Few spaces are as striking as those under the Third Mainland Bridge. But this board has something very particular: it is only 400 meters away from Makoko, the floating slum that has made headlines with the Makoko Floating School, designed by Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyeme. Now, can Makoko’s future be in services installed under this bridge?
Makoko is in downtown Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, which is now the most populous country in Africa. Lagos has 14 million inhabitants and will have much more: the country is growing at a rate of 3.2% per year, which leads to a population projection of 400 million Nigerians in 2050.
In the 2000s Lagos was the favorite of informal urbanism theorists, and it was on this wave that OMA’s research on Lagos appeared in the book Mutations (2000), and the volume Under Siege: Four African Cities (2002) was published as a preparatory study for Kassel’s Documenta in its 11th edition. But the favela was still unknown in the small world of Western art and architecture until 2013, when talented Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyeme achieved a sudden international recognition with his floating school in the shape of a triangular prism.
Coming from a continent that rarely emits signals in the international architectural media, it was news loaded with optimism and also very timely: just before, the Lagos Stake task force had demolished part of the “illegal” houses of Makoko, in a incident in 2012 that demonstrated the vulnerability of the community vis-à-vis the institutions of the city.
Unfortunately, the project did not last as long as it could: the boat shipwrecked after a storm in June 2016. Noah Shemede, a professor in charge of running and operating the school, told magazines and newspapers that the project was unsafe and that he preferred to withdraw his students from the boat, which occurred three months before the accident. For Phineas Harper, director of the Architecture Foundation in London, “we have fallen into a public relations trap based on Iwan Baan’s sensual photographs and respectable publications, but without the resources to adequately investigate their characteristics.” In response, Adeyemi said that the school was shut down after three years of successful services to make way for an optimized version, that the maintenance services recommended by the architects was not met by the manager, and that the prototype was out of use for three months in anticipation of its reconstruction.
A fact less subject to disputes is that Makoko has two neighbors worthy of note: 15 km to the south is the gigantic construction site of Eko Atlantic, a sustainable neighborhood proudly advertised as the “Dubai of Africa” ??and which, when completed, will shelter 250,000 inhabitants that will be near the center of the island but far from the problems experienced by the other lagosians. The Eko Atlantic site did not exist: everything is being built on a 1000 ha. landfill in the Atlantic thanks to a public-private partnership involving Chinese contractors, Danish consultants and Lebanese developers. It will be a clean, efficient city that will produce minimal carbon emissions, provide jobs, prosperity and new land, and serve as a bulwark in the fight against the impacts of climate change. A “future Hong Kong of Africa” ??anticipates the World Bank director in Nigeria — although Hong Kong’s hyper-density is not properly a sustainable city benchmark. And as it is known, in Lagos of 10-kilometer-long traffic congestions there are few jobs and millions work in the informal economy. Sixty percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, preventable diseases are commonplace, and electricity and water supply are not available to everyone.
Right in front of Makoko – it is only 400 meters away – is the Third Mainland Bridge, a busy road that connects the island to the mainland and where those who travel from the airport to the island of Lagos circulate. So it is certain that all tourists and travelers pass in front of Makoko, who parades its wooden stilts, boats and shacks to an audience of hurried drivers before they reach the mainland or the gates of the “African Dubai”.
Perhaps another opportunity, as unusual as Kunlé’s school, is under the eight lanes of the board of the Third Bridge. Wide, monumental and much more solid than the small floating school craft, this brutalist structure could serve as a roof not only for new schools, but also for community centers, sports courts, covered squares, and any other equipment that compensates for the absolute lack of services of Makoko. Not all of them, but a good part of its inhabitants lives in stilt houses organized like a lake village that does not stop growing towards the lagoon. Even though the use of the board is seen less as an opportunity and more as a problem, the fact is that this growth is close to reaching the Bridge.
It is quite likely that this proposal to capitalize on the Third Bridge is just another naive fantasy, a whim of those who do not understand the sea of impossibilities surrounding extreme poverty – but it is less absurd than Eko Atlantic. The government builds Eko while demolishes favelas, announcing them as a stronghold of criminals. It seems that the poor marginalized outside the walls are a justification for erecting a fortified citadel, but Nigerians have more pressing problems: the real threat of climate change, the rising water level of the oceans, and especially the population explosion: statistics predict that within just fifteen years the population of Lagos will have doubled, and its new 14 million inhabitants will not live in Eko.
Photos: CE Blueclouds Photography (1,2), Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images (3).