Why Local Ideas Are Most Suitable

Harnessing the ingenuity of regular people and making space for cultural exchange needs to be part of the future of cities.

It is no surprise that the experts do not know everything. With our current overload of information, how could they? In the fields of architecture and urbanism, the top-down imposition of ideas has been widely discredited as failing to understand the people it was supposedly helping. That is why consulting with local people can bring so much value to a project. The answers to the problems faced by cities and nations do not always come from London, New York, or Paris, but can come from anywhere. The best people to solve local problems tend to be local people.

Since its founding in 2010, the Lagos-based architecture and urbanism firm NLÉ, has helped to reframe the perception of Africa. Beyond primitive buildings and monumental modern structures related to national independence movements, the Africa’s rapid urbanisation presents many challenges for cities on the continent, such as transportation, energy, food, water, and climate change.

NLÉ does not impose its ideas on a context without regard for the people already there. They let their ideas become tools for regular people to make stronger ideas. They design by empowering local ingenuity with architectural expertise. The Makoko Floating School, one of the firm’s more prominent projects, is a fitting example of the working relationship between design and people. Who best to know their needs, but the people themselves? All they need is someone to make their low-tech solutions scalable.

Makoko Floating School Source-nleworks.com

Makoko Floating School Source-nleworks.com

This approach to architecture is apparent in NLÉ work and in their involvement with organisations, academia, and culture. Not content with physical projects, proposals, and research, the firm’s founding principal, Kunlé Adeyemi, uses his platform as one of the globe’s emerging urban thought-leaders, to showcase the firm’s work. At the Global Food Security Symposium held in Washington D.C. in March 2018, Adeyemi spoke about aquafarming as a way to help keep up with the food demand of Africa’s growing youth population. He showed an image of a prototype of a floating structure for farming, similar to the firm’s Makoko Floating School.

Global Food Security Symposium in Washington DC - Source-nleworks.com

Global Food Security Symposium in Washington DC – Source-nleworks.com

Also in March 2018, at the atelier LUMA in Arles, France, Adeyemi led a 6-day masterclass on floodproof architecture and self construction, for 40 international student. The students were asked to design solutions for areas susceptible to flooding and were taken to localities where flooding is a problem to learn from the context and the people. With activities like these, the next generation of architects will approach problems from a different perspective than previous generations.

atelier LUMA Masterclass Source-nleworks.com

atelier LUMA Masterclass Source-nleworks.com

atelier LUMA Masterclass Source-nleworks.com

atelier LUMA Masterclass Source-nleworks.com

“One of the things that I have learned in practice is that we can’t imagine that all of that intelligence resides in only the academics or the professionals,” described Adeyemi in a five member panel discussion for Delphi Conversation in 2017. “Right now I believe that there is a lot of intelligence in just everyday people and how we learn to harness that intelligence. So that we are working with things that they are already doing, as oppose to trying to create something completely new. That is the key to tackling problems that are urgent, but also tackling problems that are relevant.” In Adeyemi’s opinion, the failures of the top-down approach to architecture, which is a smaller part of the larger issue of the developed world’s lack of understanding of the real needs of the developing nations, is in how architects have been educated to think about design problems.

“The issue with architecture, the way we have been trained for the last 50 years, (is) it has been very focused on form. It’s about the final output as a built form and there is very little relationship with people. When you have architects that are actually trained to engage people, they are trained to engage a client. A client as an individual has a specific need, and very rarely would you expand that to even an organisation. Architects have not been trained, mostly, to understand people, particularly in this age when we’re talking about population growth and urbanisation. We have to learn to deal with people as our clients.”

During NYCxDesign festival in May 2018, NLÉ hosted a African diaspora cultural innovation and sustainability event at A Prelude to The Shed, a temporary pavilion for arts and culture. The firm designed the temporary space in collaboration with artist Tino Sehgal from Berlin, to be a flexible space, right across the street from Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group’s soon to be completed Shed. Whereas The Shed will be on a massive scale and mechanically operated, the Prelude to The Shed was designed to be of human scale, making it easier to be adjusted by people. Along with the event hosted by NLÉ, 13-days of free programming also used the Prelude, with the space adjusted for each format.

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source- nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source- nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

A Prelude to The Shed in New York in May of 2018 Source-nleworks.com

Cultural expression makes many cities richer, and like local ideas, does not have to come through established institutions nor vaunted experts. When people can come together and exchange their own ingenuity, architecture shares in their agency by showing them the power that they truly have to make a difference themselves.

Words Phil Roberts


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