Logo Oluwamuyiwa's photographic series Monochrome Lagos and writer Allyn Gaestel's think piece both explore the theatricality of the city's architecture and Lagosians' relationship to it


The Maison Fahrenheit boutique hotel in Victoria Island boasts a diverse aesthetic. Victorian-style tables are scattered around modernist sofas. The rooftop terrace has clean white lines and large plastic Buddhas. A life-size multicoloured horse sculpture is next to the lift and the walls are crammed with photographs from around the world. 

Rukayat Ositade, a fledgling interior designer and recently returned Londoner muses, “It’s nice, I’m a little wowed, but I would have liked to see something local. It’s eclectic but they forgot Nigerian.”

It is ironic to call a building situated in Nigeria un-Nigerian but the question of identity and design is ever-present here. “We don’t really have a Lagos architecture,” urbanist Olamide Udoma argues. “We don’t have a ‘this is who we are’ as architects that work in Lagos.” And yet Lagos is a physical city crammed with buildings. The questions of what Lagosian architecture is and what it should be continue to dominate discussions on the contemporary city.

Rukayat’s own designs strive to reinvigorate an appreciation for indigenous style. She actively fights an aesthetic of cultural amnesia, the endless game of emulating foreign styles that she saw reflected in Maison Fahrenheit’s design. Her clients are “mostly those who have come and left and realise we have something here.” She contrasted this with the typical Nigerian who she described as “complacent. All you do is go out, face traffic, come home; it’s very stressful. You don’t recognize what you have here.” Her own pillow designs feature accents in Aso Ebi, the matching glistening fabrics people wear at weddings. Wedding halls are usually divided into two waves of color: one for the bride, one for the groom. The fabric is prescribed but the tailoring is not. Each person designs an outfit for themselves. The play between homogeneity and individuality is classically Lagosian. But lace, the accents Rukayat advocated as “Nigerian,” are almost always imported from China. 

"You can’t say ‘this is African, this
isn’t African’. The reality is we don’t
live in that world anymore"

Maison Fahrenheit was one stop on the Open House Luxe Lagos bus tour in April. The international architecture festival took place in Nigeria’s megacity for the first time this year. Other tours highlighted environmentally friendly architecture and historical landmarks. Also on the Luxe tour was the Alara concept store, a building celebrated for elevating traditional African aesthetics to the upmost level. It is a striking structure, with geometric cutouts on the front and sides and an earthy red patterned façade. It was the first major project in Nigeria for David Adjaye, the renowned British Ghanaian architect. 

These globalised influences and the hybridity of styles are intrinsically Lagosian. The penchant for glamour is also emblematic of Nigeria’s cultural capital, home to the entertainment industries. Layers of histories, influences and tastes are essential to every postcolonial city. Yet every place is unique in its histories and its current creolisms. 

“I think it is the question of identity. What is African?” architect Tosin Oshinowo muses. “It’s almost stealth, you can’t say ‘this is African, this isn’t African’…The reality is we don’t live in that world anymore. You can’t take vernacular and say ‘I'm going to make everything clay and call that African.’ I don’t have the answer to this. I think this is the path of discovery that we will be on.” She notes that patterning, as in the Alara façade, is an important element in African design and architecture. “Ironically if you want to think about the early 70s houses, they had perforated concrete blocks, it's an import, it’s Israeli, but it's become something that we signify and identify with here…it's not local, we are an amalgamation of many cultures.”

Lagos is a port city; it was built with the influence of centuries of traders, invaders and immigrants. One Open House attendee described Lagos as “a refugee city. It has a soul. There is a lot of pain, there are outbursts of joy.” This layering is visible in a cursory glance at the history of key architectural styles. Brazilian bungalows with their detailed moldings were the handiwork of freed slaves returning from Sierra Leone and Brazil in the 19th century. Boxy, breezy, tropical modernism was a movement dominated by Britons in the Independence era. Buildings from all the eras still stand, the history woven into the modern fabric of the city. Uses shift over time: many bungalows were subdivided into cramped single-room apartments called face-me-I-face-you; family homes are now offices. 

"People want to aspire to nice buildings.
Look at the typology of buildings in Lekki:
American suburbia, it’s all aspirational"

The 1970s oil boom shifted the psychology and the physicality of the city. The possibility for gluttony bloomed into ostentation. The nouveau riche built homes and offices in an American aesthetic. Windows shrank, a dependence on air conditioning grew, and the relationship to outdoor space diminished to become nearly nonexistent - problematic in a tropical climate with electricity shortages. The economic crash in the 1980s bred crime and suspicion. Fear manifested in ever-higher walls fracturing the city. There are homes where the additional layers are visible: small garden fences mushroomed into prison-yard heights topped with shards of glass. 

The continuing rise in inequality has only furthered the isolation and social division visible ever since. “In an environment where every plot is an island to itself…buildings become dislocated to the immediate surroundings,” says architect Papa Omotayo. This fracturing is not only about excluding the other, it is also about providing for ones own. Public services are deeply unreliable; each home powers itself with generators and batteries, most homes have a borehole for water and septic tank for waste. 

“Fear is such a powerful thing, we have designed for fear for so long,” Oshinowo adds. Now in formerly open neighbourhoods, people have erected gates that shut off cul-de-sacs and streets at night. “This culture of fear has now influenced the way we use space. You have the old city that is now appropriating itself to accommodating this issue of fear and you see new areas now taking this model and actually designing it into their buildings.” She points to Lekki, the fast growing suburb East of Victoria Island as “the epitome of this situation.” There the dance between aspiration and fear is visible. “People want to aspire to nice buildings. Look at the typology of buildings in Lekki: American suburbia, it’s all aspirational.” But these McMansions are all cloistered behind walls in exclusive housing estates. If one achieves the dream, one guards it jealously. 

"People live under bridges in Lagos but we
design high rise buildings in Ikoyi and expect
those people living under bridges to find
a way to those high rises. It doesn’t add up"

And yet Lekki’s imitation suburbia is distinctly its own. It is, like it or not, contemporary Lagosian style, according to Oshinowo. “When people say we don't have a style, come on, we have a bloody style, if you blindfold someone and drop them in Lekki, they know they're in Lekki,” she says. Not unlike the distinctly high end sapology in Congo, the way that one copies a style becomes a style in itself. 

The ongoing construction of Eko Atlantic is the apex of this isolationist construction. The sand-filled island being built off the coast of Victoria Island will be an expensive, exclusive, privately owned mini city. To create it, developers razed a slum and sand-filled Bar Beach, remembered as one of the few open public places in Lagos where classes mingled. In Lagos’ hyper privatised, capitalistic environment, theorists and architects may dream of and scheme for a more open city, but their work is ultimately at the whim of their clients. The city designed for and by the rich, is often out of sync with the needs of the vast majority of the public. Developers invest in condominiums while there is a severe housing shortage in a city that is home to in excess of 20 million. 

“People live under bridges in Lagos but we design high rise buildings in Ikoyi and expect those people living under bridges to find a way to those high rises. It doesn’t add up. So we have to understand how those people survive under those bridges, study as architects and then turn it into something that can be used to satisfy the aspirations of today,” says architect James George. The problem is also the pace of change. “We’ve had planning in Nigeria since the 1956 master plan…but the growth of city…has overrun the plans. The planning is static, rigid. We haven’t responded to the changes of life and changes of time,” says Taibat Lawanson, a professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos. 

In the midst of the infrastructural challenges, and with the contrast to the majority of the city, a place like Maison Fahrenheit inspires pride and desire simply for achieving luxury. But planned buildings are only one facet of Lagos. Informality dominates the economy and much of the city’s built environment. Buildings may be inappropriate but they are appropriated and molded into the life of the city. There may be no homes for the poor, but optimistic migrants come anyway. Every night, labourers tie mosquito nets on each of the terraces of the block of flats where I live. There is a gate surrounding the compound and a second gate barring the street, but social ties and access are ephemeral. The wispy tent additions to the 1980s concrete block work are contemporary Lagosian architecture, too.