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.