by Jerry ElengicalDec 06, 2022
The John Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History, designed by SI.SA—led by Seun Oduwole—lies at the heart of Onikan—consisting of Freedom Park, the National Museum Lagos, and the Tafewa Balewa Square—a cultural quarter on Lagos Island, in southwest Nigeria. Forming an essential part of the plan to transform the Marina and Onikan region into a tourism and recreation hub, the cultural centre, having an area of 18,000 sqm, is being built to celebrate Yoruba culture—its past, present and future. The form and architectural language of the centre draw directly from the values and principles of Yoruba culture, translating them into visual metaphors. The project lies on a historically significant site, with the architecture designed to respect its history and context.
In the presentation, The New Home for African Art in Lagos: The JK Randle Yoruba Heritage Centre, Seun Oduwole, the John Randle Centre project lead spoke about Dr John Randle in conversation with Dr Will Rea—a part of the curatorial team of the cultural centre—and moderator, Celine Seror. Tracing back to his legacy, during the 18th-19th century, boats weren’t very safe and caused many deaths. In 1928, Dr John Randle witnessed this and bought a piece of land in King John V Park (later becoming the Love Garden), to build a swimming pool for Lagosians to learn to swim. This gesture was inspired by the fact that the British colonial office refused to construct the facility upon his request. The existing site was also home to a memorial built in 1955, in Dr Randle’s memory by his friends. Along with the Love Garden—a public space that spans from MUSON to Marina—the area became a cultural hotspot, becoming the venue for many art events, cultural shows, and theatre plays. But eventually, the swimming pool and the Memorial Hall became derelict, while most of the Love Garden disappeared because of regional development.
This history defined the architectural language of the project, which was an attempt at bringing back these stories through spaces, celebrating the vibrant past of Yoruba culture and people. The challenge, then, was bringing these lost stories to the 21st century and making them relevant again. As the first step, the public pool was renovated and revived to its original glory while upgrading it with modern facilities. With the Memorial Hall gone, the plan was to build a community centre replete with an exhibition hall.
Analogous to Yoruba culture, the concepts for the project were multifaceted and layered, while staying attached to the same roots. Will Rea, Professor at Leeds University and an expert in Yoruba history, mentioned in the presentation, “There is no single Yoruba culture, and the centre celebrates the multiplicity of different facets in a single space. The culture is very diverse, where each village will say that 'they are the Yoruba culture' but it’ll be different from the village just down the road.” Onikan, previously used to be King George V Park, but much of it disappeared due to the development, driving the decision to make a green open public space in the heart of Lagos island. As Yoruba culture shares the belief that humans are connected to nature, the building rising from the ground as an extension of the landscape ties the architecture to its cultural relevance.
The John Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History lies where the Memorial Hall previously existed. The visitors enter the complex from under the rising monolith, the beginning portion of which doubles as a gateway. The design of the rising, curving structure is full of architectural elements that communicate visual metaphors of concepts, adopted from the Yoruba culture. The building leans forward by nine degrees as a symbol of Yoruba progressiveness. The metal screen facade that wraps the structure is another visual metaphor which speaks of the craftsmanship of the Yorubas—the various forms of which are exhibited through the fabric, looming, hair weaving, basket weaving, metal forging etc. It intends to express the raw skill and talent of the crafts that continue to exist today. Since Adobe wasn't structurally viable for the project, concrete was used along with a Tyrolean finish to evoke the memory of old Yoruba settlements.
The architect also interrogated the nature of museums in this project. His visits to the Guggenheim Museum, the MOMA, and the British Museum always fascinated him, with the wealth of knowledge and information of history and cultures present. But he explains, “The nature of a museum in a local context, where your culture is displayed and celebrated, is quite different. The journey for the exhibition design started with the book Yoruba Art and Language by Professor Rowland Abiodun, in which he looked at the beauty of Yoruba Culture through its philosophical thought perspective; the mythologies, cosmologies, and Yoruba art and language as visual and verbal Oriki. It resonated with me and I thought, how do I bring that to life?" As a result, Professor Rowland Abiodun, Professor Jacob Olupona, Professor Henry Drewal and Dr Willory, experts in Yoruba cultural studies, came together as the curatorial team for the facility and wrote the script as well as designed a narrative which underpins the exhibition. The team of exhibition designers called RAA—Ralph Applebaum Associates—helped bring it all to life.
In the Netflix series Made by Design, Oduwole talks about the exhibition, “It's a multisensory exhibition. A journey through Yoruba story told through different media, using old artefacts, expressing lived experiences, and telling a re-imagination of the future. The mediums we are using are VR, AR, and Interactive media. We have got some excellent writers, graphic artists, and animators who are just bringing these stories to life, making the experience dynamic. So we have a mix of everything. We have artefacts, old historical objects and carvings. We have objects of significance from throughout the evolution of the Southwest, having importance in political history, art history, musical history, and literary history. We are also reimagining what the future would be like. Just creating memorable narratives that can engage people and hopefully leave them inspired when they experience the museum.”
The exhibition explores the most identifiable assets of Yoruba culture. It begins with the creation myth, one of the most significant facets of Yoruba culture and continues with the Ile Ori or the House of the Head, a space surrounded by òrisà shrines that interpret the pan Yoruba deities, that any Yoruba visitor will recognise. It further materialises the oral nature of Yoruba culture, with a cluster of trees acting as a spot for storytelling. The floor-to-ceiling screens show masquerading festivals across Yorubaland, a space talks about colonialism through objects and VR media help visitors view a speculative future of the culture—all these elements intertwine with each other, culminating into a single story. The story of the culture is not limited to its existence in a certain period but speaks of the transformation and resilience of the people, removing the sense of nostalgia for something that is lost, which is often associated with museums, and making this space a celebration of the Yoruba culture's past, present and future.
Name: John Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History
Location: Lagos, Nigeria
Area: 18000 sqm
Year of completion: 2022
Architect: Seun Oduwole - Studio Imagine Simply Architecture
Exhibition Designers: Ralph Applebaum Associates