|Lagos: infrastructure and improvisation|
By OMA © All rights reserved
|Rem Koolhaas and Bregtje van der Haak|
|A discussion on Koolhaas's research with the Harvard Project on the City on Lagos, Nigeria.|
|Rotterdam, , 5 July 2002|
Bregtje van der Haak: Why Lagos?
Rem Koolhaas: The longer I work on it, the less I know why. We started the Harvard Project on the City to identify which cities were changing most quickly and to understand how they were changing. I made an inventory of cities that would be very important in the future. China's Pearl River Delta was one, because its population would leap from 12 million to 36 million in 20 years. And Lagos was another. Also, by the end of the 90s, the endless idolatry of the market economy had become irritating to me. I was interested in the big city as a poor city – a city that was almost disconnected from the global system. This forced me to confront something I didn't know anything about: Africa.
Van der Haak: What was your image of Africa at that time?
Koolhaas: It was the image of a continent in perpetual crisis – with health gloom, economic gloom, food gloom, political gloom. So I was completely unprepared for the immediacy of the intelligence I encountered there.
Van der Haak: Was there something specific about Lagos and Nigeria that you wanted to explore?
Koolhaas: At that point, of all the big cities in the world, Lagos was the least known (1, 2). The fact that there could still be an unknown situation at the beginning of the 21st century – within globalization – was challenging but risky; there was no established interpretation.
Lagos is a mystery that is intensifying: because of its oil, it is a very rich place, but everybody is very poor. Since the 1960s, the average income has decreased systematically. I don't think you can be in Lagos without becoming aware of its potency; when Lagos gets itself organized it will be extremely powerful; and already – without organization – it is very powerful.
Van de Haak: Is oil an important part of your theories on Lagos?
Koolhaas: Oil is the key to the political system and of course politics plays a huge role. When we started, Nigeria was, according to any index or rating of political degeneration and corruption, the lowest of the low. But these days, with cases like Enron and Worldcom, the word corruption is commonplace; in the past six months, the rate of corruption and fraud, both in Europe and in America, has increased. The whole system of weighing corruption, and the reasons that Nigeria has always been at the bottom of the corruption league, now demand to be reinterpreted.
Van der Haak: I hadn't realized that your disgust with the reality of the market is what prompted you to look at Lagos.
Koolhaas: One of the fundamental facts of the architectural profession is that it can only operate as an extension of somebody else's initiative. There is no architecture without clients; therefore this strange profession cannot take initiatives or decide what its own agenda should be. So it will always establish its agenda indirectly, through a particular interpretation of demands.
So it became interesting to investigate, through our architectural work, how these relationships between architects and clients could extend possibilities in some areas, but reduce possibilities in others – to find out whether an architect could ever do something that was not part of a financial agreement. I started teaching at Harvard in order to be able to establish my own agenda, as a kind of parallel accent.
Van der Haak: When you were interviewed on the Nigerian talk show 'New Dawn on Ten', you said: "We are here to discover what we can learn from Lagos." What were you hoping to learn?
Koolhaas: There are two separate issues: one is an almost journalistic curiosity about how Lagos works and about the details of life there. The other, larger issue is an interest in modernization. Our first important discovery was the self-organizing processes of Lagos; the ability of the population to take its fate into its own hands, and to survive by its own wits.
But the bigger discovery was that this would never have worked if Lagos had not been modernized according to a fairly conventional vision of what a modern city should look like in the 1970s (3). Lagos has infrastructure; it has bridges; it has cloverleaves (4); and it has a particular articulation of how an independent African country should look, and how it should function.
Van der Haak: But what makes Lagos a modern city? What part of the modernization process interests you? It must be more than the infrastructure.
Koolhaas: In the decades after independence, Lagos was a generic, 1970s modern city. I think it can only survive now because of that – almost as if it developed in reverse of the direction that was intended (5). Every city is based on a particular systematic organization. That organization can go forward but it can also go backward, and even if it goes backward it can enable people to improvise. For instance in Oshodi, which is the most extreme place in Lagos, there is still a dependency on the original model. Planners in the 70s had intended for it to be the densest in terms of circulation; now it is dense in terms of stagnation. It is no coincidence that Oshodi is, even now, the most bizarre and intense part of Lagos (6, 7).
Van der Haak: I thought that your starting point for looking at Lagos was a city that is not planned, a self-organizing network city.
Koolhaas: In the early 90s I was very skeptical about the value of planning – about what it could do. Lagos was a confrontation of that skepticism. Initially I thought: yes, this shows that planning makes no sense; it's irrelevant. But now I've begun to see the subtleties in Lagos – that self-organization is inscribed upon an organized model of the city (8). There's a weird interdependence between the planned and the unplanned. It's actually an extreme form of modernization, not some kind of African model.
Van der Haak: So are you starting to believe in planning?
Koolhaas: If you extrapolate current trends, there are many signs that show that the world is going to be a pretty horrible place. There are many reasons to assume that a laissez-faire attitude is not the answer. So planning is becoming more interesting to me. It represents a cycle from skepticism to an awareness that we have to try to assume the role of planners, perhaps in a new way.
Van der Haak: You said that Lagos is being "reinvented before our very eyes" – from the bottom up, not from the top down. What did you mean by that precisely?
Koolhaas: Nowhere but Lagos have I felt such a strong sense of individuality in the inhabitants of a city. It's a territory with an astronomical number of possible interventions. In Lagos there is no choice, but there are countless ways to articulate the condition of no choice. In New York, on the other hand, there's a sense of infinite choice, but a very conventional set of options from which to choose. I've never been particularly interested in the individual inhabitant of the city, but in Lagos there was a fantastic leveling. We became so familiar with the city that we ceased to maintain our objective approach, and actually entered the field. From these more vulnerable positions, we could feel the impact of all the forces.
Van der Haak: You mentioned that you were not so interested in the individual, but in something else. What were you looking at?
Koolhaas: In Lagos, the difference between foreground and background is so colossal. You can actually choose what you see. You can either see the foreground and become hypnotized by the ways in which people survive in the city, and by the individual stories, or you can take a more distant perspective and concentrate on formal patterns. But nowhere else have I seen the foreground so disconnected from the background.
Van de Haak: Was Lagos depressing to you?
Koolhaas: It was frightening and shocking, not depressing. Of course it's extremely depressing if you think about the quality of life. But I've seen so many positive forces there that I never actually got depressed. When I was in Russia in the 1960s looking for traces of Constructivist architecture and the Soviet city, it was truly a depressing situation; there was a fundamental helplessness that was structural — a kind of permanent future. Whatever doubts you might have about Lagos, it at least offers a perspective that many cultures didn't have even 10 or 20 years ago.
Van der Haak: Has Lagos influenced your architectural practice?
Koolhaas: It has. In Lagos, one constantly confronts either / or situations; you're forced to make quick decisions. So I'm learning to do the same. Immediately after my first trip there, we had to do a competition for a concert hall in Porto in three weeks. When I realized how complex it was going to be to come to terms with the client in such a short time, it suddenly occurred to me to simply take the model of a house we had recently designed – but that wasn't going to be built – and enlarge it five times so that it could function as a concert hall. And that's exactly what we did. That kind of immediacy could never have been possible if I hadn't seen how Lagos operates. Really, never! And every time I go to Lagos I am more encouraged to behave like that – to become less hesitant and more immediate about what I like, don't like, or what I think I will work. It seems like harshness or brutality, but it's really a kind of sensitivity.
Van der Haak: How do you deal with being a white man, a Dutch man, walking around in an African city.
Koolhaas: I'm not really self-consciousness about it, maybe because during my youth I lived in Indonesia after it became independent. The culture was anti-Dutch which meant that you had to insinuate yourself in clever ways – by speaking Indonesian, for instance, and by being able to enter that kind of society on its own terms. Ever since then, I've felt that I could do that anywhere. Lagos feels very familiar to me; I'm actually surprised that it wasn't more alien. It's only after seeing a picture of myself standing on an intersection in Abuja that I realize the implausibility of my presence there.
Van der Haak: What do you see in that picture?
Koolhaas: Ironically, it's strange to see white person standing at that intersection, even though it feels completely normal to stand there. I was lucky to work with Edgar Cleijne, who has had 20 years of 'training' working as a photographer in Africa. Edgar gave me access to something that without him would have been impossible, or would have taken a totally different shape.
Van der Haak: Each time I return from Lagos and look at the video material we've shot, it doesn't seem to convey what I thought I had seen. The images I bring back don't quite match with what I remember – maybe because the temperature and sound don’t show up. It's a very complicated experience to analyze. Have you had the same impression?
Koolhaas: During the first visits we took pictures like crazy (9, 10). And when we got home there was nothing. We missed everything. It took time to discover that we couldn't capture Lagos by looking at the middle-ground – you either have to photograph what's directly in front of your eyes or look from a huge distance. It's exciting to learn how to capture what is so alien; it shows you how incredibly indoctrinated even the most curious look is. And how conditioned. We had to un-condition ourselves.
Van der Haak: Did you have a certain method of working? After all, it's a Harvard research project.
Koolhaas: We invented the method as we went along. Our first intention was that each of the 12 students would research a different aspect of the city. We set up a twin program with a local university, so that the Harvard students would have local counterparts who could act as guides. But my own trajectory has lasted much longer; I've been studying Lagos for five years, during a period of extreme development, which coincides with a development of my own perception.
Van der Haak: Would you compare the methods to those of anthropology? Or is it more subjective that that? What does it add to studies from other fields?
Koolhaas: Of course I have a method, tools, and a certain amount of objectivity. But in the end I look at Lagos as a writer, and with the feelings of a writer. Maybe that's the most defined relationship. I'm in extraterritorial waters, as always, just like when I wrote about New York. This is simply what I do, and what I believe is necessary to do in order to understand modernization.
Van der Haak: When editing a film about Lagos, it's really complicated to put it together as one narrative. Do you have a similar difficulty when you try to present your research as a book?
Koolhaas: It's horribly difficult. We have the same problem. You have to make a film. A book is probably more flexible because there are graphic ways of separating various layers. But it's important to avoid making just a book of images – of stunning material.
Van der Haak: Can you recall being out in at night in Lagos?
Koolhaas: Yes, I still have very strong sensations. We were going out to a restaurant that was quite popular; there were musicians. It was totally unclear where we were, because it was a pitch dark, and there had been no electricity for many hours before we arrived. So for the first time in my life I was eating – in pitch dark – food that I could not see or identify. And the musicians turned out to be old guys; that was another surprise – the scene is not only young people.
Then, in the pitch dark, a hygienic white truck appeared, like an apparition. People were carrying huge sticks to lift up the electricity cables so that the truck could pass. And the people there, mostly Yoruba, were really resentful. It was a tribal thing between Ibos and Yorubas. The fear is there; the darkness is there. Particularly for people living there.
Van der Haak: Were you ever afraid?
Koolhaas: Sometimes you don't how afraid you have to be because the stories of violence and robberies are so extreme. Lagos has the most horrible reputation in terms of safety. But it can be exciting to face fears and stare them down. Were you afraid?
Van der Haak: Sometimes. Probably not enough. People living in Lagos seem to have been more careful and fearful than I was. Everyone seems to have a friend of a relative who has been killed or robbed, or who has disappeared after getting stuck in the rain with a broken-down car. The boy who sells pure water told me that his brother was kidnapped and never returned.
Koolhaas: It was ironic that during Documenta 12, which was a meeting of African and non-African experts on the African city, none of the African experts had been in Lagos. The reason they didn't go was fear; it was too dangerous.
Van der Haak: After being a guest on a Lagos talk show, what is your impression of the way TV is made there?
Koolhaas: Funmi Iyanda was one of the best interviewers I've ever seen. Stunning. She understood everything immediately. Her questions were incredibly sharp. And in the second interview she was able to intuit our new mood about the positive changes in Lagos since Olusegun Obasanyo was elected. It was without equivalence in my experience.
Van der Haak: The Winner's Church is the largest church in Africa. It is led by Bishop David Oyedepo, who teaches that anyone who truly wants to be rich can become rich, if only he believes strongly enough. He became a billionaire selling this message. Very cynical.
Koolhaas: Yes. You can become a better person, earn money, and move yourself to a better world.
Van der Haak: What is it about the Winner's Church that interests you? How does it fit into this project?
Koolhaas: It makes manifest the gigantic scale, the capacity to organize, and the incredible power that is latent in Nigeria. If something like the Winners Church can happen, then it’s also possible for the city to decide to completely reinvent itself in five years. But of course the sad thing about 'winners' is that there are also losers.
Van der Haak: Why do you keep coming back?
Koolhaas: I will always go back. To finish. I go back because I love it.
Van de Haak: You love it?
Koolhaas: I think so. It's obviously a matter of personal experience. When I lived in Indonesia in my youth, it was all about poverty and shit. But I was there at an age that one is more open to the pleasures of life than at any other age. So there is a certain nostalgia. The situation in Lagos offers chances for interventions and commitments that I can't have anywhere else. That's deeply satisfying.
This interview appears in the documentary 'Lagos Wide & Close', directed by Bregtje van der Haak.