A new master’s house: The architect decolonising Nigerian design
Demas Nwoko’s structures are a model of culturally relevant and sustainable African design.
In the Igbo town of Idumuje-Ugboko in southeast Nigeria, artist and architect Demas Nwoko reports to his home office Monday through Friday.
The room is cool, softly lit and furnished with his own hand-built wooden desks, tables and chairs. A selection of Nwoko’s terracotta sculptures is displayed on shelves. Throughout the day, the 84-year-old meets one-on-one with his two young interns, recent architecture school graduates who assist with the logistics of his latest building projects. His feedback and direction are those of an exacting perfectionist, but his serious tone is softened by an easy chuckle.
Outside his two-storey mud-brick home is the community’s only paved road, connecting the town to the capital Abuja in the north and Lagos in the west. A slow but steady stream of residents patronises nearby shops, buying mostly basic food provisions. The farm-based economy here is bolstered by work in Lagos and remittances from abroad.
The African Designs Development Centre, Nwoko’s factory, is the sole industrial venture in town and is under the direction of Nwoko’s son, 54-year-old Ashim, an architect and building contractor. The family hopes to eventually employ workers from the area to manufacture furniture and building components from locally sourced materials to be sold across the country. For now, the workshop is used to build custom parts to supply Demas Nwoko’s building commissions.
Today, Nwoko’s attention is focused on a recent government commission to design the new National Gallery, 415km (258 miles) away in Abuja. His laptop sits next to stacks of notes for his autobiography and a manuscript about his architectural philosophy. His wife beckons repeatedly until he finally allows his work to be interrupted for lunch.
“I’m a realist, a concrete thinker, allergic to wasting effort,” Nwoko says, gazing into the distance as he speaks, as if seeing his vision before him. His now-white beard and afro echo the pattern of white circles on his indigo tie-dye top. He is still a man with much to do as he follows his plan to “keep pushing in my own small corner at what is positive and viable”.
Following global trends
Nwoko grew up as a prince in a mud palace, a son of the village king. The palace was fashioned to emulate those of the Oba of Benin from whom the royal family descends, and features spaces for public gatherings, private meetings, and secret rituals, all constructed from laterite.
“By the age of three, I was already recognising architectural features,” he recalls with some wonder. “I was aware of buildings as architecture – design built by somebody.”
Throughout his childhood, he played at architecture and paid close attention to new buildings in the community, watching their construction from the foundations up.
To formalise his interests, Nwoko apprenticed as a draughtsman in the Public Works Department, preparing himself to study architecture. But after applying for admission to universities in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, backed by the promise of government funding, he became disillusioned with his plans. “Other government-sponsored students came back to work in an office. I wouldn’t be studying my own idea of architecture,” Nwoko explains. He chose to study fine arts instead, ensuring that he would have the opportunity to develop himself creatively.
But when he got to the University of Zaria, he “found that there was a complete absence of the study of our own traditional knowledge”.
Nwoko remembers how the curriculum avoided the study of modern art as the “Europeans tried not to teach it because it would reveal that there is an African influence”.
So he and like-minded art students formed the Zaria Arts Society in 1958, a collective committed to the independent study of Nigerian artistic heritage as a means of forming the foundation for their curriculum.
They developed a methodology they coined “Natural Synthesis”, anchoring their drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking in the knowledge of African art traditions (with the conscious addition of Western innovations where useful) as a platform for their creative output. Among peers who would become giants of Nigerian modern art, such as Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Yusuf Grillo, Nwoko created works inspired by Nok terracotta heads from 300 BC, the ancient sculptural works of Ile-Ife, and everyday scenes from his hometown.
Nwoko soon formalised a related guiding philosophy called “New Culture” to describe his personal practice. Believing that everything must be grounded in one’s heritage and that culture is continually evolving, he draws from his ancestral legacy to provide the foundation for culturally relevant development and innovation.
In a newly independent Nigeria in the 1960s, a similar reverence for indigenous knowledge could have gained prominence across disciplines as an assertion of national pride. However, Nwoko’s embrace of traditional methods in his architectural practice was mostly an anomaly.
Reflecting on the general mindset of the times, Nwoko describes how, as a country, “everything we did was to follow the world trend, whether it served us or not. We didn’t want to pursue our own knowledge”.
Traditional Nigerian design
After graduating from the University of Zaria in 1961 and receiving a scholarship to study theatre and stage design in France, Nwoko was recruited to help launch the University of Ibadan’s School of Drama. As he settled into his new city, he started his first building project, the construction of his private residence and arts space, which he would later expand to become a full-facility community arts institution named New Culture Studios.
Given his background, it was a conventional choice to use on-site materials in his construction. Hand-built earthen homes can still be found, particularly in rural communities. Their often lumpy, coarse surfaces show evidence of an organic building process and the individual tastes of the people who built them.
As Ashim explains, “mud building is indigenous technology developed almost everywhere in Nigeria”. And while the regional makeup of the soil may differ, the practice exists throughout the country.
“Mud is where you stand,” Nwoko reasons. “Dig a little hole outside and build … When we built with mud, everyone had a house.”
In the 1960s “virtually all houses built in Ibadan were built with mud,” Nwoko explains. “I didn’t invent it; I just built like everyone else.”
Nwoko began building his own house in Ibadan with the methods that have remained his hallmarks. He created the bricks with laterite soil extracted on-site during the excavation process. Left unpainted, the slight colour variations, ranging from ochre to rust, reflect the strata of the earth from which they came.
Trees removed during construction were repurposed as flooring, doors, window shutters, and the framework for the roofing. Granite stones from local quarries form interior and exterior accent walls. Echoing the practical elements of traditional Nigerian design, the home was built with few windows to keep out the intense light and heat of the sun.
Ventilation portals create pathways for breezes to enter from the floor and for hot air to escape at ceiling level. With this passive cooling system, as well as the natural temperature regulation provided by the mud walls, no air conditioning is needed, year-round.
The structure was designed to become more beautiful with time and wear, the use of local materials offering resilience to the specific environmental conditions of the site – Nwoko’s Ibadan home has never needed renovation or significant repair since completion in 1964.
Two generations later, Nwoko’s grandson, Rufus, 26, lives in the home. As a photographer and theatre artist, he uses New Culture Studios’ expansive, open-air theatre to showcase his performances and those of his contemporaries.
While this Ibadan residence remains a lasting example of historical building technologies advanced by contemporary design innovation, almost 60 years after independence, most Nigerians are instead living in their own version of the colonial master’s house.
Imported problems, imported solutions
For now, in the city known as the largest urban territory in all of West Africa, concrete construction is ubiquitous. Ibadan’s nonstop expansion has even created an abundance of leftover packaging so bountiful that the waste has become its own mini-industry. Discarded LaFarge, Elephant and Dangote brand concrete sacks are upcycled into shopping bags and sold for 50 Naira (14 cents) by industrious children in open-air markets.
Just under five kilometres (three miles) from Nwoko’s home, in a convenient location between the popular Ele-yele market and the bustling Dugbe central business district, is a rare open plot of land along a main throughway that has otherwise been long-since developed.
Throughout the day, flatbed trucks stacked with bags of imported concrete make U-turns into the construction site where three- and four-bedroom homes are being built in a private estate. Concrete blocks are used to build the two-storey structures, which feature large windows that will allow an abundance of light and heat to enter, also demanding the use of electrical fans and air-conditioning units in every room.
In Nwoko’s view, such inconveniences classify as “imported problems that didn’t exist. Then [we] got imported solutions to resolve [them].”
In the case of Nigeria, a country with an unreliable electricity supply and daily blackouts, these imported solutions include gasoline-powered home generators, which produce inescapable rough engine noise accented by the smell of exhaust fumes.
Future residents of the development will pay handsomely, despite these inconveniences, with prices ranging from 39 million to 50 million Naira ($110,000-$140,000), a disqualifying sum for most Ibadan residents where the average three-bedroom home is around 12 million Naira (about $34,000).
According to Mr Ibrahim, the development’s on-site architect, the cost is affordable for the retired senior federal employees and those moving from Lagos and Abuja who were able to pre-purchase the homes. He reports that the 50 properties have sold out before the construction is completed.
Colonial values and aesthetics
The practice of using bricks made from sand and imported cement came with the colonial presence, when they were used for both residential construction and large-scale government buildings in Ibadan and across the country.
As described in Nwoko’s 1979 essay, The Functioning of A House, British materials and building styles reflected the cultural values and aesthetics that they brought from home, practices suited to very different environmental and social needs.
The importation pathways created from the UK to Nigeria created a revenue stream for the colonial government by way of taxing the foreign materials upon entry. Nigerian architects were trained by foreign professors in the practices and styles that now have a dominant foothold in the construction landscape. Social norms shifted to embrace these designs as they came to be seen as signs of modernity and progress.
By 1976, the Oyo State government, after assessing the economic losses incurred by importing building materials, constructed its own affordable housing models using mud blocks. With domestic coconut and palm timbers as rafters, officials hoped to show the possibilities of using local materials as a viable and more cost-effective alternative to sandcrete.
According to reports, those that commended the government’s efforts also wondered why these materials were not used by the state to construct civil servant housing if the resulting structures were truly more affordable and structurally up to par. The local population was more firmly discouraged by the impracticality of such construction, noting that town planning laws that banned the use of mud in construction were still on the books.
As of June 2, 1960, the colonial government’s Western Regional Law of Nigeria 171, which specified methods of construction, dimensioning, and acceptable building materials for residential construction, stated that new mud construction would not be approved by local town planning offices and could be demolished if built.
Today, 60 years later, the same regulations remain in effect.
When Nwoko started building his Ibadan residence in 1963, he added 10 percent concrete to the mud mixture as a way to satisfy the new laws. In older sections of Ibadan, however, hand-built mud houses still stand side-by-side with colonial-era homes, in spite of the restrictions.
In Bere, where the Western-inspired, concrete palace of the king of Ibadan is only a brief drive from the former colonial administrative building, Mapo Hall, traditional structures can practically be seen disintegrating, the base of their walls becoming practically indistinguishable from the earth from which they rise.
Historically, earthen homes, weathered by the elements, would be repaired annually by the women of the community. Men traditionally took responsibility for mending damage to the roofs. But, without the continuity of cultural practices and the community rituals meant to maintain them, such structures have been largely neglected.
Although some residents attempt to hide the deterioration by plastering the walls with an outer layer of concrete, it is a temporary repair at best. In a city of more than six million people, it becomes clear that indigenous building practices do not exist in isolation of culture, but are sustained through communal customs that may be more scarce in an urban environment.
Nwoko sees the same breakdown in socio-cultural relationships as the root of what has kept Nigeria from meeting its potential. “If you ask a young person today, what is their value to society, they can’t answer,” he says. Whereas before, he feels culture was structured as a “responsibility system” – everyone was obliged to fulfil a need within the community.
But Nwoko is quick to correct the easy assumption that the colonial presence was the direct cause of the cultural breakdown. Instead, he sees the starting point of the social disintegration as a consequence of how resources were managed after independence.
“We never thought the Europeans would stay,” Nwoko says, “and when they left, our culture was still intact.”
He recalls that after valuable natural resources were found, revenue began to flow into the country. Crude oil, in particular, was mined and exported by foreigners without employing local people. The next generations lived funded by government subsidies and scholarships by money that they did not earn, thus diminishing their connection to their community.
They were given opportunities to study in the West where “they have imbibed the Western culture of self. They found new freedom of irresponsibility. That version is more attractive”. Many Nigerians embraced “the path of least resistance”, Nwoko continues, with few having the desire to return home to contribute with what they had learned while abroad.
It is a trajectory that he sees as a continuation of the legacy of the slave trade, the most recent example of the export of human labour from Africa for the benefit of Western development.
“And we’re still transporting human resources over there,” Nwoko laments, reflecting on the movement of Nigeria’s human capital to benefit the economies of the West. When children from his village go to school and get educated, they do not return to farming, he says, also noting that more than 50 percent of Idumuje-Ugboko lives and works abroad.
“They build houses they never live in and come back home to be buried,” he says.
Design as a product of culture
But Nwoko has remained steadfast in his commitment to developing his home and cultural impact.
“I make sure my works are permanent, heavy, so they will last. Whatever I’ve done will continue to stick for hundreds of years,” he explains, reasoning that by example he can offer an attractive alternative to construction using imported materials.
His structures, such as the Dominican University in Ibadan, the Akenzua Cultural Centre in Benin and his private residence in Idumuje-Ugboko, serve as examples of his dedication to proving that traditional building methods are not only viable and practical, but can also be innovative and captivating.
Nwoko’s structures have been described as large-scale sculptures, their outer appearance creating a monumental presence that simultaneously exists in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Similarly, his interiors adhere to a balance between drama and comfort.
While some feature exceedingly high ceilings supported by towering columns, others showcase impluvium fixtures that serve as natural spotlights and alternatives to windows. Their grandeur coexists with a sense of privacy and gentle intimacy.
According to Nwoko, “an iconic design is the product of culture”. His artistic touches in decorative carving and metalwork reflect a combination of traditional Igbo designs and those of Nwoko’s own creation in a style that cannot be mistaken for that of any other builder.
“I have always concretised what I believe in,” Nwoko reflects, speaking of the sustainable building practices that he has committed to throughout his career. And now, as the global conversation around climate awareness continues, what could have been regarded as his personal philosophical, political and aesthetic choices, sound right on trend – “green” building practices are seen by many as an essential tool in the fight against climate change.
Building monuments to what is possible
The recent release of the book Lo-TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism by Princeton professor Julia Watson is a current example of the design field catching up to thinkers like Nwoko by recognising the value of indigenous technologies as climate-responsible practices that we should all learn from.
In the face of factors such as sand scarcity (caused by a global construction boom that has led to disappearing coastlines, river erosion, sand theft and sand mafias specialising in black-market trade), any alternative construction methods that significantly reduce the use of sand are of benefit worldwide.
Fortunately, historical building techniques throughout Nigeria offer a library of existing knowledge that can be further developed to meet contemporary needs.
As the Nigerian senate considers a bill introduced in early March to ban the importation of home generators “to curb environmental pollution”, the country’s minister of works and labour also announced that by 2030, renewable energy is scheduled to make up 30 percent of Nigeria’s total consumption while 45 percent of carbon emissions are projected to be eliminated.
Both initiatives have been presented absent of communication to the public about plans to implement accessible alternatives. Reviewing the laws that prevent local, traditional home-building may be among the relevant areas from which to begin such massive and impactful transitions.
For now, Nigeria need look no further than the example of Demas Nwoko, who has harnessed the country’s natural and human resources to create physical monuments to what is possible. While the senate debates, he is launching the New Culture School of Design in Lagos with a mandate to teach architects his hands-on, culturally relevant, sustainability-oriented approach to local architecture.
“Independence is to become ourselves,” Nwoko says, reflecting on the idea that self-sustainability could be a measurable indicator of true independence.
For him, it is most important that “wherever you are, whichever town you are in, you must become relevant to the young people there and make your efforts felt”.
With examples of his design work throughout the country, it is Nwoko’s hope that “what one generation has ignored, the next will appreciate”. It will be up to that generation and the rest, to decide if they will follow his lead.