Nico Joana Weber looks at the Tropical Architecture Movement in Nigeria

In part two of the three-part series on Chennai Photo Biennale, STIR looks at the British architectural movement that translated to public architecture in Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jan 26, 2022

How does one view the trespasses of culture, and the intermingling and interactions from a colonial to postcolonial location? How does architecture imbue this intangible, yet located histories within the future tense of a nation-building?

Shot in 2018 in Nigeria, between Lagos and Ibadan, artist Nico Joana Weber looks at the architectural premises that have taken root in the country, in the video essay No Longer a Single Root. This video work is presented as part of the Chennai Photo Biennale edition III. The primary point of focus for the video work is that of British-led architectural spaces, led by the Architectural Association in London, which developed the Tropical Architecture form. The video work takes an essayistic form, where footage of architectural examples across the two cities are taken into consideration with a backing of research-driven material that takes the form of textual references and narration.

Film still from No Longer a Single Root by Nico Joana Weber | Chennai Photo Biennale | Nico Joana Weber | STIRworld
Film still from No Longer a Single Root by Nico Joana Weber Image: Courtesy of the artist, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

In a conversation with STIR, Weber explains, “The work developed into this essayistic form. I started writing a text, and it seemed to me that it’s more of an essay with images. The voice became very important. If you see these images without context, so much remains hidden, so it becomes important to have a voice that narrates these building complexes.”

Tropical Architecture was developed as a form of innovation-driven architecture that was to respond to climatic conditions of tropical regions as well as the specific environments that they produced. While there is a response through material, a large part of the video essay discusses the fact that stylistically, Tropical Architecture very much emulated the discourses of the western Modernist tradition. There is a certain partnership with local factors, architects and creatives that is found to be lacking, that Weber explains further in conversation, “When I was travelling from Lagos to Ibadan, you are going through bushland and countryside, and when you arrive there, there is the image of something planted. The context is so different. You go through space and there is nothing, but then you reach a building, and you can see that it is a symbol, or an idea.”

House of the Tropical Modernist Architect Alan Vaughan-Richards (1925-1989) | Chennai Photo Biennale | Nico Joana Weber | STIRworld
House of the Tropical Modernist architect Alan Vaughan-Richards (1925-1989) Image: Courtesy of the Vaughan-Richards family

Architecture becomes a representational space as symbols of empires and political regimes. Since Nigeria gained independence in 1960, we can see the Tropical Architecture movement taking root in the country, having begun in the 1940s and ending after a few decades in the 1970s. While the movement responded to climatic conditions in the country, the stylistic forms of the building complexes resembled that of western Modernism. Notable architects working in the field were Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, and Alan Vaughan-Richards. Through the video essay, what occurs is a comparison between the work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, with that of Alan Vaughan-Richards. Alan Vaughan-Richards was particularly known for his buildings that incorporated natural cooling systems through ventilation and air circulation that could occur within them. Timber, for example, was incorporated as a naturally occurring material that found its closest occurrence within traditional Nigerian architecture. Meanwhile Fry and Drew incorporated designs that hark back to “British housing estates”, as described by Weber.

Weber is aware of her positionality as a foreigner in Nigeria, and speaks about her process of collecting material while visiting the country, “When I returned, I had a lot of material from these locations, but for a very long time I was thinking about how to bring them together and what would be my own synthesis, and my own input, because I didn’t want this to be just a documentary piece.”

House of the Tropical Modernist Architect Alan Vaughan-Richards (1925-1989) | Chennai Photo Biennale | Nico Joana Weber | STIRworld
House of the Tropical Modernist architect Alan Vaughan-Richards (1925-1989) Image: Courtesy of the Vaughan-Richards family

Within a country, prevalent architectural designs can be seen in buildings that are given a certain amount of investment and capital due to them being envisioned as legacy buildings that will last for decades and possibly even centuries to come. Architecture stands as a symbol of the state, often, and takes into consideration its public-facing nature that creates a set of publics. Interactivity design is incorporated into building complexes as a way to cordon and facilitate human behaviour within the given structures of society, specific to the region. While Lagos consists of islands on the water, one cannot access it, because of the privatisation of space. Weber compares this development to that of western cities like Sydney and Venice that have a very close relationship with water, where it is integrated into the built landscape.

Film still from No Longer a Single Root by Nico Joana Weber | Chennai Photo Biennale | Nico Joana Weber | STIRworld
Film still from No Longer a Single Root by Nico Joana Weber Image: Courtesy of the artist, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

As Weber says in conversation, “With architecture you really decide how you want to shape the world, how people live, what vision you have. While I may not agree with these visions, at the beginning of the 20th century there was a vision of how architecture can shape society. But I feel like that is getting lost in cities like Lagos.” 

(The third edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale 'Maps of Disquiet' runs across the city of Chennai, India, until February 06, 2022.) 

Also read:
Part I: Chennai Photo Biennale navigates visible implications of photography
Part III: Empty frames of 'All That We Saw' by Amitesh Grover stimulate viewer's memory

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