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Designing for Tomorrow

Architect Kunlé Adeyemi creates for Africa’s future.

Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi’s work symbolizes innovation in the face of environmental challenges — including the Makoko Floating School in Lagos.
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Kunlé Adeyemi, the world-renowned architect, is a person whose life and career have been notably nomadic. Though born in Northern Nigeria, the soft-spoken 39-year-old went on to study architecture in Lagos and at Princeton before settling into a career in Amsterdam. And so it is perhaps an initial surprise that Adeyemi’s most famous work brought him back to the country of his birth.

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The Makoko Floating School, completed in 2013 for one of Nigeria’s coastal communities, represents a triumphant collaboration of Man and Nature. Resting in a Lagos jetty, it’s the culmination of Adeyemi’s studies and work to date — as if he somehow found a way to package his expertise and passion in one design, and then sailed home with it to Africa.

For though Adeyemi made his name far from his roots, it is here on the continent that his focus has firmly and powerfully remained. Even the name of his company, NLÉ, translates to “at home” in Yoruba. It not only provides a hint toward Adeyemi’s passion for his homeland and its cities, but also represents the last three letters of his first name — particularly fitting, as his brand is an extension of him: simultaneously African and global.

Adeyemi’s “Afropolitanism,” as he terms it, and love for blending cultures and ideas is something his colleagues attest to in his work. “He’s very inspired by many things,” says Bethan Nelson, an assistant architect at NLÉ, before listing realms as diverse as nature and fashion to product and jewelry design. Even Amsterdam, NLÉ’s base in Europe, has played a role in steering the direction of Adeyemi’s work in Africa, which aims to provide sustainable futures for cities adversely affected by climate change.

“It’s something that definitely influences him,” says Nelson, adding that in canal-ridden Amsterdam, water is often seen “less as a hindrance, more like a solution.”

“My work should be connected to earth or people; it must solve a problem or harness an opportunity; and it must be transformative or transform its environment.”
Kunlé Adeyemi

Adeyemi himself directly echoes these sentiments. “I believe every problem or challenge is a place of opportunity,” he says, “and therefore contains or suggests its solution.” His outlook, which was possibly informed to some extent by his father — also an architect, of the Modernist school — is nevertheless a unique one that has developed over time.

“I try to ensure my work is embedded in three principles,” he continues. “It should be connected to earth or people; it must solve a problem or harness an opportunity; and it must be transformative or transform its environment.”

This spirit of ingenuity underpins all of Adeyemi’s projects, which span from London (for Rothschild Bank) to Shenzen (for the Stock Exchange Headquarters) to Abuja (for the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology). As a result, he has taught on some of the world’s most eminent stages, addressing audiences at the Architectural Association in London, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Harvard University and MIT; in 2014, he was also named one of the five international judges at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

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Adeyemi’s concept for Nigeria’s Credit Direct Limited bank redefines the notion of a bank building as a closed, private institution — creating a more approachable, open space.
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Rem Koolhaas, the recipient of the 2000 Pritzker Prize — an award seen by many as equivalent to the Nobel for architecture — says Adeyemi’s talent was obvious from the start. While conducting a research project in Lagos in the mid-‘90s, the Dutchman was so impressed by Adeyemi, one of many students present at the time, that he invited him to his office. Koolhaas encouraged him to study at Princeton, and the pair then went on to work together for nine successful years at Rotterdam’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture, co-founded by Koolhaas in 1975.

Asked what he considers to be the key to his protégé’s acclaim, Koolhaas replies swiftly: “Curiosity and tenacity,” he says, “and, in a way, a lack of fear… That combination in anyone is almost unbeatable.”

Koolhaas also notes Adeyemi’s ability to thrive in a number of different contexts, recalling the projects he’s worked on from South Korea to Qatar to Tanzania. Despite this flourishing far afield, though, Adeyemi always kept his eye on matters in Nigeria, with a view to playing a significant role there in the long term.

“Even 10 years ago,” says Koolhaas, “no matter how complicated the [political] situation was there, it was extremely clear that the country had huge potential. I think that Kunlé has, in a very intelligent way, put himself in a position to benefit from that potential to the maximum.”

This rare ability to anticipate trends, believes Koolhaas, will ensure that the best years of Adeyemi’s career lie ahead. “He’s equipped himself,” he adds, with an air of both pride and respect, “to be one of the future thinkers in African urbanization.”

His colleagues in Amsterdam likewise affirm his many talents, even going so far as to add another role to his already full list: that of unofficial office DJ. The tunes he selects, says Nelson, depend on the day and what’s going on in the office, “but it can go from Frank Sinatra to Nina Simone to Fela Kuti.”

Designed to represent a “bridge to transformation,” the Chicoco Radio station in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, utilizes a floating platform that spans from land to water.
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At one point during a 2014 TEDx talk he gave in London, Adeyemi even broke into dance on stage to Fela’s arguably signature hit, “Water No Get Enemy.” The song proved a fitting soundtrack, given that the great Nigerian musician and activist was perhaps as passionate about the possibilities of water as Adeyemi is today.

Indeed, there is something of the activist in Adeyemi too, with his work symbolizing innovation in the face of environmental challenges. Even as those challenges continue to compound, and the speed of urbanization increases, Adeyemi’s characteristic innovation will ensure that his future — and that of Africa’s cities — rests on the most solid of foundations.

Musa Okwonga is a poet, journalist, football writer, musician and social commentator. A lawyer by training, he is the author of two books: A Cultured Left Foot and Will You Manage?.