A CONVERSATION WITH CHUKA IHONOR
Chuka Ihonor studied Architecture at the University College London. As principal architect, he leads ARG Studio, known for their cutting edge modernist buildings. Their work continues in the tradition of modernist architecture initiated in the early 20th century, and is influenced by the cubist work of Le Corbusier and the later rationalist work of the Italians – Giuseppe Terragni and Cesare Cattaneo. Drawing inspiration from other pursuits of the modern movement including painting, sculpture, narrative and furniture design, ARG embraces new materials made possible by existing technology.
This year, Chuka Ihonor served on the advisory board of Open House Lagos, the African debut of Open House Worldwide, founded thirty years ago by architect Victoria Thorton OBE, Hon FRIBA. It was organized in conjunction with the British Council Nigeria as part of their UK/NG 2015/16 programme.
Chuka Ihonor is a member of both the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA) and the Cities of London & Westminster Society of Architects (CLAWSA). Ihonor is also a graduate member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). He has several articles on modern architecture to his name and continues to write.
You met the iconic Zaha Hadid during your student days in London, who even referred to you as a hard-core modernist. How much influence has she had on your work and your interest in modernist architecture?
Zaha Hadid really had no influence on me. She was an architect I thought much of, and expected much of all those years ago. By all accounts, she was successful not only commercially but professionally as well. I am not, however, a fan of her built work though I think her drawings are simply wonderful.
Most of your buildings are painted white. Does this hold any particular significance for you and what is the role of colour in architecture?
The colour white has been used extensively in modernism; it sharpens the planar and formal allusions that exist in the theoretical constructs of modernist architectural thinking. Naturally, I use it a lot. These days though, I add coloured materials such as wood , as well as coloured paint.
What innovations in sustainable material inform your work?
In all honesty, sustainability is not so overriding for me that I do not think freely of material I would like to use. But like anyone who has responsible bones in his make-up, I deal with the issue on a project-by-project basis.
How are local firms dealing with issues surrounding sustainability and environmentally responsible architecture and design, and in what ways can more awareness be raised in Nigeria and Africa?
You will find that architecture as a craft is quite underdeveloped in this country. You will therefore find it frustrating to discuss such issues with people who are intent on creating a visible signature and making ends meet in very difficult economic, social and cultural circumstances.
You also design furniture and soft furnishing. What would you say is responsible for the growing interest in furniture as an expression of the contemporary that crosses the boundaries between art, craftsmanship and design?
For me, architecture encompasses design, art, urban planning, furniture and product design, philosophy and anthropology. I use sources and information from these fields to inform my work. It is only natural that I have designed furniture and sanitary ware for which I am in the process of securing manufacturers abroad. Sadly, the majority of what I have designed cannot be produced in Nigeria to the requisite standards that will enable global sales.
You recently served on the advisory board for the inaugural Open House Lagos. What did you set out to achieve and what was the experience like?
We set out to stage a festival that would expose the average [wo]man to areas of his built environment and improve his appreciation of the craft that is architecture. Open House was founded in 1992 as Open House London. Access to buildings that would normally not be available is obtained and visits are for free. Tours were organized to ferry groups between a few chosen buildings in a day, all for free. These are tours that I have seen advertised for N10,000 or more by other organizations. Open House Lagos is the first in Africa.
At the Open House Lagos opening symposium themed The Good, the Bad and the Excellent, you curiously said that an architect should be a problem solver across industries but is also a selfish person who can literally do everything. Can you shed more light on this statement?
My answer to an earlier question deals with this issue. You must remember that an architect straddles that line between artist, social commentator and urban constructor. It is not so much selfishness as the average man does not realize what an architect truly is, or truly knows.
As part of the project, several buildings were visited including two of yours. What were the criteria for their selection?
We sought not just contemporary works, but also buildings representing social, cultural, commercial and historical typologies. The Eko Legacy Tour took in Lagos Island relics, as well as the historic rail yard at Ebute-Metta. We are lucky to have a member of the group, Legacy on our advisory board and they arranged that set of tours. I was also available to guide visitors on the Luxe Tour on which I had two of my own design-buildings. As the years go by, we will have more buildings and better organized tours.
What can you as a problem solver contribute towards making a better city, considering the increase of collapsed buildings across the Lagos metropolis arising from unplanned and poor structures?
As architects, we must be concerned naturally about disasters like collapsed buildings. That said, it is the responsibility of certain arms of government to deal with planning approval and checks that should minimize or even avoid and eradicate such occurrences.
Akin Ambode , the governor responded quite swiftly to the recent collapse and resurrected laws that had hitherto been ignored by the Ministry of Physical Planning. That ministry, in Fashola’s tenure, became obsessed with unnecessary detail that did nothing to improve building design and use. In a way, they simply slowed down the process of obtaining approval by seemingly working very hard; in my opinion, they were not.
Are there plans by your association of architects to form a pressure group to advice the Lagos State Government in this regard?
If you are referring to the Nigerian Institute of Architects, they do not need a special pressure group, unless they are unaware of what they were set up to do.
We have a growing reputation as a people without a sense of history, judging from the continued pulling down of old buildings while existing ones are left in a state of disrepair. Are there moves by professional architecture bodies or private individuals to change this perception?
There will soon be more concerted moves. The group Legacy have interests in this direction. There are also building owners who respect history and maintain their own relics. I, along with some informed others, will soon start another group to work in this regard.
These moves will include dissemination of information, physical intervention in conservation issues and historical documentation of buildings. At the opening night of Open House Lagos 2016, Governor Ambode was represented by his rather cheerful and intelligent Special Adviser on Urban Development, Yetunde Onabule, who made some important remarks that affect this issue. Also present that day, unbeknown to many, was a representative of the Lagos Building Archives Register. The governor has promised to fund that department and we will work with him.
Does Nigeria have a peculiar architectural style and do you incorporate this into your work?
I do not work in a way as to be a part of any particular style in Nigeria. However, my buildings have several features that make them comfortable for tropical use and habitation. I do notice though, that a lot of buildings look a particular way. That must be what most architects either find fascinating and just follow the herd.
What are your most memorable architectural projects?
My most memorable projects are probably unbuilt and exist as drawings. They contain a lot of information that propel future designs from my firm ARG Studio. I do not have favourites though.
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