Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife

The architectural heritage credited to the colonial intervention of the British in Nigeria is a blend of features imported by Europeans accustomed to a temperate climate, mixed with adaptations derived from the principles of modern architecture and concessions to the region’s tropical climate. As such, colonial buildings of this era can be regarded as a hybrid architectural style.

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:

  1. Cross-ventilation: i.e., through ventilation, guaranteeing frequent and rapid air-changes
  2. Sun-shading: to reduce solar radiation in building interiors
  3. Rain-proofing: to exclude moisture (derived directly from rainwater and indirectly from humidity)
  4. Vermin-proofing: i.e., the exclusion of animal and insect pests such as mice, mosquitoes and cockroaches9

General Design Orientations

Boy's Quarters

Broadly classified, the following architectural types were constructed:

  • Administrative buildings
  • Commercial buildings
  • Religious buildings
  • Residential buildings
  • Buildings for social services (e.g., education, health and communication)

Despite their differences in use, the building typologies employed invariably looked domestic—a far-cry from the contemporary expedient of typological characterization.

Early Missionary Buildings

These encompassed residential, educational and healthcare structures. Characteristic of all colonial buildings was a well-raised plinth, usually not lower than 4 ft. (120 cm). Initially, this was a prophylactic measure to guard against the erroneous notion that early morning vapors, or “bad air” (mal air), was responsible for the spread of malaria.10 Subsequently, raised floors were an excellent safeguard against flooding during the rainy season. Early missionary buildings were also characterized by:

  • An encircling veranda, with eaves supported by columns and beams
  • Elevation well above ground level on a pronounced plinth, either monolithically (for two-story buildings) or by using individual stumpy columns (for single-story structures)
  • In an initial phase, screening single-story buildings with mosquito netting throughout (During the colonial era, casement windows were the norm, necessitating the building of cage-like [netted] contraptions for windows; external doorways had interior mosquito-netted screen doors, allowing external doors to be left open during the day.)

General Residential Buildings

For non-missionary residences, characteristic features were much the same:

  1. Initially, fitted with fire-places and chimneys (based on the misconception that, as in Europe, they were needed to keep out the cold)
  2. Steeply pitched shingle hipped, hip-and-gable or gabled roofs and profiled ceilings, producing exaggerated ceiling heights and, also, greatly projecting eaves
  3. Elevation above ground level, with an all-encompassing column-framed veranda (or separate front and back porch verandas);
  4. Relatively few rooms (almost invariably), but with clumsy internal spatial-access patterns (by modern standards), particularly with respect to conveniences
  5. Detached (or semi-detached—otherwise relegated) kitchen areas
  6. Use of burnt brick (or stone), wood-paneling, light-colored paints (particularly white, cream and light green)
  7. Use of large casement windows, fan-lights and jalousies
  8. Timber fretwork, associated with upper-framing of verandas (in some cases)
  9. “Boys’ quarters” or BQ’s (the British colonial appellation for detached accommodations for domestic servants)
  10. Generous expanses of lawn and general premises, with herbaceous border demarcation

Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife

District Officer's House, Modakeke.

Buildings employed in Britain’s colonial administration apparatus were prominent throughout Ile-Ife, including examples of all the previously noted building categories. To ascertain the prevalence of these categories, I wish to analyze certain representative buildings.

Residential Buildings

The District Officer’s House, Modakeke, Ile-Ife

Built around 1940, the District Officer’s house is situated on high ground in Modakeke. It is rectilinear and, typical for such residences, on a generous plot of land. The roof is hip-and-gable, while the kitchen is semi-detached, connected to the main house by a short flight of stairs and roofed independently.

Virtually every room opens onto the exterior, granting access either to the front or back veranda (or both). Additionally, all external doors are of the French window type, with casement windows about 75 cm above ground level. The whole building is elevated on a one-meter plinth, accessed by seven short flights of steps: one on the approach façade; another, on the longer façade (abutting the dining-room); a third, at the end of the entrance veranda (or walkway); a fourth, linking the kitchen with the rest of the house, with the remaining three connecting the back area of the residence with the grounds. As with other houses of this type, access to conveniences is indirect and unconventional, located in the main building but awkwardly configured so that in addition to (usually clumsy) access from interior living spaces it was always also possible to access the bathroom from outside. There is also a free-standing Boys’ quarters (please see my concluding remarks for a more thorough description of this building typology, its rationale and characteristics). Today the building functions as the Ife Northeast Local Government Secretariat.

Colonial House, Mokuro

Colonial House, Mokuro (Floor Plan).

Probably built several years before the DO’s house, this particular residence in the Moore-Mokuro ward also housed a British officer (likely someone connected to the operations of the waterworks). As with the DO’s residence, it is sited on a hill, close to the Mokuro Dam.

This particular house is more compact than the DO’s house, although like most District Officer residences it had few bedrooms (two in this case). The veranda space is restricted to a semi-circular porch providing access to the house. The kitchen is totally detached, linked to the main house by a covered walkway. It abuts and shares its roof with a lock-up garage and general store. The bathroom possesses both internal and external entrances (to facilitate access for retainers responsible for servicing bathrooms—which lacked running water or modern sewage systems— without passing through the more general parts of the house). The house also boasts a detached Boys’ quarters—though unusually close to the main house. This colonial house now serves as the operational headquarters of the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), in Ile-Ife.

Colonial House, Lagere

Colonial House, Lagere

Built in the 1940s, this colonial house is located in Lagere, the commercial part of Ile-Ife. All the commercial franchises, warehouses and European retail businesses in colonial times were located in this area. It is likely that the house, tucked behind a line of commercial buildings immediately abutting the major thoroughfare through the town, was the residence of a representative of one of the major trading concerns.

In several ways this particular colonial house is atypical. It has three (instead of one or two) bedrooms, as well as a more rational floorplan, approximating modern architectural design concepts. Access to conveniences are sensitive and rational, and the two semi-outdoor spaces integrated into the building at the front of the house and adjacent to the kitchen are actually functional. In addition, the kitchen is fully integrated into the main house, while the house itself is raised only 30 cm above ground level. The detached Boys’ quarters is mono-pitched and of very compact design.

At present, the building is no longer a residence but has been relegated to occasional use as a tutorial (learning) center. An addition now connects the once-freestanding Boys’ quarters to the main house, while the grounds have been paved and presently serve as a praying ground for Muslim traders in the vicinity.

Administrative Buildings

These included the Local Government (Native Authority) Secretariat, the law courts and the town hall. These structures were all located in either the cultural nerve-center or commercial spine of the town.

The Local Government Secretariat

Former Local Government Secretariat.

Built as the seat of the Native Authority in 1935, the Secretariat is strategically positioned within the Ife Palace complex, straddling the entrance onto the palace grounds—on the cultural axis linking the Ile Nla (“in the hinter regions”) with the Okemogun Shrine at the opposite end. There are three parts to the building: a central two-story structure flanked by two slightly angular single-story wings. The middle portion accommodates a tunnel-like gated entrance that, in the past, was an egress for both vehicles and pedestrians.11

The building features a symmetrical middle section with a staircase and large ground-floor office on either side; the wings, by contrast, are asymmetrical: one is a large open-plan space; the other is separated into three offices and a clerk’s cubicle. On the first floor, the space is resolved into a large waiting area and three offices. Despite its clearly being intended as a governmental office space, the Secretariat is very domestic in its overall formal composition.

Today its occupants serve only palace affairs, as a new Ife Central Local Government Secretariat has been built on the outskirts of the town. Ironically, the eye-catching ornamented gate it now sports remains permanently shut, as it no longer serves as the public entrance into the palace complex: behind the magnificent gate, the erstwhile tunnel-like entryway now provides parking space for motorcycles.

Law Courts

Former High Court, Lagere.

Magistrate Court, Enuwa

As with the Secretariat, events have overtaken the Law Courts premises (as the new Secretariat complex also houses the major courts). However, during colonial times there was a magistrate court located close to the old Local Government Secretariat at Enuwa, while the high court was at Lagere.

The Magistrate Court was designed in an L-shape in order to separate court proceedings from purely administrative matters. Two magistrates’ offices open directly onto the court hall, where judgments were passed from a prominent dais. The hall, oriented northeast-southwest, was approached by a flight of three steps, in typical colonial fashion raising it above ground level. Cross-ventilation and adequate lighting were ensured by ample, glazed fenestration.12

The erstwhile administrative wing is flanked by two verandas. One functioned as a public walkway and is relatively narrow, while the other is about 400 cm deep. Both provided ample shading for the building’s interior, while the extra-deep rear veranda also provided a space for staff to relax. Unusual for non-residential buildings, conveniences were integrated into the main building rather than being relegated to an outhouse. The Magistrate Court has a different relevance today, as it now serves as the waiting hall of the new Ooni’s “High Chiefs.” The former judge’s podium has been lavishly fitted out as seating for high-ranking visitors, while what was formerly a direct point of entry onto Enuwa Square (from the wing abutting the access road) has been blocked up, with mured doors and windows on that façade.

The defunct High Court building is rather typical. Less architecturally striking, it is a long, rectilinear structure encircled all round by a veranda and partitioned into a large courtroom, a registry and two small judges’ rooms. Like the Magistrate Court, even though no longer functioning as a court of law, it has been converted to a public utility: it is now the Ife Office of the Electricity Distribution Company.

The Town Hall

Constructed in 1922 and locally referred to as Ile Nla (“the Big House”), this community building is unique in several ways. Even though of colonial origin, it is decidedly atypical. At the time of its construction, such structures were built all over the British Empire in order to express an “architecture of power,” affirming that Britain was unquestionably in charge. In Western Nigeria in particular, such intimidating structures already abounded (e.g., Atiba Hall in Oyo, built in 1906). It was in response to Ooni Ademiluyi’s plea (after seeing this imposing structure on a visit to Oyo), that Engineer Robert “Taffy” Jones was given a mandate to construct an equally impressive building for Ile-Ife.13 Two other architecturally domineering town halls were soon to follow: Mapo Hall in Ibadan (1925), and the Centenary Hall in Ake, Abeokuta (1930), built to commemorate one hundred years of British contact with Abeokuta.

Ile Nla is a picturesque, heavily-colonnaded meeting hall embedded within the Ile-Ife Palace complex. Of modest-size, it can seat approximately two hundred persons. Before Atiba Hall was built, it had been the custom for the British Crown’s representatives to interact with the local people in the town square abutting the palace. Growing familiarity with the vagaries of the tropical climate, however, soon made it expedient to build Atiba Hall, as such a structure resolved both socio-political and climatic exigencies. Ile Nla was constructed with similar exigencies in mind, and it also provided an appropriate forum to meet with key representatives of Ife society.

Uncharacteristically, Ile Nla is an excellent blend of both traditional and early-nineteenth century Western architecture. Its most appealing feature (echoing traditional Yoruba building practice) are its massive, squat earth-brick columns, creating an edifice that while intimidating is still relatable on the human scale. Built on a single plane, its features a portico that extends into the grounds, simulating a traditional kobo (where Nigerian rulers hold court with their subjects, who can mill around the ruler on three sides).

In this deliberate departure from the norm, Taffy Jones sought to experiment with the principles of Yoruba palace architecture; a clear success, since even though the Ile Nla has lost its pride of place (with respect to its original purpose), its touristic value as a relic of the colonial British sensitivity for cultural contextualization justifies the maintenance expenditure it still receives today. Until about twenty years ago it still possessed considerable social relevance as a rentable venue for small-sized wedding receptions or political rallies.14

Religious Buildings

Being essentially Protestant, the earliest colonial Britain mission in Nigeria was the Church Mission Society (CMS), an Anglican missionary organization. In Ile-Ife and its immediate environs, the first successful missionary outreach by the CMS was in 1859.15 Most of the colonial churches built in Ile-Ife were conservatively Gothic, although built on a humbler scale and less ornate than in England.

St. Philips’ Anglican Church, Aiyetoro

St. Philipp’s Anglican Church.

The first church in Ile-Ife, St. Philips’ Anglican Church, was the product of pioneering efforts by British missionary Bishop Charles Philips, who in 1900 had built a 7.5 by 4.5 meter structure in Modakeke. This church, however, was abandoned by the Ifes within five years of its construction, as they sought to have their own building in the “Ife area” of the town.16 Named after Bishop Philips, the new church is an example of scaled-down Gothic building traditions, a magnificent structure of worked stone with space for over seven hundred worshippers.

The nave is divided into three sitting areas, defined by two aisles which are further accentuated by a system of eight octagonal freestanding columns, linked to each other by pointed arches on either side. The significantly larger central sitting area is covered by a timber-paneled vaulted ceiling; each flanking aisle has a similarly paneled semi-vaulted ceiling whose headroom is much lower than the central nave. Above the altar is a cupola.

Typical of Anglican churches, the choir stand is located in the sanctuary area, left and right of the freeway to the altar where holy communion is prepared and served. Another conventional feature is the apsidal altar with rooms to the left and right, significantly distorting the church’s otherwise basilican layout. When first built, two towers one on either side of the entry porch accentuated the symmetry of the design, but in 1955 a violent thunderstorm destroyed one tower, prompting the decision to eliminate both, which were reduced to spaces with regular headroom and put to administrative use. Over the entry porch there is a crenellated battlement parapet.17

Today, this building is used for Sunday school, church group meetings or social receptions of a modest scale. A new building designed in a contemporary architectural style and of “cathedral” status and size has been erected literally next-door, and today serves as St. Philips’ Cathedral, Aiyetoro.

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Idi-Omo

Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Constructed in 1939, this church building is the legacy of an American Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) mission. The SDA mission acquired much land at Idi-Omo upon which, over time, they also built a hospital and schools.

Seating about three hundred, this picturesque church of modest size combines simple, good design and neat construction with regular maintenance. Cruciform in layout, the church’s longer, more prominent axis is oriented north-south, with the southerly end abutting the town’s main road. The vestry and administrative office are located in the northern end. Apart from the nave, the transepts also provide seating accommodations for congregants, while the choir stand, altar and lectern are located in the sanctuary. A major feature of the sanctuary is the baptistry. A prominent bell-tower above the main entrance porch, as in most pre-modern American churches, is a distinguishing feature of the SDA Church. Its walls are of dressed stone, constructed in typical fashion and plastered in the interior. To ameliorate the effect of its unfavorable building orientation, several trees have been planted nearby.18

Commercial Buildings

Prominent colonial commercial franchises in Ile-Ife were the United Africa Company (UAC), G. B. Ollivant Trading Ventures (GBO) and John Holt. The UAC started operations as early as the 1920s, while the others arrived later (the GBO warehouse dates from 1946).

Commercial buildings in the town mostly consisted of warehouses for storing locally produced cash crops. Being large, rectilinear structures with low overhanging roofs and high profiled ceilings, architecturally there was nothing significant about these buildings. Such warehouses can still be found at Lagere—particularly on the main road through the town—and along Moore, Arubidi and Ondo roads. Many are still used as agricultural depots (e.g., the one constructed by GBO) or as retail shops, “cold-rooms” (for selling frozen meats), a funfair and even as Christian fellowship center.

Buildings for Social Services

These encompass schools, hospitals and Ile-Ife’s two post offices.


The SDA Hospital is the only one in town attributable to a pre-independence foreign agency. Built soon after the SDA church, it is singularly characteristic of British colonial “domestic” non-residential archetypes. The buildings in the original hospital complex were rectangular and had double-porticos, with wards and offices opening out onto both front and back verandas.19

Post Offices

Of the two in town, the older (main) post office—located at Enuwa—was erected in 1944 and is still functional and in fairly good condition. It is L-shaped, with the limb projecting backwards from the major façade fronting Enuwa Square. Three archways in a dressed-stone wall lead into a service corridor, while the spaces beyond are used for both administrative and storage purposes. Mailboxes are arranged on the more prominent flank of the building. In the past, the post office shared these premises with the now defunct Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) Office.

The other post office is located at Lagere. It was never intended to be more than a postal agency, handling sales of stamps and money orders, as well as collecting (and distributing) mail. It is a small building, with a simple warehouse-like appearance.

The Lagere Post Office has been completely overtaken by the rise of internet communication technology and other innovations. It is virtually only an “existing structure” today, serving as a backdrop for informal traders to display their wares. Despite a facelift in the early 2000s that included installing a perimeter fence and repainting, even the General Post Office at Enuwa barely manages to get by.

Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife

Arts & Crafts Building of Oduduwa College.

Founded in 1932, Oduduwa College is one of the town’s oldest schools, and most of the buildings within the college grounds are typical colonial building. The classroom blocks are rectilinear, with classes sandwiched between colonnaded verandas. However, the arts and crafts, and administrative blocks are more architecturally interesting, and deserving of discussion in greater detail.

The Arts and Crafts building, though rectilinear, is not pronouncedly so. In addition, even though it has verandas running along its front and back, these terminate on either side in large enclosed spaces, producing a dumb-bell shaped building. These end-rooms have been sub-divided into two virtually square rooms, for arts and crafts. Also, contrary to the practice of using concrete or stone columns, these verandas are bounded by wall-segments, instead (as with the General Post Office).

The administration building was the longest building on the premises (before the modern school hall recently constructed by the Osun State Government). Again, the front and back of the block are defined by verandas bounded by wall-segments. However, these verandas are interrupted in the middle by a perpendicular combination of spaces, accommodating conveniences, the staff room and an entrance porch-cum-foyer. The rectilinear arms, to which the verandas are attached, are used for other administrative functions. All these spaces are on the ground floor, while the upper floor houses the principal’s and other offices.

Nearly 90 years old today, educationally Oduduwa College still exerts a great influence on Ile-Ife and its environs. The recent addition of the ultra-modern school hall has given the premises a much needed facelift and further enhanced the school’s status.


Several schools in Ife deserve to be classified as “colonial,” not merely because of their architecture but also due to their agency. However, for the purposes of this text only Oduduwa College will be critiqued.


Trivializing Nigeria’s colonial experience would be a dishonest attempt to tamper with the period’s historical import and, generally, indicates a denial of British influence on Nigeria. Nevertheless, Nigeria has come a great distance since independence in 1960—and a much longer way since the British colonized Lagos in 1861.

More important with respect to building practice and the present discussion is how Nigeria has fared vis-à-vis lessons learnt from the colonization experience. Apart from the British, other influences have contributed to defining Nigeria’s built environment and most prevalent architectural practices (many also facilitated by them). However, although Nigeria’s contemporary built environment is a potpourri of various styles, influences and orientations, that of the British colonial period remains readily discernible, particularly with respect to residential architecture and in the vernacular/folk context. Some of the fallout resulting from the transition from “colonial” to “contemporary” architectural practices, typified by what still exists in Ile-Ife, are discussed below.

Extinction of Superfluous Design Features

As stated earlier, Western colonizers initially transplanted European building prototypes to Africa. An early victim of climate-related adaptation was the fireplace and chimney, rightly deemed superfluous early on (although even after ceasing to be part of living spaces they have continued to feature in kitchens as part of a cooking range—samples abound within the Obafemi Awolowo University Staff Quarters, a post-independence development.)

Re-contextualization of Characteristic Features

Another major feature characteristic of British Colonial residential architecture was the Boys’ quarters. These first appeared in Nigeria as accommodation for retainers employed by colonials. That servant housing was placed at a distance from the main house was informed by two issues: the opinion that Blacks were “unsanitary” and very poor in hygiene,20 and an alternative opinion about the origins of malaria—namely that malaria-parasites were bred by the lifestyle of Blacks. The siting of such ancillary buildings away from the main house was based on the assumed range of the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito.21 Similarly, the term “boy” was regarded as being adequate (as an alternative to actually re-christening such retainers with English names), as African names were invariably considered “unpronounceable.”

Not only has the Boys’ quarters phenomenon become entrenched in today’s Nigerian building culture, it has become almost non-negotiable—in fact, many personal house-building projects begin with constructing such accommodations, although obviously its symbolism has been re-crafted.22 Even though it began as a colonial provision born of domestic expedience, Boys’ quarters were nevertheless a symbol of condescension, relegation and a marker of segregation. Today, even where a residential project does not start with it, Boys’ quarters provides additional accommodation (for members of the extended family), additional family income (as lettable space) and a form of “regulated company,” providing both real and psychological security for periods when occupants of the main house are away.23

Adoption of Climate-related Design Orientations

Neo-Colonial House, Modomo.

Apart from being derived from their cumulative experience of the Nigerian milieu, some of the building typologies British colonialists adopted mirrored some of the basic themes of the newly-unfolding modern architecture. However, their attempts to cope with environmental conditions were not insignificant. The basic climatological issues in the tropics are high insolation, rainfall and humidity. Coupled with these is the abundance of vermin. The routine practices and dispositions that enabled British colonials to cope with the West African environment have been bequeathed to modern Nigeria as appropriate local architectural practice.

In resolving direct solar radiation and attendant heat build-up, an east-west orientation was adopted for rectilinear buildings, with main facades facing north-south. This worked well, as the shorter sides—usually featuring the least amount of fenestration—then faced east-west, with the additional benefit that orienting buildings thusly optimized exposure, in southern Nigeria, to prevailing southwesterly winds. Where this ideal geographical orientation was not practicable, sun-shading devices (modern architecture’s brise soleil) were used: as vertical or horizontal fins, or a combination of both (to produce an “egg-crate” effect). Also, as previously noted many two-story buildings had part (or most) of their first floor raised on columns, facilitating more wind movement around the building, producing a more conducive internal thermal environment. Hence, there was already a predisposition towards raised floors, making it easy to transition to the pilotis under-pinning— the “stack effect”—common in modern architecture. Both pilotis and brise soleil are now part of the established design vocabulary of contemporary southern Nigerian architectural practice.

Colonial roofs were notoriously steep. Initially, this was merely in imitation of the Northern European tradition, where a steep gradient was needed to dispose of incident snow. However, steeply pitched roofs were also appropriate in the tropics, as such slopes facilitate rapid rainwater run-off. Presently this super-steep roofing style is currently the vogue in even obscure parts of Ile-Ife (not because it is seen as environmentally ideal, but more in the spirit of the fashion for neo-colonial architecture). Colonial buildings also featured extensive eaves, never measuring less than 1.2 meters. Such exaggerated eaves provided ample sun-shading for walls and interiors, while protecting much of the external wall surface from driving rain. Sadly, this rational and appropriate orientation has been jettisoned; in accepting the form of the colonial roof, the rationale for the accompanying pronounced eaves has been left behind.


Although the British colonial occupation of Nigeria is fast receding into the distant past, its impact will continue to manifest itself on many levels. With respect to architecture, the occupation’s cumulative legacy is worthwhile, not just in terms of the skills and orientations discussed above (i.e. the social-culture), but also in terms of the tangible material-culture left behind. In the twenty-first century, national assets generating tourism are sought after and treasured; apart from those directly bequeathed by nature, man-made monuments and artifacts are the next-best assets. Investing in their proper maintenance is globally seen as immensely worthwhile.

The issue that prompted my treatise, the centenary anniversary of the Bauhaus and the school’s influence on global architecture (here with particular reference to the Obabfemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) would never have arisen if the campus designed by Arieh Sharon had been allowed to perish for lack of adequate maintenance. With respect to British colonial architecture in Ile-Ife, the major lesson to take away is that there is latent value in these relics that transcends the purely utilitarian. All that is required for their preservation is a well-coordinated and implementable conservation/restoration plan, one born of genuine political will to ensure these buildings remain relevant for as long as possible.

Further References

Saburi O. Biobaku, Origins of the Yoruba, Federal Information Service, Lagos 1955.

M. D. W. Jeffreys, “When was Ile-Ife Founded?,” in: The Nigerian Field, Vol. 23, No. 1, Ibadan 1958.

David D. Laitin, Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1986.

  • 1 Paul Oliver (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997.
  • 2 See: Peter C. Lloyd, Power and Independence: Urban Africans’ Perception of Socio-inequality, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1974; Isola Olomola, “Ife before Oduduwa,” in: I. A. Aknjogbin (Ed.), The Cradle of A Race: Ife from the Beginning to 1980. Sunray Publications Ltd., Port Harcourt 1992, pp. 51–61; B. Adediran, “The Early Beginnings of the Ile-Ife State,” in: Aknjogbin, The Cradle of A Race, 1992, pp. 77–95.
  • 3 Olomola, “Ife before Oduduwa,” 1992, p. 54.
  • 4 Oluremi I. Obateru, The Yoruba City in History: 11th Century to the Present, Penthouse Publications, Ibadan 2003.
  • 5 Cordelia Osasona and A. D. C. Hyland: Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, BookBuilders Editions Africa, Ibadan 2006.
  • 6 A. W. Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa, Longmans, Harlow 1963.
  • 7 See: Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006.
  • 8 K. Akinsemoyin and Alan Vaughan-Richards: Building Lagos, Pengrail Ltd., Lagos 1976, p. 47.
  • 9 Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006.
  • 10 D. Okpako, “Who’s Afraid of Malaria?” in: The Nigerian Field, Vol. 70, Part 1, Ibadan 2005.
  • 11 Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006
  • 12 Ibid.
  • 13 Cordelia Osasona, “The ‘Ile Nla’: A Colonial Town Hall in Ile-Ife,” Nigeria, in:  African Arts, University of California Los Angeles, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2001, pp. 78–82.
  • 14 Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006.
  • 15 Olusegun O. Odubogun (2013): History of Ife Anglican Diocese and the Establishment of the Church. (Accessed at, 16 November 2016).
  • 16 Ibid.
  • 17 Cordelia Osasona, “Church Architecture in Ile-Ife: The Colonial Heritage,” in: Ife Planning Journal, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, OAU, Ile-Ife, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2000, pp. 94–103, 137–140, here: pp. 96–97.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Okpako, “Who’s Afraid of Malaria?”, 2005, pp. 4–5.
  • 22 Osasona & Hyland, Colonial Architecture in Ile-Ife, 2006, p. 21.
  • 23 Cordelia Osasona, “From Traditional Residential Architecture to the Vernacular: The Nigerian Experience,” 2007. Published on-line:, p. 20 (accessed on 28 Feb. 2019).
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