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Tosin Oshinowo: The architect through whose eyes Lagos is reinventing itself

Buildings are not just static objects raised to offer protective shelter; buildings and the parts they are made of, have life and were created by extracting from natural environments just like every other living thing and even the men from whose imagination, buildings sprout. Agreed, buildings have life, the architects behind them are the gods who, though mostly remain unseen and uncelebrated, have shaped how cities and societies have evolved over centuries. Some contemporary architects are emerging from behind their clouds, and like the gods that they are, commanding attention to themselves.

There are lots of reputable Architects in Nigeria but because they might not have celebrated their works enough, as well as they should, they are not known. As an Architect, if you do not promote your work and set it on a pedestal, people may never know about it or know about you. There is a lot of creative competition in Nigeria so if you want to be known, you have to show yourself to the world.

Those were the first words of Tosin Oshinowo as we sat in her cozy, high brow Lagos studio for a chat about her work and career growth trajectory for TheNerve Africa’s Africa CityRise Editorial Project.

With just over a decade practice, the Bartlett School of Architecture trained urban design professional is fast becoming a force to reckon with, both within the professional circles and social circles. Not one to shy away from attention, the soft spoken, yet energetic creative leverages the publicity off her social engagements for good, validating her opening statement on the need for visibility as a creative professional. The attention and spotlight she has attracted to her work has indeed brought her good fortunes; some of the young architect’s work can be seen everywhere in Nigeria’s commercial city of Lagos with creatively inspiring and bold statements. In Tosin, it seems Nigeria is raising its own Zaha Hadid.

Tosin believes that Nigeria is currently experiencing a creative renaissance and architects must not be left behind. The creative landscape in Nigeria has improved in the last 10 to 15 years, she says.

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“one can say we are experiencing a creative renaissance. Different sectors within the creative industries in the country have done well to celebrate their individual works and create awareness so people are better informed about who they are and what they do. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case with those in architecture, there hasn’t been a lot of light shed on work done over the years. In Nigeria, there are a lot of reputable architects pushing boundaries and doing great work, but because they haven’t promoted their works as well as they should, they remain unknown.

“I have noticed a trend in Nigeria about Architects being negatively fixated on networks. Networks are good but you may not grow beyond your current stage with just networks. It is rather unfortunate that you have to celebrate yourself and the work you do as no one will do it for you. One of the most exciting things about my work today and getting visibility is social media. A lot of people have access to it and their works can be shared to reach a wider audience for awareness and recognition. Architecture in Nigeria is so visible yet the great architects in Nigeria are invisible. As an Architect, if you can ensure to document your work properly, photograph completed works and share on social media; that will be a great turning point. Dots always connect. A finished job which has been documented and commercialized will always open doors to other opportunities.

“The work of Public Relations in Architecture cannot be overemphasized in this ever changing global space. People need to see what work is done and how great the work is. It is the work of the PR personnel to ensure your work reaches through the different sections of the media. As an Architect, you can be an intellectual and you can be out there celebrating your work as well. Architects are expected to do things in a certain way but if you are not strategic with what you do, your works may never be known.”

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Tosin is a natural. At a very young age, she was already developing a strong love for buildings and the art and science behind them. She would join her father to building sites while her father was putting up the family residence. Among her siblings, she was the one kid who could interpret the drawings and would correctly point to her room from the drawings.

The Ikorodu native began her education at the prestigious Queens College in Lagos State before proceeding to study Architecture at the Kingston University. Post Kingston, Tosin majored in Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London for her Masters. Tosin who now runs her own design studio CM Design Atelier out of Lagos, began her formative career years working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP SOM‘s London office before moving to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands. On returning to Nigeria, she spent the next four years at James Cubitt Architects and was team-lead on projects for the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas in Port Harcourt.

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Proposed concept design for Lagos’s 4th Mainland Bridge.

While at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam, Tosin and her team worked on a proposed model for the construction of the 4th Mainland Bridge in Lagos. An ambitious double decker concept design with a pedestrian section on the lower deck and vehicles on top.

Tosin is gradually etching her name and work across Nigeria’s urban landscape. Perhaps, it is through her eyes that one of Africa’s mega cities will reimagine and reinvent itself. Tosin is the architect behind what I love to term the Maryland Blackbox; the magnificently designed Maryland Mall. Also in Tosin’s portfolio are design works for Nigeria’s Guaranty Trust Bank, CafeNeo, Kamp Ikare Resort and Ying Yang Express.

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The Maryland Mall, Maryland, Lagos.
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Mixed use development

Lagos is a global city with affluence and will always be talked about, not just for it’s colonial heritage or for its place as Nigeria’s former capital, but as the 4th fastest growing megacity in the world and 24th largest built up urban place globally, according to Demographia’s 2016 report. Economically, Lagos is also one of the biggest economies in Africa with a GDP of $131 billion as at 2017.

However, Lagos seems caught at a crossroads on conversations around sustainability, preserving it’s colonial architectural heritage and the future of urbanism and inclusive development. Should Lagos erase the old while building the new or make a compromise between both for the sake of sustainability? Is Lagos only building for the rich while the poor are confined to the old, I asked?

“It’s not possible to preserve buildings if the state is not willing to intervene. Safe guarding ancient buildings yearly are the responsibility of the State Government. The state needs to have an interest in preserving old buildings. These are the things that give a city its richness. In Lagos, we’re stuck between preserving legacy and catching up with the western world, hence, the need to implement appropriate policies to rectify this situation,” Tosin says.

The brilliant architect thinks of Lagos’s urban growth largely as haphazard and one in which hard choices must be made in the interest of the future.

“Lagos is one of those cities with haphazard growth. Everything from the roads to buildings is not uniformed. At some point I ask, are we planning for the future? There is a sentimental value in preserving the old, but we must be realistic and plan for the future. Cities like London and Brazil are cosmopolitan but they have a level of sustainability.

“Nigerians need to learn to plan for the future. For instance, London was late in the decision to develop, but they realized the importance and developed the North and South circular, therefore creating a situation where you do not have to cross from North to South from the centre. That was proper planning for the future. Barcelona also planned for the future. They saw their roads were not wide enough so they built boulevards. They have a standardized homogenous grade because they were thinking of the future.

“In order to achieve the dream and goal of a modern planned city, we must plan for the future in Lagos. Unless we sort out a decent transport system where the high income person is willing to move around with public transport, that modern planned city will not exist here. The biggest problem with development in Lagos is the transport system. If we do not sort out the different waterway movements, ferry systems at work, provide more efficient bus systems and set up the basic transport networks, it will always struggle sustainably.

“If these ideas are not enforced based on policies, inclusive development may never happen. A developer will always work based on profit, it’s the nature of the game. If incentives are not put in place, development will not be sustainable and inclusive. Market forces will not allow the developer to plan and the developer will not plan intentionally unless he is forced.

“It all depends on policies.”

“I hope that in terms of Urbanism and Architecture, the Lagos State government will continue to enforce the discipline of not allowing development to be done haphazardly. I do hope that the bigger plans for the city in terms of urbanism like Lekki free trade zone, the tram lines, ferry terminals, airport will come to fruition soon. Although they are grand plans that are heavily dependent on funds and capital, but if they are actually implemented it will be best for the State long term.”

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For most ambitious architects like Tosin Oshinowo, the challenges they face in the profession are both internal, between the architects themselves and externally, going all the way down the entire value chain of the property development ecosystem.

The Lekki-Ikoyi axis of Lagos has become the hotbed of new and ambitious property developments, not just in Lagos but the entire country. However, there are as much complaints as there are accolades on the sub-standard quality of most of these new developments, irrespective of their exorbitant prices. Tosin smiles as I make mention of this as though she anticipated the question.

There is corruption in the system, some dubious senior professionals actually sign approval drawings that were not done by their firms and people will always be dubious if there is no penalty for wrongs done.

“The industry is being poisoned by developers who are not doing things properly she begins. There are building control policies but it is not properly enforced in Nigeria. Developers are cutting corners because of potential profit. There are so many substandard buildings with poor electrical fittings that are springing up. There is no respect for Architects, most developers do not use architects and nobody checks that. The law is supposed to enforce that before any approval drawings are submitted, it must be signed and sealed by registered architects. There is corruption in the system, some dubious senior professionals actually sign approval drawings that were not done by their firms and people will always be dubious if there is no penalty for wrongs done.”

The recent flooding in Lagos brought the issue of poor urban design and its effect on city life to the fore. It is time the Lagos State government paid a lot more attention to how its future is not only designed but being built out. The Government must reimagine the city as a collective space that belongs to all who live and do business in it. The city, its people, how they live and their aspirations must be protected. Planning and design of cities should be open and participatory, thus giving room for the government to look through the eyes of more architects like Tosin Oshinowo to build a sustainable future.

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This article is published as part of TheNerveAfrica’s CityRise Project, documenting issues of urban development and profiling some of Africa’s best architects, city managers, developers, property investors and facility managers.