Conference Paper

Nigerian Campus Design

A Juxtaposition of Traditional and Contemporary Architecture

The early to mid-twentieth century saw the International Style and modernism rapidly influence major Nigerian cities and towns, first as a result of colonialism and then independence. On the global level, most of the discussion on modernism and/or architecture in design literature has focused predominantly on Europe and the Americas. There is scant information available concerning the African continent, particularly West Africa and Nigeria.

This paper discusses the architecture of two first-generation Nigerian Universities: the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University, building upon the established discourse concerning how architects assimilated the International Style into the tropical climate and sociocultural context of Nigeria1. The present essay uses the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary culture (one of the five themes from my 2011 cultural framework) to deconstruct Nigerian campus design, addressing the impact of indigenous cultures on the site layout and building form, the natural environment, and materials, and construction techniques of the architecture on both campuses. Pedagogical applications and implications for the global context are also discussed.

International Style

The International Style, a sub-category of what is commonly referred to as modernist architecture, was developed in the 1920s. The term was first coined by Museum of Modern Art curators Henry-Russel Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932, based on works of architecture from the 1920s. Its major stylistic features are white walls, simple geometric forms, and an emphasis on function and minimalism. Its emergence is connected to the emergence in the nineteenth century of industrially produced materials such as concrete, glass and, in particular, steel. Le Corbusier, one of the major protagonist of the International Style, programmatically designed his buildings to include five elements or “points”: pilotis, a roof garden, a free plan layout, ribbon windows, and a free facade. The pilotis raised the building off the ground and into the air, making the space underneath available for roadways, gardens or car-parks. Space lost by using pilotis was replaced on the top with a roof garden. Free planning was made possible by the structural frame of the building being load bearing—partitions were therefore organized independently; e.g., some were curved or otherwise freed from strict engineering functionality. Ribbon windows were integrated along the entire facade from side to side, bringing light to the interior evenly and providing a maximum view. Structural steel and/or reinforced concrete construction enabled building facades to be non-load bearing, emphasizing the intrinsic characteristic of the structural frame. In International Style buildings, these five points were often used in three main combinations2: as a membrane stretched over a reinforced concrete frame, where walls enclosed the columns (Figure 1); second, setting the walls back from the main structural frame (Figure 2); third, as mass penetrated—i.e., subtracting forms from solid geometry (Figure 3).

Figure 1: Membrane stretched over reinforced concrete frame.
Figure 2: Setting the walls back from the main structural frame.
Figure 3: Mass penetrated.
Source: Abimbola Asojo: After Le Corbusier, unpublished master thesis, University of East London, London 1995.

Western Influences and International Style in Nigeria

In Africa, Western influences began with the arrival of the Greeks in 333 BC, continued through to the Romans in 146 AD, and the Europeans in the fourteenth century. The Portuguese built medieval fortress architecture, which are widespread throughout Africa. During the centuries the transatlantic slave trade was active, Europeans built forts along the coastal parts of Africa, some of which have been converted into museums to memorialize slavery’s horrors. After conquering Nigeria and establishing control in the Northern and Southern Protectorates during the nineteenth century, the British built Gothic revival churches— some of which can be found today in Lagos and other major Nigerian cities—as well as Victorian-style cottages for their residences (such structures can also be found throughout Anglophone Africa). After four hundred years of underdevelopment due to slavery and decades of colonial rule, from the 1950s to the 1980s colonial rule ended across most of Africa3.

Figure 4: A Cultural Framework for Design Problem-Solving.
Source: Abimbola Asojo: A Culture-Based Design Pedagogy for Nigerian and South African Spatial Forms, 2011.

Prior to most African countries gaining independence, expatriate architects and builders designed International Style buildings in many African countries. These building were used for governmental offices, hospitals, schools and institutions of higher learning. International Style buildings, designed by Western architects such as Arieh Sharon, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood, and Ove Arup dominated the skyline of major African cities. Most of these designs were tropical versions of the International Style common in temperate climates. Most government offices, university campuses, and government residential areas were built following this style. The buildings were predominantly white, with the main structural frame constructed from reinforced concrete. Emphasis was on continuous fenestration, sun shading devices and courtyards to allow cross ventilation and appropriate building orientation4.

The designs of Obafemi Awolowo University and University of Ibadan are discussed next using5 juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary culture themes (Figure 4) as a lens to highlight both university’s site layout and building form, as well as its natural setting, and material and construction techniques.

A Cultural Framework for Design Problem Solving

The juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary culture, social dynamics, the visual and performing arts, elements and principles of design, and sustainability are the five themes in the cultural framework for design problem-solving6. The juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary culture is an abstract theme, dealing with indigenous influences and the importance of interpreting them in design solutions in a non-literal, non-stereotypical way. Social dynamics—the second abstract theme— treats ethnicity and cultural diversity, as well as philosophy and religion, government and iconic figures in the cultures, community, social interaction and family. The visual and performing arts—a concrete theme— includes artifacts, the arts and crafts (considered to be important aspects of culture that impact architecture and performing arts). The elements and principles of design, a second concrete theme, characterizes the seven elements of design (point, line, form, shape, space, texture and color) and seven principles of design (balance—symmetrical or non-symmetrical—rhythm, emphasis, proportion, scale, unity/harmony, and movement). Sustainability, a third concrete theme, characterizes the importance of the natural environment, the use of local materials, general climatic considerations and the incorporation of natural lighting.

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

Arieh Sharon worked with AMY Limited to produce the first master plan for Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife—one of the pioneering universities in western Nigeria—in 1961. The approach of Arieh Sharon, an International Style architect, was a product of the pragmatic and functional methodology adopted by the Dessau Bauhaus and taught by Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer. Sharon was not new to large-scale planning when he worked on Obafemi Awolowo University design, having previously headed the government planning department that, following the creation of the State of Israel, produced a national outline plan for the establishment of 20 new towns.

Figure 6: Obafemi Awolowo University: Oduduwa Hall (left) and Hezekiah Oluwasanmi library both illustrate strong International Style influences and the importance of pedestrian walkways, a key element in Sharon’s design.
Figure 7: Obafemi Awolowo University Oduduwa Hall.
Photos: Jaiyeoba.

Figure 5: Obafemi Awolowo University Hall Building.
Photo: Jaiyeoba.

Site layout and Building Form

Along with his partner Benjamin Idelson and AMY Limited, Sharon created a functional campus layout that respected the natural setting of Obafemi Awolowo University. The academic core was centrally located in proximity to the students’ halls of residence, while the staff quarters were located on the campus periphery. Asojo and Jaiyeoba note:

“the overall layout has delineable and recognizable parts, with the maintenance department close to the main gate, the sports complex and academic area easily accessible by outsiders and centrally located for students and staff …The academic core is seemingly boxed in except towards the institute of African studies, the zoological garden and the Institute of agriculture buildings allocated to the faculty of environmental design and management. It is in circulation planning in the academic core that the layout is most efficient. Pedestrian movement is primal in the circulation planning of the academic core. The academic core has little intrusion by vehicular movement, since parking spaces were located at the periphery to service groups of buildings”7

Rectilinear configuration and uniformity of architectural expression dominate the massing and building design (Figure 5 and 6). A juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary culture and architecture are evident in Obafemi Awolowo campus architecture, as Sharon and his team incorporated ideas from Yoruba architecture, such as courtyards, verandas, screen walls and local artwork and symbols—which can be seen on Oduduwa Hall façade (Figure 7).

Natural Environment

At Obafemi Awolowo University, the modernist forms of the International Style were adapted to Nigerian climatic environments. Building orientations were planned to maximize the effect of southwest and northeast trade winds. Generally, no openings were placed on the west and east façade; sun shading devices were introduced where openings were present. Balconies and shading devices were incorporated in the buildings’ north and south openings. The inverted pyramid form employed in the education, administration, law and social sciences faculties was also a climatic response, allowing stack ventilation. Planned to be naturally ventilated, the inverted pyramid promoted air circulation, shading and cooling effectively (Figure 8).

Material and Construction Techniques

For Arieh Sharon and his team, permanence was a major consideration for both exterior and interior finishes in terms of material and construction techniques. Finishes employed natural materials like stone facing of different types, sizes and colors, tyro lean/sandcrete-textured finish, or were simply constructed in the brutalist-style, in natural concrete (Figure 9). The colors that were used were in the range of off-white, grey, rusty-brown and dull green, or other colors complementing the natural colors of the landscape. The hard landscape finishes were rugged materials like granolithic floors, marble, terrazzo, concrete tiles and smooth and patterned floors finished in-situ, which were planned to withstand the test of time and have lasted over 50 years.

University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria

Figure 8: Obafemi Awolowo University, inverted pyramid form using stack ventilation, promoting shading.
Photo: Jaiyeoba.

Figure 9: Obafemi Awolowo University lecture building, illustrating permanent finishes.
Photo: Jaiyeoba.

Figure 10: Trenchard Hall: University of Ibadan assembly hall illustrating International Style influences.
Photo: Abimbola O. Asojo.

Figure 11: Clock tower: the focal point/landmark of University of Ibadan.
Photo: Abimbola O. Asojo.

After World War II, Britain decided to invest in education in its colonies. This resulted in the establishment of University College Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan), the premier University in Nigeria. Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, a husband and wife team who worked with Le Corbusier on Chandigarh, designed the University of Ibadan campus. The campus was built in two phases: phase one was finished in 1955, five years before independence; phase two was completed in the 1960s.

Site Layout and Building Form

Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s experience in Chandigarh was of great benefit to their design scheme for the University of Ibadan. In their site layout, the buildings designed were extensive and organized to reduce walking distances. Their contribution to the campus architecture—which Tim Livsey has described as “virtually a city in its own right”8—included Trenchard Hall (Figure 10), an assembly hall which could accommodate roughly 1,000 people, a tower that served as a landmark for the university (Figure 11), residential colleges, a theater and a library. Fry and Drew grouped buildings around courtyards, a concept derived from traditional Yoruba courtyard planning.

Natural Environment

In their designs for University of Ibadan, Fry and Drew were sensitive to the environment and unwilling to make any changes to the ravishing landscape they encountered in Ibadan. Drew was noted for having consulted extensively with the Ibadan community during the design problem-solving process. The tropical adaptation of modern architecture’s vernacular was pioneered by Fry and Drew in their campus design. Building were oriented to maximize the effect of southwest and northeast trade winds. Entryways were rarely situated on west and east façade, whose facing walls were left blank (Figure 12 and 13). Balconies and shading devices were incorporated in north and south building entryways, and glass louvres or screen-like concrete shading devices were deployed continuously on north and south façades.

Material and Construction Techniques

Figure 12: Senate Building, University of Ibadan, illustrating blank east/west façade and shading devices on north and south façade.
Photo: Abimbola O. Asojo.

Figure 13: Kenneth Dike Library, University of Ibadan, showing use of reinforced concrete screen wall patterns on north and south façades.
Photo: Abimbola O. Asojo.

In terms of material and construction techniques, Fry and Drew used reinforced concrete—as there was hardly any other permanent material available—and reinforced concrete could structurally accommodate large openings for breezes to pass through to cool building interiors. Stone was often introduced in building façades, as in Trenchard Hall (Figure 10) and Kenneth Dike library (Figure 13). Most of the campus buildings designed by Fry and Drew cleaved to modernist principles—employing white walls, flat roofs and ribbon windows. Over time, many of these flat roofs have become problematic due to water leakage in Ibadan’s tropical climate, and have been replaced by gable roofs, promoting better surface runoff. The white walls have also been repainted using earth tone colors, which have proved more durable in tropical climates.


The early modernist architects who practiced in Africa adapted the International Style to fit the Nigerian environment, creating a style of architecture that has come to be termed tropical architecture by architectural historians9. All the modernist architects borrowed heavily from the traditional forms utilized by the local cultures living in the area of their respective project locations. Thus, the buildings designed by Sharon for Obafemi Awolowo University and Fry and Drew for the University of Ibadan represent a juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary architecture10. Drawing on aspects of Yoruba culture impacted these modernist architects’ site layout, building form, materials and construction techniques—as in the courtyards and central spaces prominent in both campus designs, which, as noted by Asojo and Jaiyeoba, were derived from Yoruba architecture:

“The central space idea relates to the courtyard as a central organizing element in the Yoruba, Nigerian traditional buildings and other African cultures. In Yoruba traditional buildings, courtyard of different sizes, scales and levels were used to separate different parts and sections of the same building and group of buildings. Yoruba[culture] had a monarchy system and both the king’s palaces and subject houses were based on the Impluvium style, with central courtyards”11

The courtyards of Yoruba traditional buildings also held the solution to climatic problems. In creating a balance of ecosystem essential for sustainable design on both campuses, the modernist architects I have discussed borrowed the courtyard typology, with natural ventilation, lighting and building orientation being among the sustainable approaches adopted to minimize energy usage. In response to the tropical climate, the design solutions arrived at on both campuses also utilized other historical, traditional and cultural typologies common to Yoruba buildings—such as verandas and screen walls—which frequently deployed Yoruba artwork and symbols. Overall, the resulting architecture possesses pedagogical applications and implications for the contemporary global context. As noted previously with regards to global design literature, most of the discussion on modernism or architecture has predominantly been focused on Europe and the Americas. While there is very limited information available about design on the African continent—West Africa in particular and especially Nigeria—both Obafemi Awolowo University and University of Ibadan offer design precedents that contribute to the discourse regarding how architects assimilated the International Style into the region’s sociocultural context.

Further Literature:

Abimbola Asojo: “Design Algorithms After Le Corbusier,” in: ACADIA Quarterly. 19 (4), 2000, pp. 17–24.

Abimbola Asojo: “Testing a Culture-Based Design Pedagogy: A Case Study,” in: John Asher Thompson and Nancy Blossom (eds.), The Handbook of Interior Design, Wiley Blackwell, New Jersey 2015, pp. 432–445.

Abimbola Asojo: “Instructional Strategies for Teaching Cross-Cultural Design: A Pedagogical Example Using Nigerian and South African Spatial Forms,” in: International Journal of Architectural Research, 7(2), 2013, pp. 76–91.

Geoffrey Baker: Le Corbusier: An Analysis of Form, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. Ltd., New York 1984.

Walther Gropius: The New Architecture and the Bauhaus, Faber & Faber, London 1935.

Iain Jackson and Jessica Holland: The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Twentieth Century Architecture, Pioneer Modernism and the Tropics, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Surrey 2014.

Arieh Sharon: Kibbuz + Bauhaus: an architect’s way in a new land, Karl Krammer Verlag, Stuttgart 1976.

Jan Michl: “A case Against the Modernist Regime in Design Education,” in: International Journal of Architectural Research, 8(2) 2014, pp: 36–46.

John M. Vlach: “Affecting Architecture of the Yoruba,” in: African Arts, 10 (1) 1976, pp: 48–53.

  • 1 Abimbola Asojo and Babatunde E. Jaiyeoba: “Modernism and Cultural Expression in University Campus Design: The Nigerian Example” in: International Journal of Architectural Research. 10(3), 2016, pp. 21–35; Abimbola Asojo and Theresa T. Asojo: “The Influence of Indigenous Forms, Art and Symbols on Sacred Spaces: A Study of Two Catholic Churches in Nigeria,” in: Journal of Interior Design, 40(1), 2015, pp. 1–17.
  • 2 Willy Boesiger: Le Corbusier. Ingoprint, Barcelona 1992.
  • 3 John Iliffe: Africans: The History of a Continent, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007.
  • 4 Asojo and Jaiyeoba: “Modernism and Cultural Expression in University Campus Design: The Nigerian Example,” 2016, pp. 21–35.
  • 5 Abimbola Asojo: A Culture-Based Design Pedagogy for Nigerian and South African Spatial Forms. (Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertation, AAT 3488023), 2011.
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Asojo and Jaiyeoba: “Modernism and Cultural Expression in University Campus Design: The Nigerian Example,” 2016, pp. 26–27.
  • 8 Tim Livsey: Campaigning for Twentieth Century Architecture. 2014. Retrieved 3 April 2019 from:
  • 9 Asojo and Asojo: “The Influence of Indigenous Forms, Art and Symbols on Sacred Spaces: A Study of Two Catholic Churches in Nigeria,” 2015, pp. 1–17; Nnamdi Elleh: African Architecture Evolution and Transformation, McGraw Hill, New York 1997; Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, Batsford, London 1956; Hannah Le Roux: “Building on the Boundary — Modern Architecture in the Tropics,” in: Social Identities, 10 (4) 2004, pp. 439–52.
  • 10 Asojo: A Culture-Based Design Pedagogy for Nigerian and South African Spatial Forms, 2011.
  • 11 Asojo and Jaiyeoba: “Modernism and Cultural Expression in University Campus Design: The Nigerian Example,” 2016, p. 33
+ Add this text to your collection!