Kunle Adeyemi: Inspiring Environmental Sustainability
Award-winning Kunle Adeyemi is an advocate of employing architecture to provide sustainable solutions to environmental problems. In line with this, he came up with the Floating School, a project designed as a solution to the issues of flooding and land occupation at Makoko in Lagos. In this interview with Oliver Enwonwu, he tells us more about sustainable solutions to environmental challenges posed by technology, as well as architecture, design and technology in Africa today.
You have won several awards and much recognition for your work, including the Floating School at Makoko in Lagos. Why is it so important to you?
It’s an important project to me because it exemplifies or embodies a lot of ideas and approaches to the way I think architecture should be developed, particularly in an environment that is quite challenging, as well as the fact that we are able to still achieve a lot from very little by learning from the environment and improving it to add value to the people that live there.
You travel frequently all over the world delivering lectures, as well as maintain an active practice in Amsterdam. What is your message in championing the cause of architecture from Africa?
Well, I think though there are lots of challenges, there are many opportunities in Africa. That is what I try to tell people I meet all over the world. Africa is a very diverse continent and is different from the popular impression the media gives of it as being filled with only challenges. It’s one of the fastest growing regions in the world and with that comes opportunities. There are also many important cities on the continent that are going to be centres of advancement for the rest of the world in the next few years. Therefore, people should begin to look at forming more sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with the continent.
You have worked for and with many notable architects. Who have had the most influence on your practice?
I would have to start with my father who was my most important inspiration. He was also an architect and through him, I learnt to develop a passion for the profession. I have also been fortunate to work with a couple of architects who made an impact on my design thinking. Some of them were my professors back in UNILAG like Professor Olusanya whom I still have a good relationship with, and Professor Aradeon. More recently is Rem Koolhaas; I worked with him for 9 years. He has been an important mentor. Through him, I’ve done a lot of projects that have given me my current experiences in large scale and complex projects. In a way, he has had a lot of influence on my work, my drive for architecture and in understanding a certain level of perfection.
Presently, there are several debates around environmental sustainability. How can Nigerian and African architects practise environmentally responsible architecture and design, including the use of sustainable materials?
I think one of the key issues with environmental sustainability is understanding the environment, the climatic conditions, the resources and material performance. Somehow, in the course of the last 20 to 30 years, the average architect has forgotten about these basic principles. With the advent of technology such as air conditioning and elevators, we simply thought we had solved the environmental issues. The irony is that we are complicating these issues because we are now burning energy and beginning to see the repercussion through the depletion of fossil fuels. In an environment like Nigeria where everything is run by generators using fuel because there’s no power to run the air conditioning, houses are no longer designed to be properly ventilated. Natural light is also not used as much as one should because the building is orientated in a wrong direction and gains a lot of heat. The window openings are also in the wrong areas. We are now dependent on fossil fuels. As a result, all around the world, one of the most significant problems of our time is climate change. So, we have to rethink and go back to the first principles to understand the natural resources that life has provided for us. Architecture should be designed around the environment and not around technologies that are not necessarily sustainable.
Considering the complexities of travel, energy and housing today, how can we imbibe sustainability into our everyday lives?
I think it’s not a challenge for the individual alone; it is city level planning and goes back to the very simple ideas of mobility. Many cities are not properly planned; they are planned around the use of vehicles and cars. We are starting to see that this is not sustainable, again for the same reasons I mentioned earlier. We should think of cities as small communities that are manageable—little clusters in which we don’t have to move around a lot. For individuals, that definitely improves human interaction at the street level. It’s back to the basic thing—clusters of communities that are self-sufficient with bicycle paths and lanes, walking paths and covered walk lanes. We could do the needful for movement and energy consumption. In a way, I think cities should be designed like villages, getting back to the basic ideas of clusters of villages that would still have the same quality of life as modern contemporary cities. So, we should be looking seriously at contemporary villages.
Is that going to be possible, considering our present level of technological advancement?
I think so. I like a city like Amsterdam because I think it’s a village; it’s a contemporary, very cosmopolitan village, particularly in the city centre. You have everything you need within a walking or cycling distance. There are all forms of mobility but the most effective way of getting around is either by walking or cycling.
In your opinion, what are the big emerging markets in design?
For architecture, emerging markets remain the developing regions. The developing regions are the places where there’s a lot of ongoing development while the developed regions are the less developing areas because they are more or less static. This ongoing development is very different from that in the Western world in the last 20 years. For now, it’s a market that is growing from ground up and the kind of investments for most projects are still very grassroots. The projects are not high profile and there aren’t as many large scale projects, but we are getting there. The focus is global South essentially Africa Asia and South America. I’m not saying there isn’t work going on in the rest of the world but it’s of a different kind. They are in a phase of civilization I would say, where they are rethinking the assets that they have already acquired or produced. So, it’s about adaptive reuse and recycling; it’s a second phase. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to build from scratch and to learn from the errors of the Western world, to enable us frog leap. For instance, with issues like energy, we can use solar power as opposed to electrical grids to develop a village.
Full interview published in Omenka magazine volume 2 issue 2.
May 15, 2019