Seun Oduwole: Architecture as Experiential Public Art
by Ladun Ogidan
Seun Oduwole is the Principal Architect at SI.SA, a leading Lagos-based firm. He gained experience at leading UK practices including Sir Michael Hopkins & Partners, Benoy and Sheppard Robson, before returning to Nigeria to work at Shelter Design Partnership, then later as Partner at Brown inQ. Oduwole firmly believes that the purpose of architecture is to improve the quality of our built environment through the detailed implementation of thoughtful, beautiful and socially conscious design. In this interview, he talks about his ongoing project J.K. Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History.
What informed the creation of the J.K. Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History?
The development is more of an urban regeneration project. It started as a result of a series of independent investigations into the loss of public recreational spaces in the city and the history of Lagos Island. A series of unfortunate events brought us the opportunity to design a building to replace the old J.K Randle Memorial Hall. We decided to use this opportunity to regenerate the area through the restoration of the swimming pool built in 1928, as well as design a building that responds to the context and history of Onikan and recreates a miniature version of King George V Park/ Love Garden, which were originally situated at the site.
Please tell us a bit about the inspiration for its architectural design including the use of sustainable indigenous techniques and materials.
The overriding idea was to create a series of contextual spaces, externally and internally. We sought to question the concept of the museum as a Western social construct and how it applies to our culture, art and interaction. For the architecture, we used a series of visual metaphors to express the building form. We imagined the building as an extension of the landscape, rising from the earth to an apex, a visual metaphor for ori, ori oke and other idioms reflective of Yoruba spirituality. The building leans forward 9 degrees in a nod to the Yoruba belief as a progressive people, asiwaju. A crafted metal screen inspired by deconstructed aso oke fabric sits on the façade and evokes the craftsmanship found in everyday applications such as weaving, metalwork, hair plaiting and of course tailoring. The construction isn’t entirely sustainable as it was done in concrete but completed in a dyed tyrolean, to mimic the adobe look of old Yoruba settlements. The grass roof, insulation build-up and wet system insulate the building thereby reducing the thermal load. Apart from the concrete, the majority of the materials used on the building were made/ sourced in Nigeria, which helped reduce our carbon footprint.
Are you able to speak about some of the programmes to expect when the centre is completed?
This is still in progress as the management team to curate programming is still being assembled.
The centre houses an exhibition hall on the first floor and community facilities on the ground floor. The permanent exhibition is a journey through the evolution of Yoruba history and culture. The ground floor houses a series of seminar rooms, co-working spaces and an amphitheatre open to the community, with the hope of facilitating organic interaction to complement the programmes to be created by the management of the centre.
You mentor some students and graduate architects, and are an active participant in the ‘Show and Tell’ lecture series at the University of Lagos. What is your message in promoting the cause of architecture from Africa?
We have a responsibility to pay it forward; architecture is a social science. As a young architect, I was fortunate to be exposed to established architects who helped me understand that there is more to the profession than 3D-rendering and marketing. It is important to promote good, responsive design. It is also our responsibility to ensure we prepare the young architects coming up and show them the importance of learning their craft to positively impact the environment. We try to show that it is possible to walk the talk through built work.
What is your underlying philosophy and what distinguishes your work with regards to environmentally responsible architecture and design, including the use of sustainable materials?
It is multi-layered. First is a responsibility to complement the natural and built environment, and provide solutions that meet the needs of not just the end-user but the wider community. Every design, be it building or spaces between, is an opportunity to create something beautiful, which improves the fabric of the city and functions just as well as it looks. I see architecture as experiential public art and capsules of memories frozen in space and time, so it is important that our architecture creates a multi-sensory experience for the end-users through thoughtful space use, materiality, light and shade. There is also a commitment to excellence. Good design and quality construction is a challenge locally but we do whatever is necessary to ensure consistent execution and delivery of our original intent.
Is sustainability gaining widespread acceptance in Africa and among professionals, and what in your opinion is needed to move the mainstream towards sustainable buildings?
New construction and modern construction methodology are expensive and inherently unsustainable. Designing to established industry metrics requires larger capital investment. Part of our responsibility is to help our clients reduce building cost so proposing expensive regenerative elements can get you in trouble. What we can do as architects is adopt principles at an early stage; a design that is responsive to local climatic conditions and sourcing as many materials locally. Several architects on the continent such as Ade Shokunbi Jnr., Francis Kere and Mariam Kamara do this. We should also repurpose old buildings rather than demolish and rebuild. This obviously depends on the building type and purpose. Once there are a number of proven examples of the benefits of these approaches, it should be more receptive to adoption at scale.
Who do you think is driving the sustainable movement in the built environment; Is it the designers, clients, the government or is it a collaborative effort between all parties?
Collaboration. Architects can be drivers but we don’t work in isolation. We need clients to buy into the idea and be willing to finance. MEP engineers play a critical role in proposing and integrating new technology, the government obviously has the most important role to play in creating an enabling environment either through positive policies, tax incentives, public sensitisation etc.
Considering the complexities of travel, energy and housing today, how can we imbibe sustainability into our everyday lives?
Hmmm, sustainability has become a bit of a buzzword of late and a chimera of sorts. As long as we exist, we will impact the environment negatively, so if we’re being honest, whatever measures we take are more symbolic than reactive due to the cumulative effect of extraction of resources to fulfil contemporary needs. I think we have to find some sort of balance that allows us to live but still be conscious of our impact on the environment. With housing, if we must build, then high-density solutions are preferable. Renewable energy sources are already fairly mainstream and should be progressed/ adopted further. Technology will also play a part in alleviating the impact of travel, the objective is how to make these interventions affordable so they can be adopted at scale.
How have Nigerian architects, related professionals and the general construction industry responded to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, what design features are being developed to mitigate such risks in the future?
I think it’s a bit early to say as we are still in the thick of it. There will certainly be effects on the industry, similar to response by designers following the impact of cholera and the TB pandemic on modernism and urban design. This current pandemic will certainly affect the way we live and work. I think the first impact will be on the economics of enclosed spaces and a return to the use of public open spaces. It will be an opportunity to provide solutions to overcrowded parts of the city, restoration and development of greenfields and water bodies. Building and spatial design solutions will not be enough if we wish to impact at scale. It requires better urbanism, better space planning but most importantly, intentional and proactive government policies to drive these changes.
What other projects do you have presently on your boards that you think our readers would find of interest?
We are working on other exciting projects but are not at liberty to discuss them at the moment. However, we will update our website and Instagram page once we have permission to publicise the work.
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