8 things you should know about Architecture

by Samuel Okopi

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There are climatic, technological, psychological, social, ecological and spiritual dimensions to architecture that those who have passed through architecture’s rigorous system of apprenticeship, can help articulate into a functional and beautiful whole. Unfortunately, most Nigerians are more concerned with getting the building on its feet, forgetting that its soul, its character, its relationship with other buildings and the individuals it shelters, are of vital importance.

Architecture has the power to better the individual and collective existence of a people, as the great cities and civilizations of the world, which owe much of their glory and prosperity to architecture, have shown. This makes it vital that the ordinary citizens of a country, and elites alike, engage in a better dialogue with the built environment. Here are eight simple but important issues that I believe every Nigerian should know about architecture.

1. Architects don’t know everything

Never hesitate to share your ideas with the architect. If you feel something is not right about the building process or design, don’t be afraid to ask questions; even if the rimmed glasses he wears like Professor John Nerdelbaum Frink, Jrconvinces you he is more knowledgeable than Okonjo Iweala and Sanusi put together. I mean this, even if he projects the charming swagger of Ice Prince; still, clear your doubts if in doubt.

Believe me, there are things you know about the kind of experience you desire from your building that the architect couldn’t have had the slightest idea of, even though I confidently second the claim that architects are expected to know a little about everything. But then, even Einstein didn’t know a little about everything, right?

Don’t forget: It is not the architect who will inhabit YOUR building.

2. You don’t need to be rich to experience good architecture

Let’s face it: many houses in our villages do a better job at providing comfortable living and evoking a sense of identity than many building contraptions in our cities. And that’s because the local building materials, the natural landscape, the sustainable building processes and organic layout all come together in a harmonious way.

Good architecture makes you comfortable and happy, and you don’t need to go broke to make this happen. With a careful selection of common building materials (which are then creatively integrated into the building), and a simple but elegant landscape plan, a lovely piece of architecture can result. So, while the expensive, cleverly designed buildings that stretch technology to the limits will most times draw out our admiration; it is a small, inexpensive building that exudes a simple beauty, allows great natural ventilation, has indoor and outdoor spaces linked functionally, is neat and strong, and can be easily maintained, that many times wins in the end.

3. More money doesn’t mean more bedrooms

It’s great to have the resources to build really spacious buildings where you, your family and dependants can live comfortably. Having said that, because you have lots of money to spend doesn’t mean you need to have a twenty-bedroom triplex. You probably want to show all the witches in your village that their brand of magic didn’t get a hold on you, that it’s your time to shine…

But.

Hold on.

What will happen when you grow old and your kids and dependants no longer live with you? If you feel you will always be able to foot the high cost of maintaining such a palatial house, don’t you think at some point you will go mad from loneliness and the irrational fear at night of ghosts and mermaids and witches occupying the many rooms?

 

4. Architecture is not all about the building

Architecture does not strictly concern itself with structures within the boundaries of a plot of land. It is more than that, much more than the number of bedrooms and columns a building has. Architecture occupies a stratum in the built environment from which it influences and is influenced. Not to mention the mostly overlooked fact that architecture is intricately tied to other disciplines like landscape architecture, urban design, interior design and engineering, which are all necessary for creating architecture that works.

Let’s say you do the quite common thing of buying a piece of land in a ghetto for say N150,000 to ‘save money’ even when you plan to build a N50 million mansion on it.

Classic case of being penny wise, pound foolish.

First of all, you will be psychologically oppressing the inhabitants of the shanties that will surround such a house. Secondly, you can’t really blame the poor people of the area when they are tempted to rob your house or do some other dangerous things to you on your way home from work. Then, imagine the depression that will come from constantly taking the Bentley or Mercedes Benz you love so much for expensive repairs all because of the terrible roads leading to your house. Roads that those in the neighbourhood are very comfortable with because their affordable means of transport—legs, bicycles, motorbikes—are quite suited for such roads.

Always remember that architecture is a contextual intervention.

It is sad, though, that governments, real estate developers, and the average Nigerian, are much more interested in architecture at the plot level. They fail to see that constructing neat, good roads that are coherently laid out; providing innovatively designed and well-planned waste disposal systems (refuse collection especially); incorporating sustainable, alternative power supply; and reserving ample areas for sports and recreation, are very important for the overall success of the building in providing a great quality of life for its inhabitants.

 

5. True architecture is not insensitive

Architecture is widely considered a social art. It should connect and inspire people. Even more importantly, it should consider the needs and perceptions of the communities it finds a place in, and helps shape.

Because it is social.

Yes, you want your building to stand out and speak out. Fine. Do that. Still, the contrast between the look and purpose of your building, and that of neighbouring ones, shouldn’t be so absolute as to distort the visual harmony of the community, or disrupt the activities of other people. Why should a large, five-story complex, completely clad with ultramarine-blue panels, be sited in the midst of a long line of red-brick bungalows? Will that not look bizarre? Why should a nightclub or drinking joint be sited next to a church or mosque, or sandwiched between houses occupied by families still raising kids?

Architecture is a vehicle for peace and prosperity. It shouldn’t foster hostilities.

 

6. Architecture ‘tortures’ its disciples for a reason

This noble profession has earned the unenviable nickname ‘architorture’ in several higher institutions of learning because of its physically and financially demanding curriculum. On the average, a student spends six years rigorously studying to be an architect. Yet, the public will view his skill set and knowledge as something to be quickly acquired by scanning through glossy pictures in a magazine, or reading some books or commentary on the subject.

This can never suffice.

There are climatic, technological, psychological, social, ecological and spiritual dimensions to architecture that those who have passed through architecture’s rigorous system of apprenticeship, can help articulate into a functional and beautiful whole. Unfortunately, most Nigerians are more concerned with getting the building on its feet, forgetting that its soul, its character, its relationship with other buildings and the individuals it shelters, are of vital importance.

 

7. Architecture is not a profession for only men

It is true that ‘architorture’ is a physically and intellectually demanding profession, one that traditionally, men have dominated. However, before you try to dissuade your beloved daughter from studying architecture, you might want to know that one of the greatest architects of this century is a woman. Her name is Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-British architect who in 2004, won the Pritzker prize, the highest and most respected prize for architecture, globally. She has designed buildings that many never imagined could be built. But many of her incredible designs have materialized into equally stunning structures like the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi which some believe is the most intricate bridge ever constructed. The Beko Building, the Opus Building and the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre are equally stunning testaments to her creative prowess.

8. Architecture can express the character of a nation.

It is important for architecture to be taken seriously by a nation because it tells what that country and its people are like, and gives a visual idea of their history. When houses lack creativity in their form, or look very much like foreign houses, it shows the people are not in the business of creative development and do not believe in their own capacity to truly develop indigenous ideas and products.

It has become very common in Nigeria to equate good architecture with the number and style of columns used in the building. So, we see the columns of classical architecture littered over our cityscape, most of them incorporated in really ridiculous ways. Most sadly, a huge percentage of design inspiration captured by the average Nigerian architect, is from the West.

No innovation. No inward search for inspiration.

This is exacerbated by Nigerian clients blindly insisting that the architect designs exact replicas of foreign buildings.

This is sad. Really so.

Just like clothing, the buildings in our cities tell a lot about whether we are a people who love to create or imitate, export or import, and consume or produce.

I will conclude by saying that Nigerians, and the governments and corporate bodies of Nigeria, should engage with architecture more seriously. Architecture is a powerful force for change, for the betterment of life, and for the expression of identity. Those who court it well have much to benefit, just as the great cities of the world, and their peoples, have shown.

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 Samuel Okopi has a Masters degree in Architecture from ABU, Zaria. He engages with architecture and nature on his website www.samuelokopi.com where he takes readers, every week, on an exciting journey round the world.

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

 

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