Nigerian architect Demas Nwoko on his award-winning work: ‘Whatever you build, it should suit your culture’

Demas Nwoko, born in Nigeria in 1935, has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, arguably the world’s most prestigious architecture event. At the Stirling Pavilion in the heart of the Giardini venue, Nwoko generously gave us an interview amid a display of his works.

Nwoko’s multidisciplinary practice includes architecture, sculpture, painting, design and writing. This expanded notion of an “architect” has kept his name off the radar of the discipline. Until now.

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Nwoko has always blurred boundaries between industry and craftsmanship, between geographies and creative disciplines, and between people. He has always been sceptical about the way current architecture education and practice leads to the use of standard materials and regulations, which almost define what they can do.

Asked how he felt when he heard he had received the prestigious award, the 87-year-old said he had been “surprised” but pleased that the work had been recognised: “It’s not about me, the works should get more attention.”

Do you see a distinction between art and architecture?

No. It’s all part of the same creative endeavour. I design buildings as I paint pictures, as I sculpt. In the same way. All of them are very expressive… I don’t make distinctions.

What inspires your work?

In architecture, you are usually providing a service to another individual or group. So in architecture, I create for people, for their purpose, for others to enjoy. I don’t really design unless someone commissions me to. Painting and sculpture are different. It comes from you, as the artist, expressing your life experience. You own it a lot more. There’s no third person, it’s you and your work.

A room with wooden floor and wooden shelves displaying books and with photographs displayed all the way around it.

The Venice display of Nwoko’s work.
Matteo de Mayda/La Biennale di Venezia

Can you tell us a little bit about your career path?

It’s a long path. At some point, I got myself employed in theatre, in the university. I never really intended to be a university teacher but when the occasion presented itself, to create a new kind of theatre for Africa, I jumped at it. It’s fascinating to talk to students and to see them gain knowledge and create for their societies.

But I decided to keep on creating. I turned my house into a studio. It was an architectural model, for a theatre. And after that, I started using it to teach. We had theatre, dance, studios, it developed over time. For years I’ve been trying to formalise it into a regular school… At my age, the only thing I must do is make sure I pass on what I think is positive in my work to younger people. This is the reason why I created a school.

A round church like structure with a rustic spire and ornamental detail of African symbols.

Nwoko’s famous Dominican Chapel in Ibadan.
Joseph Conteh/La Biennale di Venezia

You’ve named it the New Culture Studio School for Arts and Design. What is its main focus?

With the crises occurring in architecture and in the world more broadly, the school will attempt to engage and look closely at the conditions surrounding us. It’s time to pass (this knowledge) on, formally, to the local people. And also globally. It has to be an international school. We live in a globalised world. Let everybody participate. Our world is ill and we must start healing.

Each region has its own culture. Whatever you build, it should suit your needs and your culture. You can’t transfer it to another region. But what do we have? In the tropics, we have copied architectural designs from the temperate zones. And it’s hell. It doesn’t work. I mean, it works if you have air conditioning and all that. But this is not developed by the people themselves in a habitat that is affordable. Now, architecture is not affordable anymore.

A man and a woman sit on stairs made from stone in an arena with a concrete building behind them.

New Culture Studio School in Ibadan.
Joseph Conteh/La Biennale di Venezia

The new school is for us to begin to think together. Everybody wants to create new forms, but we hope to create happier human beings. More comfortable human beings. If everybody is comfortable in these zones, we will all be happier.

So, the important thing for us is to build our own materials in the tropics that will do what materials traditionally did. Using the same processes and technologies, and all that.

That’s why it seems important to learn from vernacular techniques…

Yes! My eyes are always set on that ideal time, when the habitat was traditionally very comfortable and adequate. I’m trying to achieve the same level of comfort and aesthetics today, in the tropics, with modern materials. In order to do that, you have to re-engineer old materials. And that’s what I’ve done in all my buildings.

A two-storey house with large wooden doors and the entire front comprised of slatted wooden shutters in a yard with a palm tree.

Private Villa by Nwoko.
Joseph Conteh/La Biennale di Venezia

I’ve built small buildings and big buildings. All of them must be insulated with roof cladding. For example, in the theatre building, I used a standard fibreglass, which is very expensive. It was not affordable at all. So, my school kept working on my current design, creating a result that is spectacularly viable. I learned to improve on my work. If you have an objective, keep working and be honest with yourself about what you’d like to achieve. Keep working until you achieve it.

Have you achieved your objectives?

I achieved all my objectives, almost. I’m moving all my efforts to the new school. Even those who are providing us with the wrong materials must agree that these materials are not made for us … and develop proper ones with us.

Thanks to Nwoko’s family, Joseph Conteh and Alicia Knock

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