Award-winning Kunle Adeyemi is an advocate of employing architecture to provide sustainable solutions to environmental problems. In line with this, he came up with the Floating School, a project designed as a solution to the issues of flooding and land occupation at Makoko in Lagos. In this interview with Oliver Enwonwu, he tells us more about sustainable solutions to environmental challenges posed by technology, as well as architecture, design and technology in Africa today.
You have won several awards and much recognition for your work, including the Floating School at Makoko in Lagos. Why is it so important to you?
It’s an important project to me because it exemplifies or embodies a lot of ideas and approaches to the way I think architecture should be developed, particularly in an environment that is quite challenging, as well as the fact that we are able to still achieve a lot from very little by learning from the environment and improving it to add value to the people that live there.
You travel frequently all over the world delivering lectures, as well as maintain an active practice in Amsterdam. What is your message in championing the cause of architecture from Africa?
Well, I think though there are lots of challenges, there are many opportunities in Africa. That is what I try to tell people I meet all over the world. Africa is a very diverse continent and is different from the popular impression the media gives of it as being filled with only challenges. It’s one of the fastest growing regions in the world and with that comes opportunities. There are also many important cities on the continent that are going to be centres of advancement for the rest of the world in the next few years. Therefore, people should begin to look at forming more sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with the continent.
You have worked for and with many notable architects. Who have had the most influence on your practice?
I would have to start with my father who was my most important inspiration. He was also an architect and through him, I learnt to develop a passion for the profession. I have also been fortunate to work with a couple of architects who made an impact on my design thinking. Some of them were my professors back in UNILAG like Professor Olusanya whom I still have a good relationship with, and Professor Aradeon. More recently is Rem Koolhaas; I worked with him for 9 years. He has been an important mentor. Through him, I’ve done a lot of projects that have given me my current experiences in large scale and complex projects. In a way, he has had a lot of influence on my work, my drive for architecture and in understanding a certain level of perfection.
Presently, there are several debates around environmental sustainability. How can Nigerian and African architects practise environmentally responsible architecture and design, including the use of sustainable materials?
I think one of the key issues with environmental sustainability is understanding the environment, the climatic conditions, the resources and material performance. Somehow, in the course of the last 20 to 30 years, the average architect has forgotten about these basic principles. With the advent of technology such as air conditioning and elevators, we simply thought we had solved the environmental issues. The irony is that we are complicating these issues because we are now burning energy and beginning to see the repercussion through the depletion of fossil fuels. In an environment like Nigeria where everything is run by generators using fuel because there’s no power to run the air conditioning, houses are no longer designed to be properly ventilated. Natural light is also not used as much as one should because the building is orientated in a wrong direction and gains a lot of heat. The window openings are also in the wrong areas. We are now dependent on fossil fuels. As a result, all around the world, one of the most significant problems of our time is climate change. So, we have to rethink and go back to the first principles to understand the natural resources that life has provided for us. Architecture should be designed around the environment and not around technologies that are not necessarily sustainable.
Considering the complexities of travel, energy and housing today, how can we imbibe sustainability into our everyday lives?
I think it’s not a challenge for the individual alone; it is city level planning and goes back to the very simple ideas of mobility. Many cities are not properly planned; they are planned around the use of vehicles and cars. We are starting to see that this is not sustainable, again for the same reasons I mentioned earlier. We should think of cities as small communities that are manageable—little clusters in which we don’t have to move around a lot. For individuals, that definitely improves human interaction at the street level. It’s back to the basic thing—clusters of communities that are self-sufficient with bicycle paths and lanes, walking paths and covered walk lanes. We could do the needful for movement and energy consumption. In a way, I think cities should be designed like villages, getting back to the basic ideas of clusters of villages that would still have the same quality of life as modern contemporary cities. So, we should be looking seriously at contemporary villages.
Is that going to be possible, considering our present level of technological advancement?
I think so. I like a city like Amsterdam because I think it’s a village; it’s a contemporary, very cosmopolitan village, particularly in the city centre. You have everything you need within a walking or cycling distance. There are all forms of mobility but the most effective way of getting around is either by walking or cycling.
In your opinion, what are the big emerging markets in design?
For architecture, emerging markets remain the developing regions. The developing regions are the places where there’s a lot of ongoing development while the developed regions are the less developing areas because they are more or less static. This ongoing development is very different from that in the Western world in the last 20 years. For now, it’s a market that is growing from ground up and the kind of investments for most projects are still very grassroots. The projects are not high profile and there aren’t as many large scale projects, but we are getting there. The focus is global South essentially Africa Asia and South America. I’m not saying there isn’t work going on in the rest of the world but it’s of a different kind. They are in a phase of civilization I would say, where they are rethinking the assets that they have already acquired or produced. So, it’s about adaptive reuse and recycling; it’s a second phase. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to build from scratch and to learn from the errors of the Western world, to enable us frog leap. For instance, with issues like energy, we can use solar power as opposed to electrical grids to develop a village.
Design is not just about styling but also about making better products and services. How can Nigerian designers compete in these emerging economies?
A very important part of product design is the ability to add value. A product is nothing but a material resource, which can be sourced locally or abroad. The ability to add value to it, to elevate it beyond what is obvious, is key. The process of adding value
includes improving our craftsmanship and production processes— perfecting these basic things. The perfection of craftsmanship is a culture that is somewhat lacking in this environment. We have to improve and train people better to perfect their trades. That is the only way we can remain competitive. Most African countries are blessed with natural resources but that is not the issue. It’s not necessarily just about the materials, it’s how you can process and add value to them that matters. That’s why the Western world will take our cocoa and bring it back as chocolate and we’ll pay 10 times to get it.
How can craft values be brought into mass production scale in Nigeria and Africa?
One of the first things is human capital development. We do not have a thriving culture for craftsmanship. We need to start training people and focus on spreading this culture across industries for the purpose of development. We need to develop a domestic market for certain products that are produced locally because we need to value our own. Architecture for instance is an applied art, so there is an opportunity to learn a lot from other arts like music, film and fashion that have gained popularity all over the world, basically because those involved have embraced the local culture and understand the foreign trend. For any craft to have mass appeal both locally and internationally, we must embrace this idea of the local and at the same time understand the international standard. We are a people that enjoy our own culture and that’s something we have going for us. Nigeria, being the largest Black nation in the world also has the advantage of population to drive any kind of trend. There are so many opportunities that we are bound to be successful if we understand what is local to us and cultivate it to a craft, doing this over again with a measure of international appeal.
As oil prices fall and budgets by government, companies and cultural institutions continue to dwindle, how should Nigerian architects adapt?
Nigerian architects would have to be more responsible in terms of what the real value of architecture is. It’s not about the wastefulness of design materials and finishing. We need to start moving to a phase, like the rest of the world where we are much more intelligent about how we build the environment, adopting methods of efficient building by using materials that are locally produced to create the required effect. I think we
are getting to an economy where there is a lot more free will. At the same time, it means everything we do needs to be a lot more intelligently conceived, to ensure that we are not wasteful. It’s not so much about material but about intellectual capital adding to your work. It’s also not about how expensive the building materials are but about how well the structure has been designed to conserve energy. This is a period when the built environment would have to reflect the state of the economy.
With rapid advancements in technology, what different ways can design and architecture interface with digital and analog technology in addressing information networks of the 21st century?
For me, it’s not so much about jumping on the most advanced or sophisticated technology. It’s about the relevant technology to what you’re doing. It’s very easy to follow the trend, thinking we have been able to solve a problem by introducing a certain kind of technology that may not be sustainable in the long term. Notwithstanding, there are certain things I think architecture can benefit from; technology for processing production materials and processes of design. Social media can also be used to communicate our works to people. Ultimately, architecture is about the physical representation of a conceptual framework, the composition of space, time, light, and the orchestration of the movement of people. That’s quite analog and physical; it has to be felt and built.
Is there such thing as Nigerian or African architecture?
This question about African architecture always comes up. Is there African fashion? The extent to which there’s a continent called Africa that is probably more diverse than other continents, is the same way you talk about architecture in Africa. For me, it’s a bit of a mute debate. For the ease of nomenclature, you can talk about African architecture. At the same time, it is as diverse as the continent itself. So, what makes it African, is it the colours? No, it’s because it looks like it’s from the environment. And to this extent, the architecture responds to its context, and then to the problems or challenges, solutions and opportunities in that environment. And when it seems like it has proliferated around a certain group of people within the region, then it’s okay to say it’s a kind of African architecture. At the same time, I do not think it’s a style or something that must necessarily look a certain way. There are no specific characteristics that are unique to it. Architecture in two regions is different; in terms of materials for instance, there’s no consistency. For example, in Nigeria, people now talk of “Nigerian music” because somehow, the brand has grown. The musicians are diverse, yet the collection of their works has grown to the level where they can claim the brand, Nigerian music. So, I think the onus is on the architects to elevate their work to a status where it’s recognizable and people can say, this is ‘Nigerian architecture.’ We are not there yet because there is no recognizable character. How many buildings in Nigeria have been internationally acclaimed or recognized? Until work by not one or two people, but several people, gets to that level, we cannot talk about Nigerian architecture. For me, that’s what I’m working towards— to take architecture to the point where it becomes a brand and an export product, and people say they want something that looks like Nigerian architecture.
Lastly, what underlying philosophy guides your life and work, and what legacy would you like to leave behind?
For work, architecture for me needs to respond to some important things— One, it needs to solve a problem or harness an opportunity. It shouldn’t look at the challenge but at the opportunity. It should simply respond to something. It needs to identify specific problems and opportunities. Two, it needs to be connected to earth in some way. It needs to be primarily people oriented, that is, to be a part of the local environment. It also needs to be organic in a way.
For life, I think man should have a dream and be focused on it. Life is about thinking, dreaming and improving one’s self. With that, there’s some degree of passion to follow one’s dream; with passion comes drive and the appetite to make things happen. Last, is integrity, which simply means what you think, say and do should be in alignment.