How the floating (and collapsing) Makoko school was doomed from the start

Architecture International News
(Courtesy NLE)
(Courtesy NLE)

Kunlé Adeyemi, of the firm NLÉ, is perhaps one of the most widely acclaimed architects practicing today. Among his renowned projects was a floating school in Makoko, a slum on the fringes of Lagos. It was so well regarded that it was reprised and built in the canals of Venice for the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture, curated by architect Alejandro Aravena. Completed in 2013, the school was not long for this world. In the summer of 2016, it collapsed. For the Atavist Magazine, Allyn Gaestel traces the intertwining narratives of power, ego, and money that led to the lauded project quite literally falling apart.

Despite the media painting the project as a roaring success (an image NLÉ was very happy to maintain), Gaestel’s reporting reveals the school was rife with problems from the get-go. The school was originally begun as an extension to the Whanyinna school. Initially a collaboration between Adeyemi with Lagos native Isi Etomi, who had herself spent a year teaching at the Makoko school, their partnership fell apart as Adeyemi’s proposals grew more and more grand, and in Etomi’s eyes, more unrealistic and detached from the needs of students. The Stiller Foundation (the namesake of actor Ben Stiller), who had been funding the school, seemingly agreed with Etomi and pulled out of the project.

Adeyemi, alone, secured funding from the United Nations Development Program and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Construction began on a floating multistory A-frame structure. While there was funding for the extravagant building, none was put in place for basic supplies or teachers. Photos were staged for the press. Two and a half years after opening, classes began.

The school, arguably neglected from the beginning, eventually fell into disrepair. Students were afraid to attend, as water entered the structure and wind rocked the school. Instead, they returned to the original Whanyinna, crammed together in the miniscule space.

When confronted about the state of the floating school, NLÉ replied that it was the responsibility of the community to maintain the school, not them.

Eventually the school fell into itself. A press release from NLÉ spun this as a “decommission…in anticipation of reconstruction.” If a “decommission,” it was a rather inelegant and unexpected one. No one involved with the school had heard anything of this supposed reconstruction.

For many residents and onlookers, the school functioned as a vanity project. In a searing op-ed, architect James Inedu wrote “All the school did was to blow up the designer’s ego and to give him highly coveted international attention…It was simply bad architecture done iconically.”

Etomi responded by setting up a GoFundMe to raise money to build a more durable solution for students. The school’s director Noah Shemede has disagreed with her approach and the renovation and extension remains in limbo.

Read the full story online at the Atavist Magazine.

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