Venice Architecture Biennale 2023: Everything you need to know
by Eleonora GhediniMay 02, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Zohra KhanPublished on : May 12, 2023
How far can one go from one’s own calling? How long would the wait be before one arrives at one’s own door? Demas Nwoko's journey shows what we seek is often seeking us alike.
The Nigerian-born architect, artist, designer, and master builder was perhaps not as globally celebrated prior to the announcement of his being the recipient of the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by Venice Architecture Biennale 2023. So what made this acknowledgement critical? As per the 2023 biennale curator Lesley Lokko, Demas Nwoko is "an architect of both the 20th and the 21st centuries," and his “culturally authentic forms of expression sweeping across the African continent point to the future" despite his work remaining largely unknown, even in his home turf.
It comes as a surprise that 88-year-old Nwoko has no formal training in architecture. His journey is peppered with sweet and sour encounters, of navigating the dreams and reality of architecture. For someone who did not finish his architecture course at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria, it is no mean feat when a building he designed in his later years—the Dominican Institute in Ibadan—was acknowledged for the way it combined architecture and sculpture to a degree that perhaps only Antoni Gaudi was able to achieve. Architectural education did not please him as it focused more on technical drawing instead of traditional knowledge. It was instead when he changed tack to enrol in a fine arts course that he found a way to express himself. Art then became the source of all creativity for him, in the years that followed.
Born in the southern Nigerian village of Idumuje Ugboko in 1935, Nwoko’s childhood was spent admiring the newly-built residences of his neighbourhood, especially the palace building of his grandfather. Further, an interest in painting, drawing, and wood carving, while attending school in Benin fuelled Nwoko's young mind and built his affinity towards art and craft. Later during his youth, while at art school, Nwoko learnt about art's ability to encourage collaboration and opening possibilities to explore different disciplines, unlike architecture, which to him seemingly ensued a limiting territory of practice. A peek into Nwoko’s critical oeuvre is incomplete without delving into Zaria Rebels—a group he formed in 1958, while at art school with fellow students ZarYusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Simon Okeke. Formally known as the Zaria Art Society, the collective rebelled against the absence of African Art in the curriculum. The Zaria Rebels advocated ‘natural synthesis’–a concept that merges the best of indigenous art traditions, forms and ideas with what is considered useful from Western cultures to herald a new Nigerian aesthetic. The group encouraged each member to create a work of art by combining their Nigerian roots with Western inspirations. The endeavour influenced Nwoko’s work for over five decades, and it led to him becoming “one of the first Nigerian makers of space and form to critique Nigeria’s reliance on the West for imported materials and goods, as well as ideas,” relays Lokko.
Staying true to the fact that a creative's identity is about being a verb than a noun, Nwoko’s learning tryst didn’t stop at art school. He went to Paris on a year-long scholarship to study theatre design and stage design at the Centre Français du Théâtre. On returning home and reconnecting with his fellow rebels, he established the Mbari Writers and Artists Club that shaped a new art movement, that blended African and Western modernist aesthetics, forms and processes to reflect the spirit of political independence.
Nwoko's practice transitioned from art to architecture at the beginning of 1970, when he was commissioned for his first project, the Dominican Institute in Ibadan. One of his seminal works, the chapel landmark was located on a hill, surrounded by green lawns, and featured elaborate motifs cast in concrete and stone. There’s an interesting story behind the project’s commission. Members of the Ibadan chapter of the Dominican order once visited an exhibition of Nwoko’s terracotta sculptures, and fascinated by his art, the group approached him to craft a plaque for the altar. When Nwoko came to know that they were yet to finalise an architect for the chapel, he instinctively volunteered for the job. For the building’s design, he drew inspiration from a paper he had written on art and religion, proposing the culmination of all religions of the world into a single structure. His design was based on the towers of ancient adobe mosques of Timbuktu, which helped him derive the motifs, while his process—true to an artist’s practice—ensued a gradual and layered build-up. The architecture was marked by stained glass panels, handcrafted metal screens, 12 carved columns, and a reinforced concrete tower.
The chapel was followed by New Culture Studio and private residences in Ibadan in 1967, currently being run as a training centre for performing arts, and Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre in Benin city in 1972. The private residences revealed an important intervention in Nwoko’s practice. The architecture employed an ingenious use of local laterite. Nwoko, an advocate of synthesising ideas, went on to combine cement and laterite to create building blocks dubbed ‘laticrete.' The technique was later seen in the exteriors of the Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre, a performing arts and exhibition centre as well.
An experimental space, much like the man himself, Nwoko further conceived his traditional two-storey abode in the Igbo town of Idumuje-Ugboko in southeast Nigeria in 1976. The house is built around a central atrium and crowned by a pitched overhanging roof. The roof was designed to allow the natural circulation of light and air; the atrium featured a fibreglass funnel-like basin (called impluvium). Installed in the ceiling soffit, it is designed to harvest rainwater for household activities as well as to maintain the microclimate. Other features include the application of a few windows to avoid a large influx of natural light inside, accent walls made of granite stone from local quarries, and trees moved during construction repurposed as flooring, window shutters, and doors. Each space within the house meditates in a soulful synergy between art and architecture.
While a lack of formal architectural education could not stop him from creating buildings that were rooted in the context of their own lands, Nwoko hesitates to call himself an architect. For him, his journey has been of an 'artist-designer.' “It speaks both to the polyglot nature of his talents and oeuvres,” Lokko cites in the award announcement, “and to the rather narrow interpretation of the word ‘architect’ that has arguably kept his name out of the annals.”
She continues, “One of the central themes of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition is an approach to architecture as an ‘expanded’ field of endeavours, encompassing both the material and immaterial worlds; a space in which ideas are as important as artefacts, particularly in the service of what is yet to come. With all of its emphasis on the future, however, it seems entirely fitting that the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement should be awarded to someone whose material works span the past 70 years, but whose immaterial legacy—approach, ideas, ethos—is still in the process of being evaluated, understood and celebrated.” Perhaps a long-due recognition has finally unfurled for the veteran.
Awarded every two years during the festival, The Golden Lion recognises the recipient's lifetime achievements and is celebrated as part of the inauguration ceremony for the Biennale, scheduled this year to open on May 20, 2023. Previous recipients include Italian-born Brazilian modernist Lina Bo Bardi who won it posthumously in 2021, British architect, critic and educator Kenneth Frampton in 2018; Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha in 2016, and Canadian architect and philanthropist, Phyllis Lambert in 2016.
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