Kunlé Adeyemi: a new way of making
The first of the GSA Boogertman + Partners International lecture series was held in August 2016 at the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Maboneng, Johannesburg, and featured guest speaker, Kunlé Adeyemi. Funded by Boogertman + Partners, Saint-Gobain and Tonic, the full lecture series aims to examine the premise that architecture offers a far broader scope than just the making of buildings.
The session was chaired by Professor Lesley Lokko, Head of the UJ Graduate School of Architecture (GSA), who introduced the conversation by observing that the training of architects should be largely influenced by events such as discussions, exhibitions, films, book launches and symposia. “These platforms contribute to the accessibility and relevance of architecture within society and the public realm, providing opportunities for the sharing of ideas and experiences across disciplines,” she said. “Without events such as this lecture series, we would miss the face to face encounters and the very platforms that so necessarily expand and allow for multidisciplinary endeavours to occur.”
The GSA lecture series promises an equal mix of international and local architects, including up and coming talent as well as established voices. Between August and December, the programme will feature exclusively African architects, including Stephen Hobbs, Dylan Watkins and David Adjaye. Next year’s group promises the likes of Bjarke Ingels, Elizabeth Diller and Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear.
Lokko introduced Kunlé Adeyemi as the first speaker of the series. Adeyemi grew up and lived in Nigeria for the first twenty-five years of his life. He studied in Lagos, completed a master's degree at Princeton University under Peter Eisenman, and worked for ten years as a senior associate with Rem Koolhaas at OMA before returning to Nigeria. His practice, NLÉ, is now based in both Amsterdam and Lagos.
The lecture featured two films. The first, donated by Fireworks Media and commissioned by Al Jazeera, took the audience on a journey to Lagos and NLÉ’s Makoko Floating School, considered to be Adeyemi’s first big break. The second highlighted an improved and prefabricated version of the school’s structure, made for the Venice Biennale 2016.
Adeyemi’s background, growing up in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, his way of life, his environment, and the ideals of his Modernist architect father, strongly influenced his architecture. “The way people use and interact with spaces has been a very important part of my upbringing. So I have always been very interested in how the public interact with the built environment.” His formal education at Princeton University was, for him, an opportunity to expand his knowledge, delving into the theoretical aspects of architecture.
During the years working with OMA in the Netherlands, where Koolhaas pushed him beyond the boundaries of his own expectations, he continued to visit Lagos and noticed a gap between his experience of the rest of the world and the kind of work he saw produced on his home continent. He saw an opportunity to make an important leap to bridge this gap, which strongly influenced his return to Lagos.
He described the difficulty of this move by observing that “everything in Africa meets resistance.” His solution was to acquire the skillset to be resilient and relentless in approaching the different aspects of a project set in difficult environments.
Noting that inspiration lies within the talent, intelligence and activities of everyday people, Adeyemi believes that it is important to learn from the natural environment, to learn from history and what has come before, and to apply these principles to the issues we face today. He also emphasised that it is necessary to rethink architecture in a way that form meets the needs of people and the environment, and increases value – both of the investment and of the users’ experience of the building.
Adeyemi believes academia is an opportunity to test ideas and develop thoughts, and he incorporates this thinking within his studios abroad, starting research that leads to design within the scope of a travelling studio.
Lokko commented that the Makoko structure is an “unlikely structure to be found in Lagos”, to which Adeyemi responded that NLÉ’s philosophies and value system apply to all the practice’s projects, from socially responsible work to high-end design. Lokko then pointed out that there was little room for critical assessment of the Makoko Floating School after its completion in 2013, and issues around the new prototype at the Venice Biennale were raised.
Despite its collapse, the project, as Adeyemi sees it, was about trying out different ideas and, even after its collapse, the school is still contributing to architectural discourse and enabling people within the community to take action.
In responding to questions raised by the audience, he suggested that the school, as an educational facility, is significant as the process of its design, construction and collapse continues to teach professionals, the community that resides in Makoko, and the rest of the world about living and building on water within the age of climate change. He pointed out that the community is learning how to manage public infrastructure; and that the second prototype in Venice was about bringing local knowledge, such as that of the community of Makoko, to the world’s stage. He dedicated the Silver Lion he received in Venice to the Makoko community.
During the discussion, Lokko shed light on the Africa Architecture Awards, an exciting initiative for the promotion and encouragement of the talent, ideas and projects of African architects in both the professional and public realms. She said, “In this initiative lies an opportunity for African architects to be recognised, both locally and internationally, for good design that deals with conditions, challenges and possibilities that go hand in hand with Pan African projects.”
The first lecture of the GSA Boogertman + Partners series promises a platform for the interaction of local and international architects; the creation of relationships and connections; and a focus on bringing Africa and its architects to the public realm. GSA, Boogertman + Partners, we look forward to what you have in store for us.
To listen to the full podcast of Kunlé Adeyemi in discussion with Prof. Lesley Lokko. Head of the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, please click here.

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