Ile-Ife received ample attention from the colonial administration; resulting in some landmark projects for their time (e.g., the Mokuro Waterworks, completed in 1935). Other construction projects, many of which remain functional, included residences, schools, churches, commercial outlets and administrative buildings.
This article discusses typical British colonial architecture in West Africa (particularly early missionary archetypes and later general residential types), highlighting their salient, distinguishing features. Features such as significantly raised plinths, pronounced eaves, extensive fenestration, steep roofs, and rambling verandas, porches and/or loggias are characteristic across all typologies.
In its conclusion, this paper posits that the demise of some initially “vestigial organs” (such as fire-places/chimneys) obviously need not be mourned, and that by virtue of being re-contextualized and culturally assimilated the architectural legacy of British colonialism is now totally devoid of anomie, having lost over time whatever negative connotations it might have once possessed by virtue of the original imposition of colonialism. Most importantly, in light of contemporary trends in contextual best practices in architecture, I submit that many design/building principles and practices adopted by colonials are still appropriate and effective today.
Colonization dates back to pre-Greco-Roman times. However, the presence of European colonizers on the West African coast began essentially in the fifteenth century. West African’s first encounters were with the Portuguese, who initiated trade in various goods with the local inhabitants.1 As an expedient to underpinning their commercial interests, they set a variety of structures and infrastructure in place. Notable in this regard are the castles built along the coast to service the slave trade in Nigeria and Ghana, with dungeons for keeping slave-cargo pending shipment to the Americas.
Apart from the commercial interests of later British colonialists, the spread of Christianity was a driving force in establishing different building types and, generally, intervening decisively in the transformations of West Africa’s local built environment. The duration of this intervention spans more than one hundred years, a legacy which transcends more than architectural plurality. That quotidian architectural styles and practices in the present day have been influenced in manifold ways by colonial architectural principles and practices is obvious.
Ile-Ife, a culturally prominent Yoruba town in the hinterland of Western Nigeria, benefitted greatly from Britain’s colonial occupation. Many of the built structures erected to further the colonial agenda—including residences, schools, administrative buildings and infrastructure project such as the aforementioned waterworks—remain visible throughout the town, although today they possess varying degrees of utility.
I will begin with an overview of this British architectural legacy, describing its formal and functional characteristic features—a description of the climatic, socio-cultural and political issues influencing its development follows. Both sections are intended to facilitate understanding British colonial building as an architectural genre and may even illuminate why many features typical of these building remain part of Nigeria’s building culture into the present.
Ile-Ife: General Overview
Ile-Ife derives its prominent position in the cultural and socio-political affairs of the Yoruba from its exquisite, world-class bronze heads and statuettes and its centrality in Yoruba ethnology. It is generally agreed that Ile-Ife is the cradle of the Yoruba race. As such, the town is regarded as the window through which all that is truly Yoruba can be properly appraised.2 Both Saburi Biobaku (1955) and M. D. W. Jeffreys (1958) have posited that Ile-Ife may well have been founded sometime between the seventh and tenth century. It was certainly well-established and flourishing by the eleventh. According to the German anthropologist Leo Froboenius, who was deeply impressed by the superlative sculptural art he found there in 1910, visiting the town was like rediscovering “far-flung Atlantis.”3
In terms of physical morphology, the town is quite typical. Surrounded by a town wall and a moat in ancient times, today virtually all of these features have disappeared, with only an innocuous earth mound to suggest that era’s built environment. The layout of the typical Yoruba-town is radially configured, with four major roads emanating from a central hub, where the palace of the traditional ruler (Ooni) was located. In the immediate vicinity of the ruler’s residence was the town square, with the major market (oja Oba or “king’s market”) close by.4 The palace was surrounded by the residences of the chiefs and other courtiers arrayed in concentric circles, with proximity to the palace signaling social status. Ile-Ife can be considered typical in this regard. Today the topography undulates gently, with peaks in a few areas, such as the end of the Mokuro axis, in the area of Ogunsua Market, the adjacent area of Modakeke, and in part of the Obafemi Awolowo University estate.
British Colonial Intervention in Ile-Ife
In keeping with their administrative policy of indirect rule, Ile-Ife was one of the Yoruba towns that was significantly impacted by the British colonial presence while maintaining a semblance of continuity with the pre-existing indigenous governance structure. In Ile-Ife the period of colonial rule in Nigeria coincided with the reign of three traditional Ooni: Oba Adelekan Olubuse I (1894–1910); Oba Ademiluyi Ajagun (1910–1930) and Oba (Sir) Adesoji Aderemi (1930–1980).5 Ife was administered indirectly as part of Oyo District, with the seat of power in Ibadan (under a “District Officer” or DO). The progressive expansion of the colonial presence in the town included a native administrative court, established in 1912 (over which Ooni Ademiluyi became the sole native authority in 1916).
The British colonial administration profited economically from Ile-Ife thanks to export crops (cocoa, cotton, rubber and palm-oil) whose cultivation was encouraged. By the 1920s a booming trade had developed between the Ifes and European companies (such as the United Africa Company, UAC). Christian proselytizing was undertaken by missions run by a variety of organizations—the Church Missionary Society, CMS (responsible for Anglican outreach), the London Missionary Society, and the Wesleyan Missionary Society—the latter a Methodist domination.6 The British also facilitated missionary work by other Westerners, such as various Roman Catholic missionary orders, the American Adventist Mission and the Baptist Convention. They all gained converts among Ile-Ife’s residents and left their physical mark on the townscape.
Infrastructure projects undertaken by the British included roadways suitable for automobile traffic (the first from the administrative seat of Enuwa to the ward of Moore) and the Mokuro Waterworks, which by 1935 was dispensing piped water. In this same year the electricity grid was also improved and expanded.7 The warehouses, factories, railways and other infrastructural projects built by the British served to promote economic exploration and exploitation and thus can scarcely be viewed as altruistic endeavors.
Characteristics of Colonial Architecture
Coming from a temperate climate, the colonial’s early building experiments were naturally influenced by typologies prevailing in the northern hemisphere. However, by the 1930s a noticeably different attitude had begun to emerge. Most of the engineer-designers now handling projects were staff of the Public Works Department (PWD) in Lagos, graduates of the Royal Engineers School in London, which offered instruction in Tropical Architecture and the principles of design.8 Paramount among the new design considerations for the tropics, were:
- Cross-ventilation: i.e., through ventilation, guaranteeing frequent and rapid air-changes
- Sun-shading: to reduce solar radiation in building interiors
- Rain-proofing: to exclude moisture (derived directly from rainwater and indirectly from humidity)
- Vermin-proofing: i.e., the exclusion of animal and insect pests such as mice, mosquitoes and cockroaches[footnote Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006.]