Karl Sharro







Lagos / Koolhaas
Bregtje van der Haak


Lagos/Koolhaas follows the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas over a period of two years as he moves around Nigeria's capital Lagos, talking to people and familiarising himself with the city in his attempt to understand the nature of rapid urbanisation that is taking place in one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Koolhaas's fascination with Lagos stems from the apparently unplanned nature of this growth, and the ability of the city to cope with the influx of people without visible mechanisms to deal with the outcomes of growth.

Koolhaas has always been an intriguing figure, who stands out among architects today. Presenting himself as a public intellectual involved in questions of politics and culture and a prolific author with a poetic turn of phrase, Koolhaas is as close to a Renaissance man as you can get in our times. After watching Lagos/Koolhaas however, it becomes clear to what extent Koolhaas has de-renaissanced (to coin a verb) our understanding of the role of the architect in society. Instead of the visionary pathfinder engaged in the shaping of the physical and social worlds, Koolhaas portrays the architect as someone breathlessly pursuing a reality that is moving too fast for his grasp, held transfixed and helpless in contemplating the world as a purely visual phenomenon.

Despite that self-proclaimed inability to control or shape the world, Koolhaas retains the power to make places and cultures relevant and worthy of our gaze. One of the outcomes of Koolhaas's interest in a city like Lagos is that it offers the chance to see Africa not like Bob Geldof and Bono want us to see it, as a site of helplessness and an object of charity, but as a locus of dynamism and aspiration. The downside of this is that a place like Lagos becomes interesting and worthy of our own consideration only when someone like Koolhaas shows interest in it. In a sense, it takes someone like Koolhaas to make Lagos relevant, a sad reflection on our times.

Throughout the film, Koolhaas emphasises the 'learning' aspect of the project he has undertaken in Lagos, stressing its research nature. This is a distinctive stance for an architect to take; usually architects and urban designers approach research as preparation for later intervention, but Koolhaas seems in that respect to want to turn the field of urbanism into pure science. Over the years, he has become very skilful in deploying statistical tools to lend his 'research' an empirical air. Inherent in that process however is his assertion that analytical tools are useless. They will not enable us to understand reality or control it. Some of his graphs and charts are completely meaningless, only there to remind us that it is a folly to imagine that we can gain insights into the working of the world.

In the context of Lagos, this attitude eventually let's us into why Koolhaas is there in the first place: he's not trying to understand, rather he wishes to celebrate a city that lacks a maker, a city that operates like an organism and can continue to grow exponentially without Western illusions of control. In that sense, Koolhaas is repeating a familiar theme: the notion of planning is an illusion, and Lagos is a case in a point. Of course what Koolhaas is in reality articulating is the contemporary failure of imagination and ideas that dominates among architects and urbanists. Instead of declaring this intellectual bankruptcy, the profession masks its failure by decrying the arrogance of 'control.'

The film itself is quite interesting in many respects: at points I kept wondering why the director did not title it simply 'Lagos,' get rid of Koolhaas and make a film about a city buzzing with energy despite the many obstacles it seems to be facing. The city defies every single stereotype you would expect about an African city, or what Western charities would want you to believe. What becomes obvious from the start is that the city is driven by the aspirations of millions of people who want a better life for themselves and their families, and not a life of mere subsistence.

There's Bishop David Oyedepo, a kind of Nigerian Deng Xiaoping, who encourages his followers to 'move themselves to a better world,' proclaiming that 'life itself is a business.' His assistants are busy carrying sacks of money out of the large church he just held a sermon in, while he drives away in a new Mercedes. Apparently, in his version, the meek shall not inherit the Earth; they are busy acquiring it here and now. There's the Alaba market which seems to be where every piece of electronics from around the world ends up and finds a new lease of life. Then there are the fake designer items, the Prada shoes and Gucci bags, which seem to be in high demand. All of these are indicators of a society that is markedly different from what we have been trained to expect about Africa.

Yet, Koolhaas misses the point entirely about these phenomena, and sees them as proof that we do not need structures in place to organize cities, cities are perfectly capable of self-organisation. He highlights how the Alaba market is a self-regulating market with its own police and measures to combat 'faking' and rogue traders. In effect, Lagos' ability to self-organise, as if it were some mythical animal, is the result of people trying to get by in the absence of formal structures. Koolhaas over-emphasises self-organising mechanisms because that fits with his perception of the world as being beyond our control. Surely, it would be better for the market to benefit from proper policing, and it would be better for Nigerians to get new electronics and not have to recycle what the West discards.

Halfway through the film, Koolhaas takes an unfamiliar turn and makes a kind of concession to formal structures. He admits that his experience in Lagos has made him shift somewhat his position towards planning. By now he's familiar with the recent history of Lagos. The city experienced a sharp growth in the 1960s and 70s with large-scale infrastructure projects being carried out, helping to modernise the city and accommodate its growth. The sharp decrease in oil prices in the early 1980s hit hard however, and the development of infrastructure stopped overnight. But the city kept on growing, regardless.

What Koolhaas is able to ascertain by now is that infrastructure has enabled the city to keep on growing, and that the unfinished modern city provides a framework for the city to expand. Having insisted on the futility of the promises of Modernism for so long, Koolhaas is completely taken by surprise that it did actually have an impact on cities like Lagos, even in its incomplete form. What is evident is that in his enthusiasm to declare Modernism inconsequential, Koolhaas has allowed himself, and a generation of admirers, to believe his own cynical assessment of its aspirations.

Despite this flash of insight, Koolhaas still hesitates to offer any vision of how Lagos can deal with its problems, how it can build on this existing structure, 'the original model' as he calls it, and get back on track, so to speak. When quizzed about that by Funmi Iyanda, the presenter of a popular TV breakfast show The New Dawn, Koolhaas squirms his way out of giving any meaningful response. This is an astounding level of restraint from an architect, and is indicative of the profession's state of helplessness. After four years of 'research' in Lagos, Koolhaas, arguably one of the key voices in the architectural zeitgeist, still has nothing to offer. To do so would interfere with the mystification he is trying to bring back to our understanding of the city: it is beyond our grasp and, more importantly, beyond our control.

With anthropological bluntness, Koolhaas allows himself to ask Lagosians why do you keep going? Unaware perhaps of the implications of this question, Koolhaas is questioning the very existence of the people of Lagos. Their will to continue living under what seems to his gaze extremely adverse conditions justifies to his mind putting that existence under question, his professional curiosity justifies contemplating the very meaning of that existence.

At times, Koolhaas's attitude is downright patronising. Walking around the city, he comes across a women's hat shop owned by a local designer. Koolhaas is giddy with excitement at the sight of the fancy embroidered hats. He smugly comments to the camera, this is 'evidence of creativity and improvement'. In fact, Koolhaas is constantly surprised whenever he comes across any signs of bourgeois aspirations. (You would think that after four years in Lagos, his sense of surprise would have been dulled a little bit.)

To understand these impulses, it's worth looking at Koolhaas's description of AMO, the research arm of his practice OMA. The purpose of this 'think tank' is to 'apply architectural thinking in its pure form to questions of organisation, culture and programů' You may wonder what that 'pure form' is, as I myself often did. After watching Koolhaas in action in Lagos, I can't help but think it means contemplating the world as a purely visual phenomenon, a stance that offers the possibility of extricating oneself from the implications of being involved in that world.

Karl Sharro 2006

First published at Culture Wars: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2006-01/koolhaas.htm