The pioneering architecture of Nigerian artist-designer Demas Nwoko
Perfectly adapted to their geographical and cultural environment, the low-maintenance landmark buildings of pioneering Nigerian artist-designer Demas Nwoko have stood the test of time
Architecture, painting, sculpture and design – Demas Nwoko has been celebrated in every area of his creative endeavours. He is a pioneer of Nigeria’s modern art movement, and his architecture is innovative while drawing on traditional African construction, belying his lack of formal architecture training (he prefers the title ‘artist-designer’). He is particularly known for developing mitigations for the tropical climate, promoting principles of sustainability decades before it came to dominate mainstream thinking, and influencing a younger generation of architects.
The son of a traditional ruler, Nwoko was born in 1935 in Idumuje-Ugboko, a rural town in southern Nigeria, and he cultivated his talent in painting, drawing and carving at secondary school in Benin City, where he moved in 1951. Nwoko initially planned to study architecture at Nigeria’s College of Art, Science and Technology, based in Zaria, but on discovering that the course primarily focused on developing technical drawing skills rather than creative expression, he pivoted to fine arts. The curriculum did not include African art, even though traditional African art was already influencing fine arts in Europe, prompting Nwoko and fellow students, including Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Simon Okeke, to create the Zaria Art Society. They promoted the idea of ‘natural synthesis’, combining their Western art education with African ideas. Later, the group became popularly known as the ‘Zaria Rebels’. ‘Some saw it as a rebellion against the way art was being taught, but I didn’t see it that way. We were only trying to complement. We weren’t at all rebellious,’ says Nwoko. ‘In fact, we were most friendly with our teachers.’
Art school was followed by a year-long scholarship in Paris to study theatre, stage design and fresco painting. In 1962, he returned to Nigeria to lecture at the newly- formed School of Drama at the prestigious University of Ibadan. During this period, Nwoko and his colleagues from the Art Society, along with their peers across the arts, created a postcolonial modernist collective. They went on to establish spaces such as the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, developing a new art that blended African and Western modernist aesthetics, forms and processes to reflect the spirit of political independence. Nwoko remembers ‘there were a few of us saying that the new should grow out of the old, while the rest were swept [away] with modernisation.’
Nwoko laments Nigeria’s reliance on the West for imported materials and goods, and is committed to sourcing local materials and resources. Drawing on vernacular architecture across Africa, he applies ancient practices to solve contemporary problems. He says, ‘If we had kept faith with how our own ancestors did it, we would have reached a certain level with sensible management of natural resources for even the Western world to learn from. They’re using far too much energy for whatever they’re achieving.’
Nwoko’s first commission, in 1970, to build the complex for the Dominican Institute in Ibadan, was serendipitous. He was approached by members of the Ibadan chapter of the Dominican Order to design a plaque for their altar, after they had visited an exhibition of his terracotta sculptures. When Nwoko discovered that they were yet to build the chapel, he volunteered his services as an architect. ‘I was landed with a commission to build an African chapel without any formal architectural training. I had to train myself in architectural drawing,’ he says. He later went on to also design the living quarters and education spaces for the Institute.
Nwoko’s design for the chapel was based on a paper he had written about art in religion, synthesising all religions around the world into a single structure. He used the towers of the ancient adobe mosques of Timbuktu in Mali as a central motif, and added to the design as he would when painting or sculpting. ‘Painting, you build it up. Sculpture, you build it up. You keep adding things depending on what you want to express, the aesthetic message you want to send out. So everything grew,’ he says.
The most distinguished feature of the chapel at the Dominican Institute is the magical quality of the light, according to Joseph Conteh, a British-Sierra-Leonean architect who studied Nwoko’s work as part of his seven-year research project into African architecture. Conteh explains that the light enters the altar from above, making a direct reference to God in heaven. ‘The light comes in, it filters, it diffuses,’ he says, describing the beauty in the way Nwoko plays with the ever-changing natural resource.
The details within the building are impeccable, including 12 individually carved columns reflecting the 12 disciples in the Christian Bible, and the striking free-form design of the stained glass panels. Externally, the reinforced concrete tower is an intricate, sculptural element rising up to the highest point of the site, while elaborately worked metal is used as functional and decorative screens on the building’s exterior. Nwoko says he specifically sought to include ‘the aesthetic essence of African art’ in his architecture. That being, ‘the expressionistic tendency – the highly expressive nature of making forms and colour to come to life. Generally in life, every article of use was imbued with such creative expressions, both in form and colour, which every citizen, irrespective of class, enjoyed.’
In 1977, two years after the institute’s completion, critic Noel Moffett wrote in the journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects: ‘Here, under a tropical sun, architecture and sculpture combine in a way which only Gaudí perhaps, among architects, has been able to do so convincingly.’ It continues to be considered an architectural landmark today.
Nwoko started building his New Culture Studio and private residence in Ibadan in 1967. The project, which remains a work in progress, started as a private space for his own use, but was later extended and changed into a publicly accessible art hub. It also became a model for the Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre, a public building in the ancient city of Benin, the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria. Nwoko started work on the Benin City project in 1972. However, according to John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood’s 2007 publication The Architecture of Demas Nwoko, the Cultural Centre suffered from ‘intermittent funding’ and therefore did not open officially until 1993.
Nwoko’s private residence was his opportunity to experiment with laterite, a type of soil commonly found in Nigeria. It was typically used in Nigerian vernacular architecture, but the government had banned its use in construction. ‘Most of the towns were all built in mud and most of those buildings are still standing to this day,’ Nwoko says. ‘They’re more than 100 years old. They’re durable and very conducive to our environment, so I don’t see why we’ve thrown them away.’ He managed to circumvent the law by adding ten per cent cement to the laterite in order to form what he calls ‘latcrete’ blocks. These blocks were also used in the outer cladding of the Akenzua Cultural Centre, mimicking the façade of the closely situated Oba’s palace.
An amphitheatre inspired by Greek theatre takes centre stage at the studio and residence in Ibadan, which is arranged over three floors and occupies 300m of hillside. Nwoko visited the ancient Greek amphitheatre in Epidaurus, drawing connections between the site and the small theatre within his father’s palace in Idumuje- Ugboko. With the studio’s amphitheatre, he was keen to enhance the audience’s experience of African theatre by recreating the acoustics of traditional Greek theatre, without the use of elaborate sound panelling and engineering. He transferred those learnings to the project in Benin City.
A striking example of Nwoko’s translation of indigenous aesthetic sensibilities into modern forms and materials is the home and studio in his hometown of Idumuje-Ugboko, where he has lived since 1977. The signature pitched overhanging roof, which ‘crowns’ the building is emblematic of his work and references traditional houses from the 1920s in south-eastern Nigeria, while the ridged external columns mimic the fluted walls found in the Oba’s palace in Benin City.
The construction of this rural home provided the perfect opportunity to apply ventilation principles originally explored at his residence in Ibadan. The central feature is an atrium with a fibreglass lined funnel, or impluvium, entering the space from above. This captures and carries a controlled stream of rainwater from the roof into the house, helping to cool its interior. As light translates to heat, Nwoko designs his houses with subdued natural illumination, creating a sense of serenity to the cool environment.
The laterite blocks created an insulating effect, helping to control internal temperatures. Nwoko explains in Godwin and Hopwood’s book that ‘comfortable room temperatures are achieved when air is let in and out of the house at a slow rate […] through carefully provided openings both at the ground level and above the head’. Conteh highlights exquisite details such as the carved doors, which differ in design on either side. He also points to what he calls the ‘variation in similarity’ of the brickwork. It appears uniform, but there’s subtle variation in the pigmentation of each brick. This reflects Nwoko’s aesthetic principle that one should always discover something new when observing the same object.
Adeyemo Shokunbi, architect and co-creative director at Patrickwaheed Design Consultancy, says the project’s materiality, spatial arrangement, and the way Nwoko » manipulates heat and light are a huge source of inspiration. ‘It doesn’t have any mechanical means of ventilation,’ he says, referring to the highly effective cooling principles applied. ‘Everything is natural.’
Once discovered, Nwoko’s buildings are cherished and embraced. However, many architects around the world remain unfamiliar with them. Olufemi Majekodunmi, the former president of the International Union of Architects, says the designer was never mentioned or taught during his many years in academia in Nigeria. ‘Maybe it’s because we have this penchant for academic qualifications,’ Majekodunmi says. ‘His work should be studied more. He was much more innovative than those of us who went to architecture school.’ British-trained Shokunbi says his entire design perspective shifted after discovering Nwoko’s work and philosophies. Apart from adding laterite to his palette of materials, he’s more intentional about how to create ‘within the context of where I’m practising my architecture’.
Nwoko’s legacy is undoubtedly his demonstration of how tradition and modernity, and African aesthetics alongside internationally developed practices, can create innovative and effective responses to design questions. He warns against building ‘a world without people’ through the large-scale industrialisation model of development that employs destructive and unsustainable building practices.
Nwoko continues to use his work as an artistic expression of what Nigeria could become if it harnessed its resources. He recently completed the design for a new chapel in Ewu, a town not far from Idumuje-Ugboko, and construction is expected to start in the coming months. He plans to complete the New Culture Studio in Ibadan, addinga long-awaited retractable roof to the amphitheatre, and furniture he has designed. Following this, he wants to launch a design school where architects and artisans can come together to learn and explore ideas. Books about his life and projects are also in the works. ‘My joy is people enjoying the work, and that’s the beginning and end of the work for me,’ Nwoko says. ‘I’m just a designer and I design solutions.’ §
A version of this article appears in the October 2022 Legends Issue of Wallpaper*, available in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today