite YouTube channel is British Pathé, which collects old footage. He types “Nigeria” in the search box and passes hours watching the silent reels of old elections and a visit from the Queen.

Legacy foundation, in addition to renovating historic buildings—there are two additional renovation projects in the works in the railway compound—hosts historic architectural walking tours of Lagos Island, and excursions outside of Lagos to historically significant towns. (“Calabar is out of this world!” Legacy founder John Godwin quipped during a meeting where the members discussed upcoming plans). They produced a map of historic sites across Nigeria, and advocated for the 2011 passage of a Lagos state law identifying 86 buildings as historic landmarks. But the movement is small, and progress is slow. “In Nigeria, you’re out there hacking away, sweating, cutting the weeds. Then you sit back, pleased with yourself to have a beer, aah. Then you hear something, glance back, and the grass is already pushing back,” Godwin said, a metaphor for his activism. Since the landmark buildings were identified there has been no funding for renovation, or even labeling. “They don’t even have plaques on them” Sola said.

Legacy walking tours cost 5-7,000 naira, (US$25-$35) far out of the price range of people like David and Vincent who earn 20,000 naira per month ($100). “We’re not trying to be sharkish here, and we do want all kinds of people to join, but this is our bread and butter,” Lanre Shasore, the Legacy events secretary said. “We need to expand interest in the issue, right now it’s all embassy people and that’s not good,” she said.

Godwin, an architect who moved to Lagos in 1954 with his wife Gillian Hopwood, started Legacy in the 1990’s. The couple designed buildings, contributing to the mid-century modernist architectural renaissance. They have documented historic architecture over the years and published numerous books on Nigerian architecture. He also taught in the architecture department at the University of Lagos, and tried to instill in his students an awareness of climate-sensitive building. “We did not have anyone teach us climate sensitive design except professor Godwin,” Sola said, “that’s because he’s not from here and he knew the difference between where he’s from and here is climate.”

Many of the members of Legacy are architects. While there is a heavy dose of nostalgia in their preservation work, these old buildings are also important for the contemporary issues around the Lagosian built environment.

Something that’s shiny

A panoramic streetscape in Yaba

A panoramic streetscape in Yaba

Lagos is a city where you can’t be overdressed, where sequins and heels are perfectly acceptable at brunch, and expected for cocktails. “Girls can wear their ten inch heels and it’s like your god given right to kill it” one male friend told me. It is a place where your social standing is visible and instantly assessed, from how you get around, what clothes you are wearing, who you can boss around, and also your neighborhood. Across the social spectrum dressing well and presenting your most attractive self is a key value.

It is a showy city, a gaudy city, one obsessed with the hustle, with making money, deeply entrepreneurial, and also one where superficiality reigns supreme. I know multiple conceptual artists whose main theme is masks, “everyone is wearing a mask here” Chriss Nwobu told me of his blatant photographic series “masked burden.” He shot himself with his face caked in mud, dressed in a crisp white suit and smoking, his gaze deeply tragic.

David and Vincent fit into this ethos. You wouldn’t know by looking at them that they are homeless. They are sharp and fashionable, their aesthetic taste in buildings mirrored in their style. David was wearing a plaid cap adorned with a silver chain, Vincent a brown polo shirt and black slacks.

“Always the new thing looks better,” they both agreed. “New things make a place more attractive,” David said. I ask them how to tell if a building is beautiful and Vincent said, “it’s money.”

The same can be said of aesthetics across this hyper capitalistic city. Subtlety, simplicity, clean lines are not the aesthetic; the aesthetic is “more”. More shiny, more gaudy, more ostentatious; more columns, more pillars, more marble. And so to them, in the middle are buildings like the school where they work, renovated, painted and maintained buildings.

“If you have money you can make a building beautiful. It’s maintenance. If you don’t maintain it, without money, no matter how gigantic the building is it will not be beautiful.” David explained.

This aesthetic is keenly reflected in the market. I showed Mfon Ntudikem, a pastor and real estate practitioner, a picture of a Tudor style bungalow in Yaba. It was set back from the road and had a porch framed by trees growing in front. “I would put this on my list as a vacant plot. I would say there’s a bungalow but you can knock it down and build. It wouldn’t be the asset,” He told me. “People want shiny new things.” He agreed that it was a charming house, one that he and his wife would like, but that their taste is shared by a miniscule minority, nearly irrelevant in the broader real estate market.

Ntudikem sells, renovates and manages construction. We met outside a new restaurant he was building in Ikoyi. He drove up in his Mercedes and parked it in the dusty lot. Around the building were tall historic apartment blocks, the ones that catch my eye for their tropical, modernist architecture.

“What we’re looking at when we’re looking at property, we’re not looking at historic value, not even aesthetic value. We’re looking for function and looking for something that’s shiny, that isn’t necessarily pretty. When we see property we want to see maximum cash flow.”

“In terms of ostentatious, we want to catch the eye of the one who will pay big money to stay there. It might not last four years, but it looks good. They don’t even check if it’s quality. It won’t be wood because that’s not shiny.”

The best buildings on their block, David and Vincent agreed, were the newest ones. There were three that started at the corner. “That one, it’s a beautiful place, it’s built nice,” David said, pointing to a green stucco building behind a high spiked fence. Vincent said before there was an old small bungalow, torn down and replaced. “If it’s an old place no one will say they want to come here. Because it’s attractive they say ‘let me come from my old place, come to my new place and change my level.’”

“But they’re ugly.” Papa Omotoya, an experimental architect in Lagos said, of the mainstream contemporary buildings David and Vincent were lauding from their gate-side perch. “I don’t even call it architecture, I call it a building, a structure”

“Here architecture is rarely a response to the environment. We believe we should shut it all up and do it all mechanically,” Anombem, another architect, explained. I met him at an old government hotel in Ikoyi. Floor to ceiling windows looked out over the lagoon, through a palisade gate. There was a patio outside but no one was sitting on it, instead the restaurant was full, the air conditioner blasting. “If we were in LA we’d be sitting outside,” he said. “Here you don’t want to see the sun, you want to be in an air conditioned car, an air conditioned flat.”

To Anombem, this is based on culture, “Really you can tell the culture of people by their architecture,” he said, “In people’s homes, when they have big windows they cover them. The natives are more conservative.” It’s also based on economics, he said. “If you’re choosing between huge plate windows versus a couple of small windows, the guys selling it says just put in the two small ones, save me money.”

Anombem identifies as more of an engineer than an architect. He works with computers, and teaches Revit, the most common architectural design program, but he’s also a bit of a romantic. He wrote a thesis called “where are the butterflies?” and he is wistful about his past growing up in Ikoyi, the former colonial residential quarter, later inhabited by the Nigerian elite. “Growing up in Ikoyi we had a low hedge, now everyone has high fences. It’s a mixture of culture and environment. You want to fence yourself in.”

“Super expensive slums”

The elements in Lagos are thick. The air is thick, the smog is thick, even the breeze is thick. When the rain starts it pounds and hurls grime at walls and into windows. I tried to keep the windows open in my first apartment during a rainstorm, to allow the cool wind to permeate my space. But when I came back into the room there were black sinewy lines along the walls, the sodden dust morphing into an abstract painting as the wind blew it inside. Maintenance is physically hard here, and the tangled social and business environments makes it worse; the World Bank ranked Nigeria 170th out of 189 countries in ease of doing business this year.[3]

One three-bedroom townhouse one real estate agent showed me (knowing that I wanted a one-bedroom apartment) was tucked down a boulder-strewn dirt road bordered by an exposed sewage canal. The massive gates shut out the slum he thought I didn’t know of, just around a bend in the road. The whole compound was bleached concrete and filled with two rows of identical houses, soulless with identical white walls and reflective blue-tinted windows. It felt like an expensive, overheated prison. The houses were new, finished two years ago, but already the walls were fissured. Tade Adeyeye, the owner of the house, said it was because construction had stalled for two years in the middle, just before they built the roof. The rains had seeped in to the foundation, but the builders just picked up where they started, building a ceiling above unstable walls.

Like this housing estate, a cloistered concrete island, the current definition of luxury is something built on top of Lagos, not something that integrates the Lagosian climate.

A crew of 20-something Lagosians, many of whom had lived abroad and recently returned, gathered to watch a movie one evening on the roof of a family home in the Parkview neighborhood in Ikoyi. Taking in the view from atop the three-story mansion, Emeka Okocha, a young social entrepreneur, said he used to be able to see the lagoon from the roof. Now the city has expanded and all you can see are more mansions and apartment blocks.

From outside looking in, Vincent and David see luxury, class, a sign that the residents made it. They hypothetically debated which of the new constructions down the block in Yaba was best, and determined that they were all fine, it’s just a matter of taste.

“All the buildings are ok, it’s just the pattern that is different. They are not the same. It’s different people that have them,” David said.

“You cut your cloth according to your size,” Vincent agreed, nodding.

“They are all beautiful, everything. The choice is not the same, what you want is different from what I want,” David said.

“And I build according to what I like,” Vincent said.

“For the average Nigerian, what you give him is what he’ll take. He’s not thinking of the buildings,” Tunde, a corporate lawyer turned real estate investor told me. “Talking to you is so refreshing,” he said, “no one is thinking about these questions,” as we discussed the need for window sills so windows can be open during cooling rainstorms, affordable housing, and semi-luxury and one-bedroom apartments for the burgeoning professional class.

“Nigerians travel abroad and try to build what we see there here,” he said, “but the climate is not the same here. We need to build for the environment.” The aesthetic of contemporary architecture reflects the nouveau riche, showy taste of places like Atlanta and Houston, international hubs with significant Nigerian populations, more so than the London or New York look, even though many Nigerians travel there as well. Banker Otunba Subomi Balogun’s Ikoyi mansion is modeled on the White House, but it was built in 2011 and somehow the result is more garish than stately.

Houses like Emeka’s in Parkview are little fiefdoms that exist almost entirely out of relation with the rest of the city. Even in the luxurious parts of town, homes are essentially DIY. Mena Odu is another young, highly educated returnee trying to create a career here while living in her parents’ columned mansion. Theirs is in Oniru, a sand-filled extension of Victoria Island built in the past two decades after the 1991 clearance of Maroko, one of the city’s most iconic slums.

“We live in super expensive slums,” she said. “We don’t have public water, we have a borehole, and my dad will come in and be like ‘the borehole broke, go and get your buckets.’”

Rational and beautiful

Professor Olumide Olusanya is a Pentecostal Christian and architect who describes his aesthetic principal as “rational and beautiful.” He sees the physical design of a structure as the aesthetic and his buildings have beams, joints and structure exposed to show the elegance of engineering.

He adores the physics of suspension bridges. He showed me a model of his dream house, which is supported through suspension and terraced over a ravine. He called the San Francisco Bay Bridge “one of the most fantastic structures I’ve ever seen.”

“The scale of it! Two levels of traffic, about 6 lines in both directions! And you carry it with cables,” he said as he showed me a photo.

When I called to arrange the interview, he asked me if I had studied architecture. When I said I hadn’t, he began our interview with a lecture on the history of architecture starting from the Romans and spanning byzantine and contemporary design. He had a large monitor on the wall next to his desk and he pulled up images to illustrate his points. “Look at this! It is not aesthetic, it’s a joint, and it’s beautiful,” he exclaimed pointing to a photo of the bridge.

“Aesthetics is scientific. That which is arbitrary cannot be beautiful. Beauty is always the mind’s perception that this thing is correct, some harmony in terms of the relationships of parts to one another, to the whole and to one another. And I find that this harmony is recurring in the eternal structure of things,” he explained. “There must be some limitation, some problem you are trying to solve for it to become beautiful. When you are out to sea it’s hard to make something beautiful.”

Luckily for him, he sees a massive problem to tackle in Lagosian architecture. “I think what we’re building is wrong and I think how we’re building is wrong and I’ve been preaching this for the last 30 years,” he said.

He’s one of very few people trying to build in a contemporary way for the environment. He designed terrace houses with high windows at the front and back to allow ventilation and he’s designing a new government housing estate that has big windows on either side, elevated walkways and outdoor foyers to ease the transition from the privacy of the home to the public sphere in the city.

In a presentation titled “the science of housing for the megacity” he quoted Allison and Peter Smithson, 20th Century British architects in a section he dubbed “the sociology of housing.”

“The house, the shell which fits man’s back, looks inward to the family and outward to the society and its organization should reflect this duality of orientation.” He followed this with a slide illustrating what he terms healthy and unhealthy sociology. Healthy sociology, he wrote, “Promotes a sense of community where a threat to one is a threat to all” next to a photo of an American street with row homes with porches. Unhealthy sociology, he wrote, “Promotes alienation and isolation— ‘everyone for himself, God for us all’” next to an image of Lagos with track houses with tiny windows behind huge walls facing an undeveloped bushy area.

“It is clear that the housing shortage is atrocious. We must find a way to solve it. The way we are addressing it is too costly. I think everyone is living in very, very inadequate housing at every level. Even the rich, what they pay for what they get does not make sense.”

A suppliers market

The office of Lamudi, an online real estate site, personifies Yaba’s tech startup culture. The ground floor of the multi-storied “e-center” was being renovated, so I walked across the dirt and piles of cement blocks looking for the staircase. Lamudi was on the third floor. Desks were arranged in clusters across the warehouse-like open floor plan. Obi Ejimofo, the managing director, was sitting in his “corner office”—a table tucked in the back against the wide windows. When we met he pulled me into a small side meeting room off the main floor.

I was brimming with questions about the real estate market, based on my own attempts to find an apartment. “For a long time in Lagos the real estate market was a sellers market.” Ejimofo said, and that character still dominates. One quirk of Lagosian house hunting is that realtors and landlords make no attempts to make a place appealing. They do not clean, repaint, or repair anything until a renter agrees to move in, and pays. So house hunting means traipsing all over town to look into bathrooms with their doors off their hinges, kitchens with cockroaches on the floor, bedrooms with peeling wall paper and cracked tiles. In New York, a friend was trying to rent out her apartment and asked me to take some pictures, “thank you darling!” she wrote, “can you do one more of bedroom that makes it look big?” In Lagos, apartment listings online are as unappealing as the in person visits—perhaps more so, since they are piecemeal so you can’t even get a sense of the potential of the place. You can click through hundreds of images of dark, dingy hallways with watermarks on the wall, confusing images of a corner of a room, but it doesn’t really matter because renters are desperate.

But a more significant issue—one that Ejimofo is trying to address—is the massive disconnect between what people want to buy and what people want to sell. “There’s a clear gap between supply and demand,” he said, “driven mostly by perception.”

Lamudi has started analyzing their data monthly and is working on an overarching study of the market. For now, Ejimofo said, the market is rife with “contradictions.”

“You’ve got over 70 percent of the people coming to the platform looking for something to rent, while 65 to70 percent of the supply is people wanting to sell,” he said. And developers are not building what people want. “People want to live in what they can afford and there are people that can afford a five bedroom house. But there aren’t as many people who can afford that as there are houses,” he said. “People are building four bedroom houses while people are looking for two bedroom flats. Every time we get a two bedroom apartment on our platform it’s gone,” he said, snapping his fingers. He blames the overabundance of mansions on the “optimism” of Nigerian real estate developers, and their preference for making big in a single deal, rather than acquiring many smaller deals.

This big-win, all or nothing psychology is also apparent in the fact that rent is paid up front, often for two years at a time. When people buy they are also usually paying cash. Biyi Adekunbi works with one of very few mortgage banks in Nigeria. He asked that the company name be withheld as he was not authorized to speak for the bank. His company is trying to innovate, funding constructions that will be sold with mortgages for the burgeoning young professional class. He took me to a site in Yaba, down a muddy potholed road. The new houses look like every other new, concrete house, and they are building almost exclusively three bedroom flats and townhouses. To support the tall structures they had to sand-fill the land, and while they insist they are investing in quality, the new housing estate next door partially collapsed less than two years after it was built. “Developers compromise things to reduce cost,” Adekunbi said, “There are houses that collapsed even during construction.”

Olusanya, the architecture professor blames the poor quality on the supplier’s market. “There’s so much shortage of housing so the people who get the land, whatever they ask, the buyer is forced to pay because there is so little option.”

Of course there is a huge population in Lagos that exists completely outside this complicated and expensive formal system. There are millions of Lagosians that live in informal communities, they are homeless or squatting or living in slums, unable to invest in long-term leases.

In the midst of all the metamorphoses in this incongruous city, many residents subsist on dreams. Vincent and David said there are a dozen people who sleep in front of the school most nights.

“There’s no how, you must find a place to sleep. Many, many people sleep here…

If there’s rain they find a place to hide. Since they don’t have a job they can’t stay one place,” David said.

Why we let them stay is we realize they are not a criminal, it’s just the situation in the country,” Vincent said. “If I have money I’d go stay in Ajah, Ikoyi, Lekki,” he said, listing burgeoning professional neighborhoods. “For now I don’t even have a house.”

But, he continued, “God can do anything at anytime. It’s not the money you are making. When it’s god’s time, god can move you from one place to another place, from this place,” he gestured to the dilapidated bungalow, “to this one,” he said, pointing to the new flats.

“It’s not how much you’re working, when you get your apartment, no it’s by the special grace of god.”

 

[1] http://blog.warszawawbudowie.pl/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Uduku_habitat-international-.pdf

[2] http://www.unilorin.edu.ng/journals/education/ije/dec1993/THE%20PLACE%20OF%20HISTORY%20IN%20THE%20NIGERIAN.pdf

[3] http://www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/nigeria

About the Author

She is a freelance journalist who covers inequality and the human repercussions of politics. Her 2011 reports exposing power structures and human rights abuses in medicine in India inThe Los Angeles Review of Books and The Atlantic were reprinted in the New York Times Op Talk and in an advocacy guide by the White Ribbon Alliance, a leading women’s health advocacy group. In 2013, she revealed the deadly underground abortion market in Nigeria under a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Reuters, The Atlantic, CNN, Al Jazeera, France 24, among other outlets.