Sunday, April 20, 2014

The evolution of Abuja through architecture (Part I): landmarks and legacies

Published:

Ene Ijegwa-Adaji

“Architecture cannot evolve if it doesn’t answer any questions.”

 

The opportunity to write on the evolution of Abuja through Architecture comes at a (good) time when one wonders about the growth of the city through its architecture.

Created in 1976 from parts of the Benue-Plateau, North-Central, and North-Western states and built in the 80s, Abuja was ‘specifically planned’ and ‘purpose built’ to fill the gap as the then new Federal Capital Territory.

At night, the Federal Capital Territory is mostly lit, and the many glimmering lights of the mansions of Ministers Hill in Maitama make you resolve to work hard or pray hard to make the 7 million dollars required to own a house so high up the Abuja hills.

During the day, it is easier to see even more clearly.  Driving through the City in day light gives you a chance to see the magnificent dome of the Central Mosque (built in the mid 80s) glistening like a gold coin in the sun.

National Mosque Abuja. [Photo: sultanheightsphotography.com]

Close by, within hugging distance, the National Ecumenical Centre spreads (neo) gothic arches and stakes a claim on the city. The Ecumenical Centre (fancy name for church), was commenced in the late 80s and spanned several years before its completion and dedication in 2005. In the same vicinity are the NNPC towers, a cornucopia of reinforced concrete and glass which catch the light at sun down; and right there, just at the corner of your eye, is the ‘new’ CBN building: a massive four towers of curtain walling awarded in 2000.

Leaving the Central Business District and the 80s and 90s behind, to the residential areas of Abuja (which evolve every day), may be a bit like driving through a local paradise. From Asokoro to Maitama and to Jabi, (which is endearingly called the ‘new Maitama’), big and beautiful houses with stone coated tiled roofs 6- 8meters high abound.  Houses in faddish creams and browns with accents of natural or artificial stone are at every turn. Crystal chandeliers drop from balconies bordered with gleaming stainless steel railings.

As you drive the wide and beautiful roads caught up in admiration, something hits you. All the houses you are looking at are the same. Same fascia, same roof structure, same window style even same hues! Were they designed by the same architect, or built by the same construction team….or maybe replicated by one FCT minister with a magic wand in the space of a few years? It is hard to tell, and even the older houses are brought down almost daily and ‘beautified’ to conform to what I would call Abuja Architecture or Cookie Cutter Architecture.

Looking at the city on a time line of 1976 to the present day, it is safe to say it has evolved, i.e. grown from a ‘civil service town’ of 700+ souls in 2006 to over 2 million inhabitants at this time. But how has Architecture contributed to this evolution? And if the architecture itself remains uninspired, how has it been a catalyst of said evolution?

This brings us then to the crux of the matter.

Has Abuja regressed (or simply remained at status quo) in the quality of Architecture and evolved in the quantity of buildings?

Evolution, very simply, is ‘any process of formation or growth’.

When I think of evolution in conjunction with architecture, landmarks come to mind.

A landmark is an “event, discovery or change marking an important stage or turning point.” In this context, a landmark would be architecture which puts a city on the world map,(the Taj Mahal of India, Burj Khalifa of Dubai); architecture which can draw crowds to it in unceasing tourist wonder because it is always new,( the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, the Pompidou Centre of Paris); architecture which inspires by its adaptive innovation and sheer audacity,(the Aqua in Chicago, the Tokyo Sky Tree, the Tancici Dum in Prague, ); architecture which tells a story of possibility unlimited,( Cybertecture, James Law, the CCTV HQ in Beijing ); architecture which lives after its ‘creator’ (Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright); or architecture which tells a story ( the Crooked House in Poland, the Basket Building in Ohio).

Landmarks ring of process, perfection and mental journeys of evolution which transcend seeming impossibility and time. A landmark signals growth and serves as inspiration to designers who come after, by challenging them to leave the safety of the accepted and defy convention.

The story of Abuja architecture so far is a tale of Consumerism and uninspired Replication: ‘big and beautiful houses with German stone coated tiled roofs, 6- 8meters high abound.  Houses in faddish creams and browns with accents of natural or imported artificial stone are at every turn.

Crystal chandeliers brought in from the UAE drop from balconies bordered with gleaming stainless steel railings from China. This is hardly extraordinary; but Architecture cannot evolve if new (perhaps indigenous) materials and methods remain unexplored. By remaining in the box of ‘PopArchitecture’, we set up a diehard system of ‘copy and paste’ which requires no active thought, and without upward thought, there can be no growth. We must ask why roofs soar 8 meters high if they have no attics or lofts; why a building is ornamented to an inch of its life when the only beauty required is the integrity of its lines; why only (imported) old (and sometimes new!) components are actively sought out instead of developing and evolving materials and methods.

[Photo: cepolina.com]

Architecture cannot evolve if it doesn’t answer any questions.

I have had the argument thrown back at me many times, asking why the random house of any average Sule , Chuks or Jide must be turned into a production. Indeed, how it can be made that each building is an individual and makes its own demands based on function and location (amongst other factors). A successful building is one that is ‘perfected’ to satisfy its own demands as well as those of the client (and/or users) with no superfluity of detail.  Such a building may well be a work of art.

The Architect has a huge responsibility. Architecture is within the architect and cannot grow by itself if the architect does not challenge himself. He needs to think beyond the box of visual and mental limitation and leave a legacy for those in the relay.

Being a ‘doctor of space’, he owes his patron or client the best solutions and must design a space which fits the client like a bespoke Kilgour and yet is adaptable for tomorrow.  He owes his community a gift of inspiration, designing structures that defy time. He owes himself the gift of discovery and confidence. The architect is a prophet who announces tomorrow.

Evolution is about tomorrow.

It is evening in the Capital City and the impressively tall Churchgate Plaza at the CBD catches the receding light and turns to liquid gold. Close by and under construction is the Abuja World Trade Centre, a multi use development of luxury apartments, offices, shopping and entertainment, which will climb 37 floors to take its place in the growing skyline of Abuja. Its developers promise us it will be a Landmark. Hopefully it will inspire other buildings to take their place.

At any rate, reviewing a medium as conceptual as Architecture, in a 36 year old city, in a Nation still creating her global identity, is a bit like asking a 9 year old what he thinks of the Lego house he will build tomorrow. It is work in progress.

 

Next: Architecture, Economics and Corruption seems to me to be an unassuming Woman, quiet in her own strength and beauty, and waiting to offer up her treasures to those who take time to appreciate her.

missene5@yahoo.com

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