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Nation Building through Campus Architecture

Israeli Architects Arieh Sharon and Eldar Sharon’s Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Campus in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1962–1976

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – replica of the Opa (staff)
of Oranmiyan
, 1962–1976, The David J.

The campus of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Nigeria, the first phase of which was built between 1962 and 1972, is a fascinating example of modernist architecture in Africa. As a case study of Africa’s assimilation of the modern style, its design is intriguing also due to the fact that it was built by Israeli architect Arieh Sharon (1900–1984), aided by his son, Eldar Sharon (1933–1994). Arieh Sharon, one of the most important figures in the history of Israeli architecture, left British Mandate Palestine to study at the Bauhaus in 1926, then worked in Hannes Meyer’s Berlin architectural practice before returning home. With his education and experience, he soon became a leading exponent of the International Style in Palestine from the mid-1930s, after Israeli independence and until his death in 1984.

In 1960, shortly after Nigeria achieved independence from British rule, Sharon was commissioned to plan the OAU campus. This was one of the first steps in promoting relations between Nigeria and Israel. As a new state since 1948, Israel was constantly reassessing its international status and perceived the accelerated decolonization process in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s as a historic opportunity for advancing diplomatic and economic ties. Several leading architectural firms, along with Israel’s largest construction company, Solel-Boneh, were at work on projects in Africa at the time. It was through his routine work with Solel-Boneh that Sharon received the OAU commission.

Within two years of Nigeria’s independence, four universities had been opened, creating new higher education possibilities in a country where during the colonial era there had been only a single British-sponsored institution, the University of Ibadan. The establishment of new universities, the OAU among them, was perceived as a crucial step in building a modern nation. The Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s three majority ethnic groups, ardently promoted the founding of OAU, then called Ife University, in the process of asserting their cultural identity within Nigeria’s ethnically diverse population.

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – General view from a 1970s postcard, The David J. Azrieli Central Archives.

Sharon’s approach towards this commission in Nigeria was characteristic of Israeli paternalism towards “developing countries.” As he later wrote: “Israeli experts (wanted) to contribute from their knowledge and practical experience to the progress of the developing world,”1 thus inadvertently reifying Israel’s self-image as a progressive nation. Indeed, experience gained in Israel in harnessing science and technology for an accelerated process of modern nation-building was invaluable. Sharon had a central role in this, as he was the architect of the National Master Plan, which shaped the country’s new towns, settlements and infrastructure. Through experts such as himself, experience and knowledge were commodified and exported—a discourse of “assistance” where Israel’s economic profits were downplayed in comparison to its ostensibly altruistic motives.

In May 1961, following his first trip to Nigeria, Sharon recommended the town of Ile-Ife as the site for a new university. Ile-Ife is considered the “cradle of Yoruba culture,”2 and its spiritual importance appears to have been a decisive consideration in its selection, even though Sharon stressed climatic and geographical factors as well.

The main core of the OAU campus, where most of the initial building took place, is the most important zone in the campus. It includes the libarary, the secretariat and assembly hall, and connects the faculties. Almost square in shape, the core has a main piazza, slightly left of its central axis, with pedestrian walkways leading to other areas of the campus. From its northeast corner, the four buildings that comprised the humanities faculty create an additional axis. Behind the library, four additional faculties were built: education, social sciences, law and administration. Three of these buildings were arranged symmetrically along the main core’s northwest border, with the fourth located between them and the humanities’ axis. Sharon called this a “loose grid design,”3 whereby a seemingly freeform arrangement of structures is connected by open-air plazas.

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – Faculty of the Humanities buildings, 1962-1976, The David J. Azrieli Central Archives.

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – Faculty of the Humanities buildings, 1962-1976, The David J. Azrieli Central Archives.

Environmental considerations were a major concern. The lush natural vegetation was conserved wherever possible, and, more importantly, the buildings’ designs took into account the glaring heat and monsoon rains. Long, flat-roofed pergolas with slim columns shaded many of the pedestrian walkways. For the buildings themselves, Sharon used a climatic solution that he called a “reverse" or "inverted pyramid,”4 an element unprecedented in his work. The humanities faculty buildings (1962), as well as the library (1966) and education faculty (1970) were all planned according to this principle.

Each of the humanities buildings had four cantilevered floors, providing shade and protection to the one immediately adjacent to it. Recessed terraces created sharp contrasts of light and shade, contributing a sculptural emphasis to this gradation. Sharon emphasized the novelty of this approach towards climatic concerns, as it involved use of the buildings’ volumes for protection, rather than conceiving a building and subsequently adding “louvers and precast ornamental elements.”5 He mentions their application in Nigeria by British architects, most likely referring to the University of Ibadan (begun 1948) by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. After World War II, Fry and Drew were among the first to introduce modernist architecture to the British Gold Coast of Africa, advocating tailoring the International Style to local climatic conditions. Sharon was no stranger to louvres and precast elements, and had made ample use of them in Israel. In Nigeria, however, while not abandoning them entirely, his climate-conscious formulations of mass and shape were, perhaps, an implicit critique of earlier colonial–era campus architecture.

The buildings of the library and the education department were designed after Sharon’s son, Eldar, joined his father’s practice in 1964. Another important addition to the team, who joined around the same time, was Harold Rubin, whom Sharon appointed to head of the OAU campus project. With the arrival of the two younger architects, abstract elements and polygonal forms began to dominate, a development exemplified by the education building’s diagonal concrete trusses and the library’s facade, whose entrance is marked by a large circle cut into exposed concrete.

Precursors of the Ife campus from Sharon’s own projects should be viewed in the context of the grand project to create new scientific and public health facilities following the declaration of the State of Israel. The modernist style dominated these and was perceived as an important aesthetic tool for ensuring Israel be considered a member of the community of Western nations. Of Sharon’s projects, his hospitals and campuses of the 1950s, planned with Benjamin Idelson, his associate at the time, deserve particular attention. The Soroka Health Center in Beer-Sheva (1955) was their largest and most important commission and anticipated the OAU campus in its “loose grid” layout. Pergolas, similar in style to those designed for the OAU connected the various buildings of the medical center, shielding pedestrians from the desert sun and defining smaller courtyards. Plans for the new campuses of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Hebrew University employed a similar layout. The central core planned for the Technion IIT campus (1956) was comprised, as in Ife, of an auditorium, secretariat and library, with inviting courtyards connecting the three buildings, while the Hebrew University’s (1952) student dormitories were designed as a larger group of buildings, albeit with greater emphasis on the central courtyard. In both complexes, recessed windows, deep terraces and vertical brises-soleil were used to cope with Israel’s hot summers, later to be implemented at OAU.

Nigerian sculptures from the Arieh Sharon collection, Yael Aloni Archive.

In 1961, while developing the OAU master plan, Sharon and a Nigerian delegation toured campuses worldwide. They visited Britain, the United States, Mexico City and Brasilia, ending the trip with a visit to Israel, where Sharon’s work was received enthusiastically by his Nigerian guests. Sharon recounted that at Harvard and MIT they visited the most recent works by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Josep Luís Sert. . Sharon, of course, was already familiar with the work of these architects. The work of Gropius, his former master, as well as that of Le Corbusier, was especially influential for his work in Israel, including the abovementioned projects. Encountering these architects' Harvard buildings in context made them all the more relevant. Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Visual Arts Center (1960–63), with its sculptural curved volumes and deep, diagonally-recessed windows, all shaped in exposed concrete, certainly inspired Sharon and his associates in how they exploited the qualities of this material. The visit to Gropius’s Harvard Graduate Center (1950), with its loose-grid arrangement and long interconnecting pergolas, must have strengthened Sharon’s conviction to apply these design principles to Ife.

Walter Gropius’s influence upon Sharon at this point in his career was a direct continuation of his student days in the Bauhaus school. Sharon’s use of the the pyramid, strip and circle in the OAU campus, can be traced back to his Bauhaus education and its Vorkurs – which placed special emphasis upon pure geometry and its artistic application. Sharon wrote that while working on the early plans for Ife, he and Gropius met in Rome, where his master was planning a university, and exchanged ideas pertaining to campus design.

Turning to the OAU assembly hall, the Oduduwa Hall (1970–1976; named after the mythic ancestor of the Yoruba kings) one notes its departure from the earlier campus buildings. It is a hexagonal mass connected to an open-air theater, hinged by impressive stage towers serving both the interior and exterior performance spaces. The auditorium was used for theater and dance performances, while the theater was intended for graduation ceremonies. The foyer was completely open to the outside. It’s concrete stairs and galleries were framed by tall walls, each pierced by huge ovals and arches, endowing the concrete mass with a lightness echoing the adjacent library. The towers’ ground plans were also hexagonal; on their exterior, they culminated in beveled angles and accentuated eave troughs. The concrete exterior of the assembly hall was corrugated, achieved by pouring the concrete into a mold of corrugated tin. Abstract and geometric forms were painted in white over the facades, transforming its windowless gray exterior into striking monumental murals. During the Nigerian delegation’s tour of Mexico City, the murals and mosaics decorating the exterior walls of the UNAM campus buildings had left a deep impression upon Sharon. “I was able to exploit these impressions,” he wrote, “by proposing sculptural Yoruba elements in the Ife university buildings.”6 Mexico thus served as a model for how modern architecture precepts could be assimilated while simultaneously expressing culture, place and identity.

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – replica of the Opa (staff) of Oranmiyan, 1962-1976, The David J. Azrieli Central Archives.

The corrugated texture of the concrete used for the assembly hall as well as the library building imitated that of the famous Yoruba bronze figures excavated in Ife, whose faces and bodies were covered in close-set vertical grooves. In his now famous Kibbutz + Bauhaus, the autobiographical survey of his work, Sharon presented a photograph of one such figure opposite a close-up of the hall, making plain this inspiration. The circle-and-triangle pattern applied to the stage facade as well as the diamond shapes of the adjacent piazza's tiling, translated Yoruba forms and patterns into a modern idiom. The incredibly rich abstract vocabulary of Yoruba art—manifested not only in sculpture and exterior wall painting but also in textiles, festival costumes and ritual objects—forms a fundamental aspect of local visual culture. Theater and performance also possess a central cultural role. These were thus transmitted to the building’s cultural function, with Yoruba art inscribed into the molding and painting of the concrete facades.

The assembly hall was mostly the work of project head Harold Rubin, together with Eldar Sharon. Rubin himself designed the murals. The inspiration from African art was deeper than a superficial acquaintance, for Arieh Sharon collected Yoruba and other African sculptures during his trips, as well as contemporary Nigerian art, notably paintings by the artist and musician Twin Seven Seven (born Omoba Taiwo Olaniyi Oyewale-Toyeje Oyelale Osuntok). Harold Rubin immigrated to Israel from South Africa in 1963, and was immersed in African art and music. When interviewed by the author, Rubin expressed his admiration for the abstract qualities of African sculpture, stating its example had inspired his design for the entrance gate of the Secretariat, which is reminiscent of a standing figure, its head turned towards the sky. The placement of this monumental gate near the campus entrance references the importance of gates in Yoruba architecture, both in secular building and shrines. Another important sculptural element alluding to the cultural space of the Yoruba was a replica of Ife’s famous Opa (staff) of Oranmiyan, an ancient 18-foot tall granite monolith commemorating Ododuwa’a son. Facing the campus’s main piazza, the replica was framed by a tall half-cylindrical obelisk of corrugated-textured concrete. Located in front of the library, it functioned visually as a vertical accent to the former’s horizontal mass.

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – Oduduwa Assembly Hall, 1962-1976, The David J. Azrieli Central Archives.

Arieh and Eldar Sharon, OAU Campus – Oduduwa Assembly Hall, 1962-1976, The David J. Azrieli Central Archives.

For both Nigeria and Israel, new university campuses were one of the clearest and most prominent landmarks of new statehood. Encompassing the aspirations of a nation and institutionalizing the path towards knowledge, they expressed the cultural act of nation-building. In Nigeria, Sharon constructed an interpretation of modernism that was different from earlier formulations of colonial rule. Sharon's modernism was distinct in its plasticity of exposed concrete and varied geometric forms; it was defined by its reification of Yoruba culture through materiality and specific cultural motifs. At the OAU Campus, modernist architecture was applied by architects from the young Israel, underscoring its relevance for new nation states Concurrently, American and European models (such as Gropius' new Harvard building), which could be negatively associated with foreign power and colonialism, were mediated by the Israeli modernism, and thus made acceptable.

The architecture of the OAU campus presents dichotomies that challenge current postcolonial issues of power, knowledge and alterity. Israel was not a former-colonizer of Nigeria, yet, its exportation of architecture and building technologies embodied knowledge as a discursive form of power. Moreover, the project entailed translating Yoruba culture into a modernist idiom, subjugating it to a dominating Western architectural paradigm. On the other hand, the architects fully collaborated with their Nigerian clients: thus, architectural choices were by no means unilaterally imposed upon the latter. Consequently, the OAU campus can be viewed as a form of hybridity, a meeting of Israeli modernist architecture with Nigeria’s development of a contemporary style that would incorporate the visual traditions of its ancient cultures for defining new national identity.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Arieh Sharon, Kibbutz + Bauhaus: an architect’s way in a new land, Kark Krämer, and Israel: Massada, Stuttgart 1976, p. 126.
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Arieh Sharon, "Opening speech at the opening ceremony of the Assembly Hall,” December 17 1976, p. 1, Azrieli Architecture Archive, Tel Aviv Museum, Tel Aviv, Arieh Sharon papers.
  • 4 Arieh Sharon, Kibbutz + Bauhaus, 1976, p. 128, 152.
  • 5 Arieh Sharon, Kibbutz + Bauhaus, 1976, p. 128.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 127.
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