Open Letter on Public Space

Architect Rem Koolhaas‘ Harvard Graduate School of Design Studio Project on the City proposes Lagos Nigeria be seen as a developed, extreme, pragmatic case study of a city at the forefront of globablizing modernity. Nigerian architect Uche Isichei observes “He seems to be drawn to the idea that these systems grow by themselves – organizations and structures that emerge primarily as a result of economic and social forces, free of any regulatory control or planning. See “For and From Lagos, Nigeria“.



Lagos, and all places all around the world need public space and sensible ways to organize the distribution of public information. It is nearly impossible to understand what it is like in Lagos with no libraries and parks. How the local community can see a bigger picture or conduct democracy without public information and public space as part of their daily life?
Accuracy&Aesthetics would like to create a public space/public information center in Lagos.  The vision is for a circular pedestrian space in a busy area surrounded with 100 maps mounted in 10 sets of 10 themes. The working title is Where is Lagos.


From AfricaMedia

“Maps” includes the geography of the city, country, continent, and world AND information visualizations showing the current state of public health versus impending spread of disease, Nigeria’s place in the world of science versus locations of local training centers, and other compare/contrast techniques to show the citizens of Lagos where they came from, where they stand today, and where they are heading.


HIV prevalence in adults in sub-Saharan Africa, 2005 (UNAIDS, 2006, p.14).

The place is intended to be permanent. The maps would be constructed of high resolution digital prints mounted to a metal substrate coated in vandal resistant acrylic polyurethane such as Armourseal. The maps will need to be made in the US or UK. Text will be provided in English, Hausa, and possibly a third language to be determined. We will work with the US consulate and other organizations to complete the translations. The goal is to construct simple block walls and install a patterned plaza hardscape of local materials to imply a complete circle around the space. Ideally, a mosiac style map would anchor the exhibit in the middle, hopefully designed by a local person. All construction and installation would employ local people. Maintenance procedures will be negotiated with local and global community-based organizations. There would be an opening event with music.



Do you have any ideas about which part of Lagos is most likely to benefit from a public place like this? Do you know of any organizations, including your own, who would be interested in contributing expertise or financial support towards this effort?

Thank you for taking the time to read this and please feel free to pass onto other who may be interested.


Deborah MacPherson

From and for Lagos, Nigeria by Uche Isichei

The chaotic dynamism of Lagos may be immensely stimulating, but does it also spawn usable structures?

‘Currently we are looking at Africa and particularly at the city of Lagos. The reason for this is an intuition ? what we are expecting to find in Africa is that there are urban patterns which do not rely on any kind of formal structure, but which develop an immediate degree of informality and nevertheless have a very high and intense form of organisation. So what we are looking at are forms of urbanization that orchestrate urban life…’ Rem Koolhaas

The recently published excerpt of the ongoing study of the Nigerian city of Lagos by Rem Koolhaas’s Harvard GSD studio (‘Project on the City’) proposes that Lagos be (re)viewed as a ‘developed, extreme, paradigmatic case study of a city at the forefront of globalising modernity’. It challenges current thinking, arguing that Lagos (and by extension, similar cities) is neither dysfunctional (caught in a difficult phase of modernization), nor terminally ill.

By mapping the city and examining the details found within the ‘chaos’, the group start discovering complex ‘relationships that are not immediately apparent’. Koolhaas and his students explore these systems as a case-study of the ‘efficacy of systems considered marginal, liminal, informal or illegal’. The published excerpt focuses primarily on the complex commercial organization known as Alaba, a huge marketplace of electronics equipment located between Lagos and Badagry. Alaba seems to have materialized without any government or regulatory influence, and this, I suspect, is the real appeal that Nigeria holds for Koolhaas. He seems to be drawn to the idea that these systems grow by themselves ? organizations and structures that emerge primarily as a result of economic and social forces, free of any regulatory control or planning.

The study is noteworthy as one of the first to look at Nigerian architecture in relation to its current urban situation. The implicit perception is that studies of contemporary African urban conditions are important and that scholarship on African architecture should not be concerned solely with ‘traditional’ buildings ? the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ culture and architecture of Africa is not locked away somewhere in the past. However, it must be said that the study would benefit from a more intimate knowledge of the historical and cultural context of some of the issues that are being explored.

Another weak aspect of the study is that it describes these alternative organizational strategies without investigating the quality of inhabitation. Surely optimum organizational strategies must be differentiated from basic or survival strategies? The distinction might be subjective, but even bees and ants have ‘interesting’ organizational capabilities ? to be successful urban complexes, surely cities must provide their citizens with an environment that ‘orchestrates’ more than the basics. In other words, there is as yet no attempt to evaluate the expressions as found. The premise seems to be that the condition exists therefore it must be effective; by way of analogy, a terminally ill patient slipping in and out of a coma might be technically alive, but plainly is not functioning in any useful way.

It is important that studies be holistic for them to be meaningful. The political and economic reality of Lagos must be taken into consideration when looking at its urbanism. To represent the city as it is today as an inherently ‘African’ condition is to ignore the dysfunctional political and social systems that have arrested the growth of the infrastructure of the city and left it in dire need of help.

In 1976, when the Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) was held in Lagos, one naira (the Nigerian monetary unit) was equivalent to one US dollar. A large residential complex (FESTAC Village) and new public facilities such as the National Theatre were built in celebration of Nigeria‘s new oil wealth. When Koolhaas’s study was carried out (1999-2000) the economic climate was very different. A succession of coups and political mismanagement had crippled the economy, and one naira could barely purchase a single US cent.

The country is pervaded by a feeling of despair that it is currently trying to shake off with its latest journey into democracy. In this context, Lagos exemplifies the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming difficulties and obstacles. It remains in survival mode and refuses to give up. Ironically, the ‘efficacy’ of these survival strategies and alternative systems may have encouraged Nigerians to grow even less sensitive to their regulatory or territorial bodies, in the process further losing control over the federal systems and their economic destinies.

Lagos is a difficult city to study or understand. Its spatial organization has a kinetic quality that allows it to escape conventional methods of analysing cities. This is compounded by the difficulty of defining the boundaries and contents of such an amorphous urban complex. Where does the city start and stop? More importantly, what is the city in this context? Victoria Island, a wealthy suburb with its grid of streets and homes hidden behind huge compound walls, has little in common with poorer areas such as Ajegunle. The multi-storey office blocks on Allen Avenue or Ikeja and Marina are not dissimilar to those in the city centres of other modern cities. Although such variety is a feature of virtually all cities, Lagos is particularly hard to discuss as a homogeneous unit. On the other hand, within these very different sections of the city there are many similarities in the way space is used and defined.

In Nigerian cities, it is often difficult to divide space into private and public domains ? many ‘private’ spaces, like compounds, have large ‘public’ interfaces, like shops. Conversely many public spaces are in fact inhabited in ‘private’ ways and are often walled and ‘secured’ in much the same way as the house or compound. This influences the way that the notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are viewed. For example, it is difficult to take ‘public’ photographs in Nigeria because individuals will resist these intrusions of their ‘privacy’. In some ways public spaces are actually fragmented continually into a multitude of private spaces.

In pre-colonial architecture, private spaces were defined within the compound walls, and public or communal spaces became the spaces ‘left over’, or excluded from private ownership.4 With few exceptions, communal space was not built.5 The most common public space in these societies was in fact market space.

The markets displayed kinetic and transient qualities that maximized interfaces. It was not just the organization that was important. It was the entire approach to, and perception of space that these markets engendered. Space was filled only as required (and vacated after use) and strategies were devised to increase interfaces wherever possible. Markets also allowed individuals to remain mobile and sell in limited quantities or to become fixed and take on bigger roles. They were social spaces that allowed for communal interaction and played critical roles in linking different organizational elements. Many Igbo villages structured the days of the week around specific markets ? there were four days to each week and each day was associated with a different type of market (eke, olie, afo, nkwo). In this sense they were actually planning or mapping strategies (of both time and space) that enabled the formation of wider networks. In other words, market space enabled extensive urban complexes to emerge, but these complexes generally vanished after use.

In modern Nigeria, the traditional idea of market space has been transformed into an urban strategy. What was once located in a specific place and time has now ‘mutated’ into a system of inhabitation ? a system that essentially inverts the Western idea of ‘drive thru’. Instead of driving to the products, the goods are brought to the drivers and other inhabitants of public space (‘buying thru drive’). Spaces are not assigned permanent functions, streets may become markets, taxi or bus terminals may become barber salons, and so on. Effectively, the city becomes inhabited as a market, and this enables goods and services to be taken directly to the point where they are consumed. Like other aspects of the market, the use and demarcation of space remains negotiable and is constantly reassessed.

This seems to be the key to Lagos‘s survival. Lagos in many ways is the antithesis of the idea of a ‘plan’, in all senses of the word. Plans attempt to structure space in rigid and specific ways that address fixed needs and functions. The notion of a plan assumes constants and fixed values (functions, types, locations). Lagos on the other hand, remains flexible and its organizational structures reconfigure as different possibilities and situations require. Symbols and ideas therefore remain fluid. Nothing is fixed. Nor is this possible, because in the present economic conditions a rigid plan would not provide a large enough interface between users and products and services.

There is a subversive subplot to all this. It is an essentially anti-structural approach to urbanity: by hawking their services and products on roads and other interstitial spaces, traders gain free market space which effectively maximizes potential profit, but more importantly, it reinforces the apparent ‘freedom’ of the trader from any authority. In this context, market space provides a form of escape.

Although all Nigerian cities and towns share this approach to public space, it is manifest in various ways. In the northern city of Jos, regulatory bodies have attempted to plan the markets and thereby control and restrict them to specific areas of the city. Although a large-scale ‘maison dom-ino’ was constructed to house the market, it nevertheless spills out into the surrounding streets. The other extreme can be found in cities like Onitsha where much of the ‘city’ is inhabited like a market.6

In Onitsha market space defines virtually all inhabitation of the city. Three-storey dwellings designed to maximize rental possibilities stretch to the horizon, overwhelmingly dense and strikingly homogeneous. Here, market space is squeezed into any available space. Bridges, motorways, even the smallest alleys all take on a multitude of functions. Equally striking is how quickly these spaces are vacated at night. It is also interesting that many of the buildings in Onitsha are actually funded by traders working in other urban centres effectively spreading the interface of Onitsha market space far beyond the boundaries of the physical city.

These methods of inhabitation are not only restricted to ‘cities’ in the conventional sense. An urban complex in Eastern Nigeria called ‘9 Mile’ (it is located nine miles from Enugu) has grown around the intersection of several major highways. Roads that link Onitsha, Port Harcourt and the northern part of the country all intersect at 9 Mile, and an urban market has literally grown on the highway over the last 25 years. Here the highways between cities become re-defined as markets and traffic responds appropriately by slowing to a halt as hawkers peddle their wares. This particular urban complex is worthy of detailed study: in 9 Mile, new urban patterns can be seen in isolation.

Controlling or directing market space
Architects and urban designers have so far failed to translate these traditional or historical market planning approaches into more ‘permanent’ urban planning strategies. The existing urban fabric is virtually incidental to inhabitation. It is almost as if the actors have found themselves on the wrong stage and have had to improvise with the props they find there. High population densities combined with these unsuitable city layouts make these informal markets and ‘illegal’ inhabitations the only real option available to a large section of society.

Previous governments have often tried to contain and control these illegal and informal markets by strengthening the ties between specific spaces and functions. This approach was taken to an extreme in 1983, when the then ‘Head of State’, General Buhari, launched a campaign called ‘War Against Indiscipline’. The government set about destroying all temporary or illegal structures. Hawkers were also actively discouraged from selling on the streets. A year later the regime was overthrown, the shelters were rebuilt, and the streets were once again reclaimed as market space.

Market space is an expression of economic factors and therefore its volume or interface is best controlled financially. These interfaces seem to increase when economic conditions decline. The reverse should occur as Nigeria‘s fortunes start to improve. This is because these informal markets also function as social or ‘welfare’ systems ? they provide a means of recycling wealth. The same goods are transferred and sold on in a myriad of ways and times. Each transformation and ‘upgrade’ provides another layer of society with some type of financial or social advantage. Sometimes these transformations are complex and involve international trade routes, but quite often they are related to basic commodities such as petrol or food.

The informal markets are also a symptom of a transformation that is taking place in Nigerian cities involving the fragmentation of society into smaller independent social and economic units. This inhibits the development of communal projects because these groups are focused primarily on their individual needs. Furthermore, these organizations are not globally competitive and instead focus on responding to the demands of the domestic market. As a consequence, there is little or no net increase in wealth that is not derived from government exports ? it is simply recycled at different rates.
Market space currently uses leftover space, which is the way public space has been traditionally approached. Future strategies need to try and package space in ways that facilitate the requirements of traditional market. Given
Nigeria‘s current economic climate, these will not employ ‘grand gestures’, but will be restricted to working with the details.

At the same time, I would argue that this state of affairs, which has a lot to do with lack of funds, is not unique to Lagos. I do not believe there is an inherent logic in the city of Lagos that avoids building and structuring. In the 1970s Lagos was a richer city and many of the organizational structures that Koolhaas identifies in his paper did not exist during this time. There is no doubt in my mind that Lagos would benefit greatly from more funds and further attention to the planning of the city fabric.

For example, more attention needs to be paid to public spaces that function as transit points ? areas such as bus and taxi parking areas. It is in these places that new urban strategies may begin to emerge. Public space here is multi-dimensional: recreation, transportation and other commercial spheres all merge. Currently the ‘stages’ or landscapes within which these activities occur are effectively empty. Nigerian cities need buildings and flexible planning strategies that house such activities. Currently, most state-funded development comprises projects such as ‘secretariats’ (offices for public servants) or roads. These funds might be better utilized for enhancing public space. The challenge of developing new urban strategies is as important to the future development of the nation as the political and economic changes that are currently taking place. Such infrastructural developments are prerequisites for any meaningful change.

An important contribution of the Harvard project is the way it has introduced Lagos, and by extension Nigeria and Africa, into the international discourse. Inevitably, there are many important factors that must be considered when cultures are re-presented in this way. There are a great many Nigerian architects who could contribute to the dialogue that Koolhaas is initiating. It is important that this research also addresses the local context, possibly by discussing and debating the work with Nigerian architects both inside and outside Nigeria. Increasing the dialogue between ‘local’ and ‘international’ in this way will not only benefit the research, it will also influence local practice and the design of public projects in Nigeria.

The danger of addressing an international audience at the expense of the local is that the work may become pre-occupied solely with the translation of local experiences and conditions to the international audience and, in the process, become diverted from generating new knowledge about the conditions in question. Early Orientalist re-presentative texts often sought to ‘record’ and re-name the topography they ‘discovered’, and it is important that new texts do not fall into the same trap and become preoccupied with renaming ideas and experiences (a second-generation ‘upgraded’ Orientalism ?).

The Harvard project contains important lessons from and for Lagos. Lagos and other African cities have much to contribute to the international discussion on cities. For a variety of reasons, African architects and architecture have previously not been actively involved in this dialogue. It is important that they become involved in shaping this new understanding of African urban conditions and build (practically and theoretically) on this body of knowledge.

1. ‘Bigness and Velocity’, in: A+U: OMA@work, Tokyo, May 2000, p. 198.
2. ‘
Lagos‘ in: Rem Koolhaas et al., Mutations, Arc en R?ve, Bordeaux, 2000, pp. 652-725. The entire study is due to appear in book form later on this year.
3. This study is part of a wider Harvard project that investigates ‘mutations in urban culture’. The various studies set out to develop new conceptual frameworks and vocabularies for ‘phenomena that can no longer be described within the traditional categories of architecture, landscape and urban planning’.
4. Uche Isichei, Igbo Gnosis Rituals and Architecture, Masters Thesis (
Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand). Z.R. Dmochowski, An Introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture, vols 1-3, documents plans and sections of a vast number of pre-colonial house types in Nigeria.
5. Exceptions to this included ‘Lineage’ or ancestral homes that were communal to a degree, and Obas palaces. Although both of these types of building were public in the sense that they were collectively owned, access to them was often restricted.
Onitsha, which is in East Nigeria, some 350 km from Lagos, developed around a pre-colonial market.
Uche Isichei is the director of Funktion Architects,
Wellington, New Zealand. He studied at the University of Jos, Nigeria and at Victoria University, Wellington.


5 thoughts on “Open Letter on Public Space

  1. I realy like this angle that you have on the topic. Certainly wasn’t thinking on this at the time I begun searching for tips. Your ideas was totally simple to understand. Happy to find that there’s an individual here that obviously understands on the spot what its is talking about.

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