Newsmaker: Olajumoke Adenowo

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Olajumoke Adenowo has been practicing architecture in Nigeria for more than a quarter of a century. Still, she became significantly better known when CNN named her “Africa’s star architect” in December, as part of a report on her Lagos-based practice, AD Consulting. The broadcast gave her a chance to talk about the state of African architecture, which she says “reflects national aspirations as countries race to develop; corporate aspirations as multibillion-dollar firms take root here; and individual aspirations within Africa’s rapidly growing middle class.” Adenowo, 46, grew up on the campus of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where her parents taught. She enrolled in the architecture program at age 14 and received her master’s degree at 21. Two years later, while working for Femi Majekodunmi Associates, she helped design the Federal Ministry of Finance building in Abuja. She founded her own firm, AD Consulting Limited, in 1994, with an office “the size of three chairs”; it now has 19 employees.

Architectural Record: How are architects perceived in Nigeria?

Olajumoke Adenowo: The general public doesn’t distinguish us from engineers or builders. People think it’s our job to make sure buildings don’t fall down.

How do you explain architecture, then?

I define it as art you can experience, functional art. Not art for art’s sake.

What buildings are you most proud of?

I’m particularly happy with our own studio, which is full of surprises, from the sculptural screen I designed to act as burglar bars to the conference room accessed via a glass bridge. The stairs are an abstraction of our firm’s logo—the nautilus shell. My Obafemi Awolowo University Senate Building is a contemporary interpretation of the famous bronze cast of the Yoruba King Olokun. It is naturally lit and ventilated, with a central atrium open to the sky and cooled by fountains. The Guiding Light Assembly (in the northeast of Lagos Island) is
a church building designed as a mixed-use civic center to ensure it never goes the way of its counterparts in other countries, which end up as bingo halls and apartments. It has become the hub of community life and buzzes with activity all week long.

What would a western visitor make of Nigerian architecture?

At Obafemi Awolowo University the visitor will find the best attempt at developing a contemporary African architecture. But the same visitor might balk at some of the private residences in Lagos—fake Tuscan- and Georgian-style houses! Nigerians are incredibly well-
traveled, and I guess they aspire to replicate designs they saw abroad as status symbols.

So what does Nigeria need, architecturally?

In the urban centers we need an architecture that speaks to the culture, speaks to our era, the geography, the climate and the spirit of Nigeria—if we don’t want to end up a bad copy of Dubai or Texas.

What will you do to make that happen?

What I am doing now: speaking, writing, and designing buildings that are true to my convictions.

Are you interested in sustainability?

My architecture is, and has to be, sustainable. Heating is not an issue in Nigeria but cooling is, and my buildings can all be cooled passively. Natural daylight streams into even the largest buildings I design. We find places for solar panels. But we can’t force clients to use solar panels; these energy alternatives must be adopted by a critical mass to encourage economies of scale. And for private commissions we can’t optimize proximity to transportation nodes or central sewage or waste-recycling plants, because the city infrastructure to support these is still developing.

How has the ongoing terrorism in northeast Nigeria affected your work?

I have completed over 20 projects in the north (one narrowly escaped collateral damage from a bomb blast), but no one from Lagos (in the south) would travel there for work now.

Like the U.S, Nigeria faces a problem of inequitable distribution of wealth. How does that affect architects and architecture?

When there’s a dwindling middle class, society is politically and economically unstable. And for architects, it’s the middle class that aspires to own their own homes, and whose commercial ventures call for new buildings. The future of Nigerian architecture—and of the country—lies in the continued growth of the middle class.