Thursday, April 24, 2014

The evolution of Abuja through architecture (Part II): Architecture, Economics and Corruption.

Published:

Ene Ijegwa-Adaji

The real estate market in Abuja thrives on corruption.

The ‘sprit of the time’ of any period is captured mostly by Fashion, the Arts and Architecture.

Back in the sixties and seventies, when Nigeria was still in the clasp of colonialism, and influences where heavily drawn from the British, women stretched their hair with hot combs, wore head bands and wrapped their newly straight hair in beehives reminiscent of the Colonial masters. Men kept afros, sometimes with a part to the side (or right in the middle for added panache) and wore bell bottomed trousers. Such was the spirit of the time.

Throughout history, architecture has also been influenced by external factors. Take for instance Gothic Architecture which commenced in France in the middle ages. It was inspired mostly by the medieval spirituality prevalent at that time. The key characteristics of gothic architecture are verticality (an attempt to get as close to heaven as possible), and light (which was achieved by magnificent stained glass windows and represented a figurative light of God unto the worshiper’s soul).

At this point, let us fast forward to the city of Abuja in the present day, and try to discover the spirit of the time which has influenced the architecture of our city as we know it.

Driving again through the more influential districts of Abuja, we get a sense of grandeur, opulence, and ostentation. Some of the rambling mansions in the Maitama district have private boulevards which lead up to grand gates; and in Aso Drive, you are introduced to impressive homes which have 10 room servants’ quarters and enough rooms to house a nuclear family of twenty; but in reality, services a family of three.

While this is hardly extraordinary and in some circles highly commended (after all this world is but a temporary base and should be enjoyed if you have the capacity); it is interesting to identify the ‘spirit of the time’ which drives us to build such edifices.

In a developing country where standards are unfortunately substandard and success is based on appearances, it is important to be perceived as having arrived. This is usually achieved by trying to be ‘larger than life’. We buy a range rover sport because it’s in (even if we have to live in it) and build a three storey duplex when all we want is a bungalow.

The spirit of our time is very well captured by the song ‘Big Boy’ by Eldee …. Prada on my back, Louis on my feet, Gucci on my wrist I’m a big boy…….! In this way, appearances are put before content, and quantity wins over quality.

It is no different when we come to architecture. In the bid to show that we have achieved and left our brothers behind in the rat race, we ignore the internal and focus on the external. We build huge houses which ramble on without a care as to intelligent design, we erect structures which may not serve the purpose for which they were conceived, and we construct fantastic pieces which look great on the outside but are disasters of lighting and ventilation on the inside.

This fundamental ignorance about what constitutes true success and achievement pushes us to send out a message even in our architecture: look at me, I have arrived. Our focus is on the appearance of wealth, measured by the size of a structure and not necessarily its quality.

There is fascinating story told about the Igbo. It is said that when an Igbo man passes on, his peers ask ‘how many decking’ he has left behind! While I do not recommend that we live and work in little holes in the ground, we must realise that true architecture (and true design for that matter) cannot be selfish. It must be bigger than the individual involved.

I am sometimes asked my opinion on the real estate market in Abuja. Many wonder if the market is sustainable, why the prices are astronomical and why it seems cheaper to procure property (of same specification) in the States than it is in the city centre of Abuja.

My response is always unequivocal. As long as we have corruption, our market will not crash, prices will remain sky high and property will stay over priced by the standards of our actual economy.

Let me show you how it works. Corruption gives individuals access to large sums which must be hidden (preferably in property and usually not in the culprit’s name). When there is the free flow of such money

(usually within a chosen group), properties may be sold for much higher than actual value creating a false economy. Say I make an unacknowledged N1.2 billion which must be quickly hidden; I would need to find a property to buy. Because I have the cash, I’m willing to pay any price. After some time, I pass it on at a higher price to another individual with illegal cash who is also ready to pay any price.

This creates a market driven and sustained entirely by corruption. It also seems easier to build sumptuous homes, placing quantity over good sense, and want over need. After all, we can, at any time, dive into a deep pool of cash we didn’t have to strive for.

(NB in Abuja parlance, 800 etc is automatically recognised as 800 million; ‘low’ figures like 1.2 register as 1.2 billion and paltry figures like 50,000 are usually in USD). What am I saying in essence? Until our thought processes cease to be driven by greed (corruption) and relative ignorance, our architecture cannot say otherwise. Our channels of expression always stay true to the Zeitgeist of that period.

In our developing country and evolving city, we see opulence and dearth juxtaposed every day. If you take a 15 minute drive from the city centre, toward the satellite areas of Jikwoyi and Karu, you may

just find yourself in a different world free of good roads, urban planning and a simple necessity called drainage. It is only when we can overcome our physical poverty and corruption (which is best described as mental poverty of the worst kind), that we will begin to see a change in our self expression.

The need to prove a point and make a statement with anything we have will be gone. Our Architecture will capture this. When we become more aware that the true quality of life is not dependent on the quantity of our possessions, we take a step in the right direction. Our Architecture will capture this. And of course, when we realise that the beauty of a structure is not directly proportional to its size and over embellishment, we become free. We become true to ourselves and create buildings that have integrity. Naturally, our Architecture will capture this.

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