Where was not modernism?

Text by Ikem Stanley Okoye

We should not be surprised to learn that Africans across the continent were familiar with an architectural futurity well before colonization. The evidence is there. For instance, drawing from the diary of Antera Duke, a slave-trading chief from the port city Calabar now in Nigeria, historians have noted that already in 1758, “captains transported wood, iron, bricks, and other building supplies across the North Atlantic to construct houses for principal traders.”1 By 1785, one such trader named Egbo Young “had a two-story wooden house imported from Liverpool (‘Liverpool Hall’), a privilege allowed only to important men.”2 We could argue this was a kind of African modernism, although if so, only in that it responded to African tastes. However, as The Diary of Antera Duke shows, even this importation of architecture was not always out of desire for the overseas modern or its expression. Sometimes, with a project already underway, its commissioner would borrow the carpenter from a trading ship to deliver something the project’s patron had imagined—inserting a foreign element into an otherwise locally generated construction, already modern in its own world. While the day would come when such patrons had as much confidence in local builders as in those arriving by ship, accounts of African modernism continue to give short shrift to attempt to realize this modernism by Africans themselves, when they are mentioned at all. Put more bluntly, the history of modern architecture in Africa has been complicit in the deliberate erasure of futures conceived of by Africans.

Strange, then, to think that the architectural imagination of not-yet-colonized Africans like Egbo Young must inexplicably have come to a halt for subsequent writings on modern architecture in Nigeria (or in any African region but the exceptional) to imply that it was constructed on a tabula rasa. How this history-writing tendency emerged can be reconstructed: the unspoken assumption is that there could be no African agency amidst the hegemony of colonial subjecthood and Africans are thus rarely staged as agents of design, beyond a few elite, rarified consumers. In colonial histories—and through independence, into the early postcolonial period—the architecture identified as modern is therefore considered a product of European, and occasionally American, imagination. Only in postcolonial history writing is agency sometimes attributed to Africans, but, even then, typically only to nationalists who, paradoxically, deployed a modern European architecture to represent emancipation.


  1. Stephen D. Behrendt, A.J.H. Latham, and David Northrup, The Diary of Antera Duke, an Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 57.  

  2. Behrendt, Latham, and Northrup, The Diary of Antera Duke, 39. 

Michael Nguko, entrance gate to Nwandu House, Enugwu Ukwu, Nigeria, ca. 1938. Photograph by author, 2005.

Edward Duckworth, entrance porch to a farmer’s compound, Nnewi, Nigeria, 1938. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, no: 1998.194.34. Creative Commons © Federal Ministry of Information and Culture

Yet, even under British rule (from 1901 to 1960), Nigerians were conceiving of architectural futures. Take two gates both built in the late 1930s, twenty-five kilometres apart in southern Nigeria (images above): it is next to impossible to compare them without seeing the gate on the left as modern. This gate was constructed by an African builder, Michael Nguko, in the town of Enugwu Ukwu while modernism was also still a work-in-progress in Europe, North America, and Russia. And yet, because we often associate early-modern architecture with the light, minimalist aesthetic of the International Style, we might misread this African gate—an apparently massive stone structure—as hardly modern at all. Its modernity is nonetheless attested by a use of stone and concrete unique to this context: the former is cladding and the latter an assembly of thin, planar forms, which together deceive the eye into seeing the structure as solid, when in reality it is hollow. Furthermore, the emphatic limestone mortar joints produce a light, lacey effect, dematerializing the very weight of the rough-hewn stone. But this unprecedent use of stone as cladding is but a supplement to the radical layering of concrete plates—a technique Nguko applies even more clearly in a similar gate in Nimo (image below), five kilometres from Enugwu Ukwu, by highlighting the sleekness of the concrete with graceful, unidimensional curves. In contrast, the gate in Nnewi exemplifies traditional building techniques: a thatch-roofed adobe structure, carved wood doors, and wall motifs evoking the material fluidity of clay. We thus have, in Nguko’s designs, a tangible example of modern architecture conceived of by Africans in Nigeria in the 1920s (when buildings in this style first emerged in the area)—evidence that the history of African modernism commences well before, and thus contributes to, the postcolonial period.

Michael Nguko, entrance gate, Nimo, Nigeria, ca. 1938. Photograph by author, 2005.

The term “African modernism” is not intended to make of it a special case. Rather, such a modernism should be viewed just like those elsewhere: a hybrid that borrows and modifies aesthetics and techniques from outside, but that is nevertheless—or for this reason—unique to its specific context. Reconstructing the history of a particular early-modern Nigerian architecture could, by implication, allow for a better understanding of other African and even global modernisms. But the task is made challenging by the only very partial and constrained role archives can play in documenting, and therefore producing historical knowledge about, cultures rooted in orality.1 This research-in-progress relies on both archival and oral sources, and is structured around three sites (and select buildings therein), separated by vast expanses of territory, that serve as initial cases and clarify the viability of this particular history of African modernism. The first site, already introduced, is the neighbouring towns of Enugwu Ukwu and Nimo with Michael Nguko’s gates. The second site, 350 kilometres to the north-east, is the region around the town of Zaki Biam, where we can identify stylistic overlaps—likely created by southern builders migrating via colonial infrastructure—between the southern gates and structures built by Dutch Reform Church missionaries. The third site, nearly 700 kilometres north of the second, is the ancient city of Kano, where a hotel of a peculiarly hybrid style—masonry walls, similar to the gates’, with modern structural elements—was destroyed in 1967, during violence against southern migrants. Yet curiously, the façade of another building was then painted with a pattern resembling the hotel’s masonry.

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These three sites were connected by railway lines laid out in 1911 by the colonial government. The unprecedented ease of mobility afforded by new infrastructure—roads, railways, and dredged rivers—made migration and itineration for work possible, which deterritorialized previously autonomous ethnic regions. Builders from southern Nigeria began to seek work far from home, travelling across the country and to neighbouring colonial territories. Even under British rule, many builders continued to be trained through an informal apprenticeship system, independent from colonial trades institutions that did not produce enough labourers to meet their own demand. This research brings focus to a group of indigenously trained, itinerant southern builders who were part of a slow drift northward, often culminating in Kano, and who ultimately created the new architecture. The more successful ones would intermittently return south, which could lead to private commissions, while others would eventually return permanently to build careers near home after years “abroad.” The carpenters and masons among them produced work that was spatially and stylistically distinct in southern Nigeria, demonstrating new ideas of enclosure, form, materiality, and ornamentation. And yet, identifying the motivations, inspirations, and even politics of the builders behind early manifestations of an African modernism is difficult because they increasingly operated in the oral underbelly of a scriptorial colony inundated by the paper trails of bureaucracy. They appear rarely, and like waifs, in the colonial archive, so only through surviving buildings can we imagine their trajectories. We must piece together fragmentary evidence to understand what these builders encountered on the way to, and back from, Kano—from the early itineraries after 1911, through the first known instances of a new style in the late 1920s, to the 1967 destruction of the hotel that concluded the style’s decline.


  1. Orality does not refer to the pejorative idea of illiteracy (il-literacy), but rather to a choice made in many societies to preference orality over literacy, even given familiarity with writing. My method involves both archival and oral-historical research. For the latter, this means conducting interviews, but also recording and transcribing relevant performances. As a preliminary step, I attended an online event in tribute of a woman from Enugwu Ukwu, which included a section by her son—a town resident who graduated from the Architectural Association, London, in the 1980s. Gathered from interviews, the tribute also narrated the history of a building in Michael Nguko’s style in which the woman was raised. I conducted preliminary interviews in both Enugwu Ukwu and Nimo and have since conducted telephone interviews with immigrants from both towns now resident in North America.  

Christoph Becker, Honey Moon Hotel, Kano, Nigeria, 20 April 1967. Kano, eine afrikanische Grossstadt (Hamburg: Deutsches Institut für Afrika-Forschung, 1969), 151. Georg Lippsmeier Collection, CCA. BIB 245288. Gift of African Architecture Matters

The Honey Moon Hotel, located in Kano’s Sabon Gari (the city’s “stranger’s quarters”), displayed an urban style common in the late 1950s at the cusp of Nigerian independence. The walls of the ground floor, unlike typical late colonial or early postcolonial residences with regular brick or stone courses, were constructed of rubble, assembled in an emphatic netted pattern whose thick mortar joints dominate the façade. This technique, as we know from the gate at Enugwu Ukwu built three decades earlier, was a signature of southern builders. Yet the hotel, likely built as a private residence, demonstrates an aesthetically spare variation of the style: its stones were still rough-hewn, but unlike the irregular, fluid appearance of the earlier southern examples, its mortar joints produced the illusion of regular hexagonal blocks. The upper level, in contrast, was plastered white and featured a cantilevered balcony running the length of the façade, supported by a row of concrete brackets. Here in Kano, at this historical juncture between colonialism and independence, such architecture would have signaled a particular ethos to guests and passersby: an almost militant projection of modernism and, in this case, an expression of progressive ideas of nationality. In 1966, the year before the hotel’s destruction, the murder of several northern leaders during the Nigerian coup d’état spawned misplaced rumours of a southern conspiracy at national scale, which appear to have unsettled the northern Hausa population, who then in 1967 rioted against southern residents of Sabon Gari.1 It was during the riot that the Honey Moon Hotel was destroyed and its builders fled. The event marks the latest possible end of this modern African architecture in Nigeria, which had, in any case, already been slowly replaced in the 1950s by derivatives either of colonial architecture or of European modernism—the latter most used in proliferating commercial properties (such as cinemas) built by new immigrant groups, mainly from the Middle East. Nonetheless, the second building of interest in Kano—a traditional structure located in the city’s historic quarter and therefore not under threat of destruction—was painted in 1968 with a decorative motif mimicking the masonry pattern of the hotel’s ground floor, thereby seeming to perpetuate the modernity of the southern style after all.


  1. The ultimately failed coup d’état was led by a northern-born but ethnically Igbo officer, Major Nzeogwu.  

Marc Ross, building with decorative whitewash on mud, Kano, Nigeria, 1968. Bryn Mawr College, 76-01898 © Marc Ross

If the Honey Moon Hotel marks an end, then entrance gates like the specific ones in Enugwu Ukwu and Nimo reportedly mark the beginning of this African modernism. The towns in fact host a modest collection of extant buildings in the style of Michael Nguko’s gates, but there are no significant written texts by which to trace their local origin. After 1911, the increasingly mobile, young southern builders were exposed to unfamiliar architecture across Nigeria, which, once they arrived back home, informed new ideas for an increasingly affluent class of potential clients. Some builders worked at the second site of this research, in the “middle-belt” region around Zaki Biam, near a major railway junction 350 kilometres north-east of Enugwu Ukwu. Michael Nguko spent time both around Zaki Biam and Kano before returning south, and his work varied from objects, such as tombstones, to buildings and their gated enclosures.1 And while walled family compounds may have been common in precolonial southern Nigeria, Nguko’s enclosures were imbued with a new vision of pedestrian circulation and urban morphology.2 Aside from unfamiliar materials and decoration, as well as complex sculptural forms, one of his gates at Enugwu Ukwu is deep and incorporates an arched colonnade, offering passersby and merchants a space sheltered from sun and rain. We cannot assume Nguko saw this fragment of a covered walkway as a model for the whole town, but had it been replicated it would have produced a network of semi-public verandahs.


  1. Uncatalogued pamphlet with list of Nimo builders, Asele Institute, Nimo; Donald Nwandu, AA Dipl., interview by author, May 2017, Las Vegas. 

  2. Only recently have we become aware of the extent of Nguko’s “portfolio” and of how its concentration produces a certain density of his modern buildings in a relatively small region of southern Nigeria. 

Michael Nguko, wall of the Nkwonta Compound, Enugwu Ukwu, Nigeria, ca. 1939. Photograph by author, 2018.

Since compound walls in Enugwu Ukwu were typically blank and barely addressed the street, Nguko’s enigmatic idea of attaching a colonnade must have come from a source encountered on his way to and from Kano. Though not specific to the colonnade, one clue as to his references, vague and unexpected as it may be, is found in the decorative elements of the gate: the broad, swirling lines recall the whitewashed plaster gables of South African Cape Dutch architecture. While any connection between Enugwu Ukwu and Afrikaner culture in the late 1920s is lost to memory, there was one in towns near Zaki Biam, where the Dutch Reform Church was building missions.1 Whether master mason or apprentice, southern builders like Nguko were foreign to this region and so would have occupied low positions in the labour structure supporting mission activity. They therefore do not figure in either the archives or the recorded memories of descendants of Afrikaner mission founders. This absence is affirmed by a photograph published in 1927 in the journal of the Sudan Interior Mission, of which the Cape Dutch Reform Church was part: a white man who leads the construction of a house on land ceded by a headman of Donga, a once-small village nearby Zaki Biam, stands alone; there is no sign of the labour he must have employed.2


  1. We have little knowledge of the history of a South African mission in Nigeria, let alone that it went so far beyond its already ambitious activities in non-converted Black communities in Namibia and Zimbabwe. But this border-crossing history often omits that Dutch Reformed Church missions were set up in West Africa. 

  2. Black labourers peeking out from darkened interiors, to observe the spectacle being photographed, is a cliché of the rare records of early colonial building sites, but such Black bodies are certainly absent in this photograph. 

Donga Mission Bungalow, The Light Bearer (June 1912). Dutch Reformed Church Records, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Dutch Reform Church records of the Tiv mission around Zaki Biam do however offer indirect evidence of unspecified labour at locations like the Donga Mission. Take for instance the April 1922 accounts book of Zaki Biam station: two line items note a total payment of 4 shillings and 3 pence to five station workers and another of 2 shillings to twenty-five porters for moving a safe. Other kinds of labour are noted, including garden and road maintenance workers, and a builder who is paid 3 pence on 29 April, and 1 shilling and 2 pence on 6 May.1 Although “builder” may refer to the head of a team, that labour is clearly valued at a higher rate than the others noted. Despite this still-anonymous evidence of itinerant builders, the earliest confirmed construction in the region of a church in a slightly Cape Dutch style is not until 1940, making it difficult to explain the filiation of Cape Dutch decorative features—transformed but still recognizable—in Michael Nguko’s gate built a few years earlier.

What the Donga Mission photograph does show is a locally viable building technique of adobe blocks molded from wood formwork, sun dried, and laid horizontally. Nguko, however, likely learned to work with his primary materials—rough-hewn stone with limestone mortar—from laying stone beds for railway tracks. And yet, he seems to have absorbed the reference to Cape Dutch vernacular found in missions in Nigeria—albeit as stylistic influence rather than engaging with it as a structural one.


  1. Reports of building commissions, revenues, and expenditures, Dutch Reform Church, Salatu (Tiv region), April 1922, 13. KS1226, Archives of the Dutch Reformed Church, Stellenbosch, South Africa. 12 pennies to a shilling, and twenty shillings to a colonial- British West African Pound, which had a one-to-one exchange rate to the British Pound (Sterling). 

Michael Nguko, entrance gable of Nwandu House, Enugwu Ukwu, Nigeria, ca. 1938. Photograph by author, 2005.

Hendrik Lodewyk Bletterman, entrance gables of Bletterman House, Stellenbosch, ca. 1789. Photograph by author, 2016.

The proposed trajectory of influence is not immediately evident. Indeed, the account might even be misread as reactionary for suggesting that an African modernism owes its being to white missionaries from a racialized settler-colonial nation bringing modernity to a distant bush—the worst manifestation of colonialism. After all, the Cape Dutch vernacular was appropriated and revived as the architectural language for an ideology of racial superiority, establishing an uneasy correlation between the style’s pristine whiteness and order and Apartheid’s tenants of whiteness and separation. And yet, crucially, this story is hardly reactionary; the modern architecture conceived of by Africans in southern Nigeria subverts the (white) colonial order. It could have adopted a whitewashed palette—a common visual emphasis in architecture—but the builders chose instead to produce, in effect, the inverse: a literal (chromatic) black architecture, valorizing the dark colour of local stone. This inversion can be read as a register of political confrontation between British imperialism and Black nationalism—one much earlier in the twentieth century than typically acknowledged in architecture history. The patrons, clients, and builders of this style were likely active in Nigerian nationalist movements and so would have, in general, rejected the promises of colonialism, opting instead for other ways to be modern.1

As we learned at the outset of this analysis, pre-colonial African patrons already imagined an architecture different from the familiar. We know of at least one such eighteenth-century patron, Antera Duke, who approached foreign builders to add to a project already under construction by local builders. The day did actually come when such patrons had confidence in an African’s imagination of new architecture, in essence giving birth to a modern architecture that is of Africa. The possibility of this architecture has been overlooked—even refuted—by those who do not recognize new ideas as modern if the resulting architecture does not itself appear to be modern according to Western canons. Since this denial particularly affects cultures without local written (intellectual) histories, overturning it could enable scholars unfamiliar with such worlds to speak of African architecture not in terms of modernity, but rather in terms of modernism.


  1. See Ikem Okoye, “Architectural Desire, Advertisement, and the Making of Nigeria’s Visual Public,” in “Visual Publics,” ed. Peter Probst, special issue, Critical Interventions 2, no. 1–2 (2008): 80–101. There were many other such moments in 1920s and 1930s Nigeria, well before the postcolonial period, and a comparable history may well have unfolded elsewhere on the continent, even significantly further inland. 

Ikem Stanley Okoye wrote this text as part of his research for the Multidisciplinary Research Project Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture.

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