The Legacy of Arieh Sharon’s Postcolonial Modernist Architecture at the Obafemi Awolowo University Campus in Ile-Ife Nigeria

The significance of Arieh Sharon’s postcolonial modernist architecture at Obafemi Awolowo University Campus at Ile-Ife (OAU, originally University of Ife) is multi-dimensional. Built between 1960 and 1978, at first glance the campus core consists of an ensemble of modernist buildings, both in terms of the individual buildings and the entire cite universitaire. In this article I examine some of the physical and conceptual characteristics of the campus master plan and core area design in order to illustrate their significance as examples of postcolonial modernist architecture—identifying the most important aspects of their legacy, which has continued to guide the design of the campus as it has developed over the course of more than a half century.

The OAU campus poses a challenge to any scholar of modernist architecture. First, it represents a departure from the campus design of its predecessor, the University of Ibadan (UI), only eighty kilometers away, a well-known colonial modernist campus designed by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.1 The University of Ibadan is important because it was the first university campus conceived and built by the colonial administration in Nigeria, as well as on account of the stature of Fry and Drew, renowned British architects who worked for many years in West Africa.2 Second, Sharon’s adherence to the Bauhaus-inspired modernist tradition, while not in doubt, was reinterpreted through the tropicalism associated with climate-responsive design. The relationship between art and architecture also takes on a new meaning, with Sharon’s use of elements abstracted from the Yoruba tradition aligning the campus with the broader search for Yoruba cultural identity, here articulated within a modernist lexicon.

To illustrate these ideas I have selected three buildings—the Pharmacy Faculty, the old central cafeteria (now home to the Faculty of Architecture) and the building of the African Studies department—to show how in each of these buildings, conceptually and instrumentally, one can discern the legacy of Arieh Sharon’s postcolonial modernist interpretations.

Background to the development of the campus

One of the earliest and most crucial decisions to determine the fortunes of the planned university was the choice of architects for the planning and design of the new campus in Ile-Ife. In 1960, anyone would have expected that, in the tradition of the new country’s immediate colonial past and following the example of the University of Ibadan, the choice would have been to hire an architect from the United Kingdom. But perhaps in the spirit of the minority report of the Ashby Commission, a firm of architects from Israel was chosen. A business organization of the Israeli Histadrut (General Federation of Labor), AMY Ltd., was commissioned to prepare the campus master plan and design the main buildings. They, in turn, contracted Sharon. Together with his partner, the late Benjamin Idelson—and later with his son Eldar—Sharon was responsible for giving the new campus in Ile-Ife its present form.3 The appointment of AMY Ltd. was an outcome of the synergistic encounter in the 1950s between the defunct Western Region, who were committed to developing a viable campus in the region, and the goal of the Israeli government to extend development aid to developing countries for a host of geopolitical motivations. In the process of executing this commission, Sharon elevated this commitment by creating innovative architecture that radically departed from prior examples of modernist tropical architecture.

Location of the Campus

The Three Main Sections of Ile-Ife City.

Obafemi Awolowo University lies on some fourteen thousand acres of land, located about two miles from the northern boundary of old Ile-Ife. It is bounded to the north by a range of hills, to the southeast by the Opa River—since dammed to provide a dependable supply of water—and to the south by Ede Road. It is noteworthy that Sharon took part in the process of selecting Ile-Ife as the location of the new campus, chosen out of several other Yoruba cities, recognizing the cultural significance of the city as the cradle of Yoruba civilization.4

By establishing itself as a distinct community separate from the city, the university gave physical expression to its relationship with Ile-Ife. But its social relationship with the city and through the design of the university campus, over time it has become a separate community within the city. This relationship is the expression of a delicate balance between the idea of the university as an ivory tower and the university as a market place; the university as an autonomous system and as part of the larger community. Seeking to reconcile itself as a community of scholars with the city of Ile-Ife, OAU maintains this delicate balance through a social process. In addition, Sharon reconciled the city and the university by recognizing the cultural identity of the Yoruba through a process of conceptual and physical abstraction expressed in the campus design.

General Layout of the Campus

The University Campus was conceived as a small city, complete with working, living, and support services. Its distinction from Ile-Ife is further emphasized by the location of a gate complete with gatehouse located on the boundary of the campus, forming the main entrance to the university. To emphasize the distinction between city and university further, the introduction of the university proper is delayed by a two-kilometer-long dual carriageway and landscaped corridor, separating the gate from the university’s “city center”. It is a drama in which the newcomer to the university is abruptly separated from the “profane” world and introduced into the “sacred” world of the university, with the approach road acting like a tunnel cut through the natural forest. Little evidence of development is visible on either side of the road, expectations being focused on what lies at the end of the lane. About three hundred and fifty meters before the end of this approach road, long white horizontal bands of windows in deep shades appear, punctuated by an ensemble of three distinct structures, enclosing a prominent piazza in the foreground. The visitor is left in no doubt that he or she has arrived at the city proper, and, indeed, at the center of this city/university. To confirm it, a little “porch” symbolizes the entrance to the piazza.

The OAU campus is a twentieth century city per excellence, apparently modeled after the modern city, with a strict adherence to functional zoning principles and a strong emphasis on a hierarchy of connecting access ways—roads, streets and pedestrian pathways. It is, in fact, a special case of the application of the old CIAM principles.5 Its three main sections are: the central or main core of the university—the main working area or “business district” of the city—the student residential facilities, and the staff residential area. Between these lay service buildings and facilities, sited according to their relationship with the main sections. The entire campus is set in a landscape combining the region’s natural vegetation and topography with manmade “hard” and “soft” landscapes, set within open courts or bordering tree-shaded pedestrian ways. It is within these natural and artificial terrains that Sharon placed his Bauhaus-inspired postcolonial modernist architecture in the core area, along with three structures built in other parts of the campus.

The Core Area Ensemble: Arieh Sharon’s Postcolonial Architecture

Main core of the Obafemi Awolowo University Campus, Ile-Ife. From: “University of Ife Master Plan,” Egboramy Co. & Arieh Sharon, Eldar Sharon, 1981.

The central academic core is located within a gently sloping terrain, with two beautiful hills in the background running northwest to northeast. This central area is comprised of academic facilities and related buildings. Conceptually, it is a combination of the “precinct” form in the central area with a “nodal” system surrounding it.6 In this central area, vehicular access and parking facilities are limited to the periphery, on the western and eastern sides, leaving a large portion fully pedestrian. At the edges of this core area, accesses are provided to nodal points, leading to other buildings where additional departments are located.

This core area of the campus has come to symbolize the university itself. As one approaches the university, the collection of buildings creates a lasting impression, initially from the aforementioned white-and-dark horizontal bands, formed by the alternation of windows and concrete bands. The entrance piazza in front of the library building is enclosed by two other buildings—Oduduwa Hall (an assembly hall) to the west and University Hall (an administrative building) to the east. The Piazza is apparently a historical reference to Jefferson’s “Academical Village” from 1819,8 designed for the University of Virginia (where he freed the closed courts of Oxford and Cambridge by installing a library rather than a church as the focal point for his ensemble). The rest of Sharon’s ensemble is comprised of buildings housing the humanities, administration, education, law, and social science faculties. Each building is a distinct modernist box, connected to other buildings by wide walkways running north-south. The buildings all share the same orientation, with their longer sides facing north-south for climatic reasons. This climatic response is carried further through Sharon’s widespread use of an inverted pyramid design, which allows upper floors to shade lower floors.9 This structural approach contrasts to the frequent use in tropical architecture of sun-shading devices—more or less add-ons—or “skin treatment”—to the modernist box. By adopting this common system, Sharon visually unified the buildings, producing a common character and bestowing a unique identity upon the ensemble.

In addition, each building to the west and east of the piazza rest on pilotis, so that the ground floor is open, accommodating gatherings of students and faculty on shaded plazas, while also allowing fresh air to flow. Furthermore, these open spaces connect the buildings both physically and visually to external spaces, as if there were no distinction or break in the flow of space from exterior to interior. This spatial gestalt recalls the use of the courtyard in traditional Yoruba architecture, where the external space is brought into the building, becoming a space for social gatherings. Sharon had become familiar with the culture of the Yoruba, and by incorporating this climatic device was able to replicate a way of life all too familiar to his buildings’ users.

Sharon’s parti for the core area buildings.

A closer analysis of these core area buildings suggests their structural and aesthetic unity are Sharon’s parti pris, which became a guide for other buildings on the campus designed by other architects.

By examining three other buildings, how they adopted Sharon’s parti and its climatic approach becomes evident.

The university buildings are regularly adorned with murals and paintings: sculptures also abound. Sharon treats the major walls as canvasses for the display of such works; sometimes the walls are given rough treatments as finishes, much in the brutalist tradition. Other Nigerian artists have taken over this tradition, adorning the campus with artistic works in metal, wood and fibreglass.

The Pharmacy Building

The Pharmacy Building interior.

The pharmacy department building is one of those which bear the hallmark of Sharon’s architecture. It uses a parti that is identical to the buildings to the west and east of the core of the university—raising the building on pilotis to enhance air circulation and connecting interior and exterior via the same type of informal entryway, together with the roofed court enclosed by two parallel “streets,” along which spaces are organized. The pharmacy building is distinguished by a further reference: It is organized like a factory, with a “front shop”— represented by the staff offices—and a “back space,” represented by the laboratories at the rear of the building. This image is carried through to the building’s façade, which gives prominence to the internal court by using a roof suggestive of some large factory space.

The African Studies Building

This is one of the most intensely used buildings on the campus. Reminiscent of the core area architecture, its parti is basically two courts—one formal and the other informal. There is also a formal entrance to the east with large doors and another informal one to the south, presented as a break on the facade. It is instructive that the formal entrance with its large doors is not in use. Thus, again the architects connect the inside and the outside as if there was no real break, a device Sharon employed throughout the core area. The eastern wall has been turned into a canvas with an abstract painting on the upper floor. This is particularly striking, as it frames a view from the end of the long road on the northern boundary of the core area of the campus.

The Central Cafeteria (now the Faculty of Architecture)

This building is a one-floor pavilion structure with four pyramidal roof sections dividing the space. Three of these pyramids are open on all sides, with a lower concrete roof for the surrounding walkways around the building. While a formal entrance was defined, the entire building is open on all sides but one, the enclosed kitchen. The “pergolas” allow hot air to rise through their centers, making for better ventilation of the large open space beneath. The openness on all sides is reminiscent of the ways the buildings in the core area draw the landscape into the building without the usual walls for the building enclosure. The open floorplan within leaves the vast space under each pergola free, allowing for flexibility in the use of the space. This orthogonal circulation device, running north-south and east-west, is reminiscent of the planning in the core area.


Arieh Sharon’s postcolonial modernism has come to symbolize the Obafemi Awolowo University campus. Fondly described by students as “the most beautiful campus in Africa,” it is the Nigerian university campus to have received the most publicity where campus design is concerned. Sharon’s designs, in the tradition of Bauhaus modernism, combines architecture with the arts and craft and, in addition, creates affinities with the Yoruba culture through a system of conceptual and instrumental organizational forms, including adorning building walls with Yoruba-inspired art works and design motifs. These ideas have become Sharon’s legacy, one that continues to reverberate through the entire university campus.7

  • 1 For a review of the University of Ibadan Campus Design, see: Lain Jackson and Jessica Holland: The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Twentieth Century Architecture, Pioneer Modernism and the Tropics, Ashgate, Burlington VT, 2014.
  • 2 For a review of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew in West Africa and their colonial modernism, see: Ibid., pp. 147–214.
  • 3 In his autobiography, Arieh Sharon describes his engagement with the Western Region government and his selection as the architect for the project. Arieh Sharon: Kibutz + Bauhaus: An architect’s way in a new land, Kramer Verlag, Tel Aviv 1976.
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 For a review of the Congress Internationalѐ d’Architecture Modern (CIAM), see: Joan Oakmen (ed.): “Reaffirmation of the aims of CIAMS,” in: Architecture Culture 1943-1968, Rizzoli, New York 1993.
  • 6 Pattabi Raman identifies four shared exemplars of university planning: precinct, nodes, linear, and network. It is thus possible to trace any design to any one of these exemplars, or a combination thereof. The core area of the university in Ile-Ife obviously has a portion that is based on the precinct, but as one moves away from the center of the campus, this exemplar is combined with nodal points. Pattabi G. Raman: “The Sociology of knowledge and the Design of the Environment,” Architectural Design, Nov-Dec 1977.
  • 7 For a description of the details of the central area and the general planning see: “University of Ife Master Plan,” Egboramy Co. & Arieh Sharon, Eldar Sharon, 1981.
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Philip Johnson described Hannes Meyer as a “communistic functionalist” whose most notable achievement was to have preceded Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as director of the Bauhaus. The position he assigned to Meyer was reinforced in the Bauhaus Exhibition of 1938 at MoMA. The particular view of the Bauhaus presented at MoMA in 1938 corresponds to the place of Meyer in the historiography of modern architecture in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The view that Meyer’s work allegedly lacked aesthetic interest, rendering it irrelevant to an Anglophone audience. → more

Selman Selmanagić at the Crossroads of Different Cultures — From Childhood Years in Bosnia to Bauhaus Education and Travels

Selman Selmanagić’s childhood years in Bosnia, on the eve of the First World War, as well as his education in Sarajevo, Ljubljana and at Bauhaus Dessau between the two world wars, together with his work in Palestine and Berlin, shaped his worldview and experience with different cultures and traditions. Throughout his career, he perpetually strove to find contemporary answers for the challenges of the time he was living in. → more

The “Hungarian Bauhaus” — Sándor Bortnyik’s Bauhaus-Inspired Budapest School Műhely 1928–1938

One of the many Hungarians associated with the Bauhaus, painter and graphic designer Sándor Bortnyik (1893-1976) opened his art and design school, Műhely, in Budapest in 1928 to bring the Bauhaus’s sprit and some of its teaching methods into Hungary. Even if Bortnyik’s school did not have the scope of the Bauhaus, it was an efficient experiment in an independent form of institutionalized education in the field of modern graphic design and typography. → more

Biology and Educational Models in the Pacific Southern Cone

The Chilean encounter with second-order cybernetics in the early 1970s was an essential part of the modernization project the state had been promoting since the 1920s, a project which also encompasses the 1945 reform of the architecture school. But if one reviews the history of this project with greater care, one can identify the reform of the new art school of 1928, which was the product of a social movement that began after the First World War, and that was able to implement in the main school of art of the country, a “first year of trial” similar to the methodology of the Bauhaus preliminary course, influenced by the trends of the “Active” or “New” school of the time. → more

For the Faculty of Architecture at METU — Bauhaus was a Promise

“ARCH 101 Basic Design” is the title of the introductory course offered to the first-year students in the METU Faculty of Architecture (Middle East Technical University, Ankara). Since the establishment of the school, this course has been conducted with a very strong Bauhaus impact. → more

From Social Democratic Experiment to Postwar Avant-Gardism — Asger Jorn and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus

The project bauhaus imaginista would be negligent if it did not address the artist group referenced by its title, the Mouvement Internationale pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste (International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, or IMIB), founded in 1953 by Danish artist Asger Jorn together with a handful of French and Italian colleagues. Many of the theoretical and artistic positions advocated by the IMIB were developed dialectically in response both to the historical Bauhaus and the reconstitution of a Bauhaus-inspired pedagogical program at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm. → more

Letter from Asger Jorn to Max Bill — February 12, 1954

Asger Jorn read of Max Bill’s plans for the new Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm (HfG), a school modeled after the Bauhaus, in the British Architects’ Yearbook 1953, where Bill had placed a promotional article to attract prospective students and teachers. Excited by the possibility of participating in a new democratic pedagogical experiment and in pursuing his interest in fusing art and architecture, he wrote to Bill, inquiring about the role of art at Ulm and expressing his desire to secure a teaching position.

This is a translation of one of the letters Jorn send to Bill. → more

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