On Art, the Environment and Sustainability with Papa Omotayo

On Art, the Environment and Sustainability with Papa Omotayo

Papa Omotayo is a RIBA qualified, graduate of the University of Cardiff (UK) Welsh School of Architecture. He is a founding member of AAND (African Alliance for New Design), and ‘bukka’, a non-profit organization investigating the developing urban city. He is the director of MOE+ art Architecture and is currently based in Lagos, Nigeria. Omotayo is on the Advisory Board at Oxbridge College, Lagos, a committee member of the Child Life Line Charity, and a trustee for the African Heritage group. He has over 15 years of experience and was voted one of the 50 Nigerians as part of the Time Out independence Issue.

You’re RIBA qualified and have won much praise for numerous major projects including HNI, Rele Gallery, and the Bharvita Centre, London, Kensington. You also worked on the initial proposal for the Black History Museum in Brixton, London. Which has been the most dear and important to you?

Work for me is a process of learning. The projects I did early on in my career in the UK where mostly civic and arts based. They helped develop my understanding of the complexities of creating public spaces and also ignited my passion for the visual arts. So I’ll always say with all the work I have been privileged to do, the learning experiences are what I hold most dear.


Rele Gallery

You are partly Nigerian and partly British. What impact has this dual heritage had on your creativity and how have you been able to achieve a balance in your work?

I am fully Nigeria, but with awkward English sensibilities. What I focus on is the notion of duality as a positive attribute in investigating ideas and thoughts, and finding common threads between people, places, and ideas.

You are a trustee of the African Heritage Group, as well as a founding member of Bukka and AAND (African Alliance for New Design). Please tell us more about these.

All three organisations are platforms that speak about the importance and need for critical engagement of how we think, live, create and inspire each other as Nigerians and Africans. This engagement can only be fostered if these networks and platforms exist and are active so that they can allow people to engage, interact and share knowledge. It’s also critical that we document our collective ideas, heritage, and polemic, for current and future generations. All these organisations are driven by the same collective goals, using different ways of activation.

You also founded A White Space, Lagos. What’s your thinking behind it?

A Whitespace Lagos’ story is simple. I moved back to Nigeria from London, where friends and I, filmmakers, musicians, architects, and so on all worked and interacted freely, blurring creative boundaries. There were so many spaces where we could test and express our ideas for little to no money, utilizing temporary and non-formal spaces. It also allowed us to work with a variety of organisations looking for new ideas. We had a project we wanted to pitch for Puma to come to Lagos and the major stumbling block was the lack of available short-term space. The project never happened. We all know Lagos rents are expensive and yearly so when we found a space for our first architectural office – I was adamant that we would create a non-formal space for creatives to use as a platform to express and showcase their ideas. The space has been a platform for designers, photographers, fashion designers, chefs, artists and NGO’s. It has now also grown into a fully-fledged creative agency called A Whitespace Creative Agency (AWCA).

What is your view on life and the ideology behind your designs?

My focus has always remained consistent. I consider myself an ironic romantic thinker, I guess in search of answers to the bigger questions. Architecture is as much for me about asking questions as it is about finding solutions. Our current portfolio can be defined as an architecture searching to redefine a pragmatic African modernism through collaboration with contemporary artists. But even the term ‘African modernism’ is a placeholder. I always aim to work with a strong focus on context, culture, and nature, creating architecture that tries to give a little meaning to the everyday, beyond the realms of form, function, and even technology.

You started your practice in London and later co-founded the UK-based practice O+O, London. Is the firm still in operation?

O+O came to Nigeria and merged with MOE Limited to become MOE+ art Architecture, some years back. The name has changed but the sensibilities and direction remain the same.

You’ve also designed the GT Bank at 19, Bayo Kuku Road, Ikoyi in Lagos, well known for its fountains and hanging gardens. What was your thinking and why was it important to incorporate various environmental elements?

The building is about historical and cultural layers, the juxtaposition of elements, materials, and forms. A former residential tree-lined street, with colonial houses, where the current building was the eye-sore. Now the waterfall and a forest is the office. The road now a main urban access one. The project entailed the reconfiguring and rebuilding of an existing corporate structure sited in this predominately residential area of Ikoyi. The tree-lined streets and low-density colonial buildings of Ikoyi, which have rapidly changed, now replaced by high rise apartment blocks and concrete. Thus, the building is asking questions about the value we place on green space and nature, what we want to see from our windows and how much?

In your opinion, what other key issues are facing architects today, and how are locals dealing with environmental challenges?

I think that the key issue we have as architects in Nigeria is critical thinking. We need to interrogate the status quo. A redefinition of roles it seems. For me at least, this is an unreluctant but perhaps pressing reality. There is an ongoing argument that architects need to consider themselves as cultural producers to reestablish their status within Nigerian society.

What are the benefits of green buildings, and have you done anything in your personal capacity to enhance environmental awareness?

The term ‘green buildings’ for me, means how do we build in a way that ensures a building works more effectively with the understanding that there are not just limitations to resources, but consequences to their indiscriminate use. Every significant revolutionary jump in the development of mankind, from Neolithic to industrial to technological, is always followed by a struggle for resources.


The Sanctuary

Environmental awareness is an awareness of the limitations of resources and how these can be a huge signifier in the conditions in which we and future generations will be able to live and operate. ‘Green buildings’ for me is about recognizing this importance…..

How can the Federal Government promote awareness among younger architects in encouraging the design and construction of energy-efficient, water-conserving buildings that use sustainable or green resources and materials?

The Federal Government can’t do anything really! They should just focus on creating an enabling educational environment for children to be able to learn the basics and fundamentals again. Many senior architects and architectural firms after the 80’s, stopped engaging in moving architectural knowledge forward. They stopped working with universities, students and creating ideological platforms for discussions and critique of the urban space. We focused externally; theoretically, aesthetically and materially. They messed up. In the last 10 years or so, there has been a slow awakening, brought about by new client’s with new demands—a freeing of cultural constraints, a return to cross creative endeavours but also the recognition of new challenges and the need to address them in more esoteric ways.

Presently, there are several debates around environmental sustainability. How can Nigerian and African architects practice environmentally responsible architecture and design including the use of sustainable materials?

It’s a tough question considering how much of our built environment is unsustainable, materially. The question and challenge is how do we make better spaces, better cities and create more responsible environments that move away from the now apparent false global ideals of neo-liberalism to a wider consideration of a more holistic approach to architecture and life on earth, that embraces the limitation of the earth and its resources?

I always think about the words of Gil Scott-Heron, “Natural resources and minerals will change your world…. Controlling your resources, we’ll control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now…”

Itsekiri Museum

Considering the complexities of travel, energy, and housing today, further compounded by harsh economic realities, can we imbibe sustainability into our everyday lives?

This is an ideological premise. These issues; travel, energy, and housing, as well as the harsh economic realities, have been compounded by political and global economic rhetoric. The forces of capitalism, neo-liberalism, and consumerism are all drivers for our modern civilizations but remain unsustainable. However, these same forces are slowly hijacking the principles of ‘sustainability’ by making it appear the two can co-exist, that they can form a balance, an idea furthered by current technological trends when in fact the principles of sustainability should aim to remove the dependency of these daily complexities you mention. But these must be driven by political and cultural ideologies, which are driven by the need to reconfigure the relationship between man and the earth’s limited resources at first principles. It is encouraging to see that this challenge is being taken up by many even here on the continent.

The concept of biomimicry as a design discipline that imitates nature in inspiring solutions to challenges set by climate change is becoming rather popular. Is this a concept that can be successfully applied in Nigeria, and how?

This, like the idea of parametric, (which I have no time for) currently being touted in various Western architectural discussions as the next great solution to architecture, follows our tendencies towards populism, and a one solution fits all approach. This I am totally against. Populism, as we know can have its problems when it fails to address the realities of context.

I believe that theory, inspiration and so on, are starting points. The discipline of design must be site, function and culturally specific. Biomimicry is only made possible by the advancement of technology.

What’s next for Papa Omotayo?

The hope is that MOE+ art Architecture and I continue to be allowed the grace and good will to create exciting work, that we’ve been privileged to do thus far. Thanks mostly to some great and trusting Clients. We want to continue to explore our passion for the visual arts, my own passion for film and collaboration with other artists and creatives. But ultimately, the work continues only if it is still able to resonate, inspire and ask questions. For me, it’s about creating critical reference points for discussion and interrogation, both internally and externally. Architecture always lives beyond the time…the contents get appropriated.


Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.

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