Rebuilding Nigeria: When Architecture Is About Restoring Culture
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
For the past decade, Nigeria has lived under the crushing specter of attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram. From Maiduguri to Abuja, bombs have exploded intermittently, killing hundreds, destroying thousands of homes, and crippling public infrastructure. In recent years, the Nigerian military has liberated several captive communities and begun reconstruction work in a number of them. Sadly, the aftereffects of these violent convulsions have profoundly reshaped our cities. The attacks utterly upended lives: shattering basic civic amenities, disrupting livelihoods, and forcing residents to rebuild from scratch while still grieving for family and friends.
At the height of the insurgency, the city of Yola in Nigeria’s northeast offered refuge to fleeing residents of the troubled surrounding towns of Madagali, Michika, Mubi, Hong, and others. At one point, Yola had as many refugees as its original population, further stressing the city. And even Yola wasn’t entirely safe: suicide bombers carried out a few attacks in the city, setting off explosives in motor parks and at its central mosque. The devastation caused by attacks crippled the local economy, denying local workers the opportunity to earn a decent living.
A year ago, I was commissioned by an initiative backed by the office of Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to design and build a social innovation hub in Yola. The project would convert an existing residential building to a co-creation space, dedicated to serving as an incubator for innovative solutions to the region’s social problems. The building, a gargantuan Postmodern-Constructivist villa sitting on nearly 10 acres of land overlooking the Yola River, has an illustrious history of its own. Named Legom Villa, it was designed by European designers and built in the mid-1980s by a wealthy shipping magnate. In its heyday the building was a playground for aristocrats, with all the luxury accoutrements, including a kidney-shaped swimming pool, tennis courts, even a string of gazebos. Its interiors were finished with the finest marble, shipped from Europe. Over the past decade, the building had gone through several phases of decline—the most recent being a cheap hotel, a rendezvous for seedy characters and their filles de joie. After several years of neglect, the property fell into a state of semi-ruin.
Drawing inspiration from the vision of the original owner, our project focused on creating a Dreamweaver’s campus, where new possibilities for the region will be imagined and creativity will thrive. Naturally, as a socially conscious designer, it was difficult to ignore the significant social realities in the city at the time. So we resolved to work with only local vendors and craftsmen. This had some complications, since most local craftsmen did not have the same skill set of our workmen in Abuja, and the local vendors didn’t have the kind of materials we typically worked with. As a result, relatively simple tasks, such as installing a false plaster ceiling along a straight grid, took much longer to accomplish. In some instances, we completely altered our designs to accommodate the limited technical capacity of these local craftsmen. And, as much as our schedule permitted, we spent considerable time training them in new skills. We also made a few other allowances, such as ensuring that we paid the same daily rates as we normally would in Abuja—much higher than what workers in Yola made.
At the end of the project, the sponsors had infused at least $120,000 into the local economy. This is not a lot of money relative to larger cities, but it significantly improved the lives of the local people involved in the project. On completion of the project, these craftsmen also gained valuable skills needed for future work. We gained future collaborators as well, having continued to work with some of them across the country long after the project’s completion.
Despite the huge funds spent on reconstruction, the affected communities do not have a lot to show for it, beyond a few new buildings. These projects do little to help their towns and cities, since most of them failed to engage the local communities in the reconstruction process.
In the past two years, the Nigerian government and international NGOs, development agencies, and their donors have deployed enormous resources across Nigeria’s troubled regions. Despite the huge funds spent on reconstruction, the affected communities do not have a lot to show for it, beyond a few new buildings. These projects do little to help their towns and cities, since most of them failed to engage the local communities in the reconstruction process.
Beyond the immediate goal of rebuilding shelter, post-conflict reconstruction has the potential to trigger a chain of positive events that help communities recover faster. This work cannot compensate for the lives lost, but it does provide hope and purpose, a collective goal for the living.
In the midst of sectarian conflict and violence, architects and designers can often feel helpless. We’re inherently builders by nature. But in Nigeria, our role now is clear. We can help rebuild communities, better. We can help them plan more stable local economies. More important, we can listen and help them understand, reconcile, and perhaps even celebrate the unique ethnic, religious, and cultural nuances of these communities. These efforts, especially in small towns, can be very powerful, because they demonstrate a commitment deeper than one-off buildings and other empty gestures. They represent an investment in our shared futures.