Onafowokan Michael Olutusen’s vision of Tropical Modernism

Asuru Lutherking Petercan examines the legacy and design philosophies of Nigeria’s first architect

The drawings of Michael Olutusen Onafowokan are available on Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Olutusen Onafowokan, Elevation drawing, Ogba Estate Ikeja Niger Sanitary Industry Ltd, Nigeria, 1977. CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1960, post-independence Nigeria saw a significant change in its architectural environment. Chief Architect Michael Olutusen Onafowokan, Nigeria’s first architect, was central to this shift. Born on a calm Sunday in 1912, in the centre of Ikorodu, Onafowokan’s journey from the dusty streets of Lagos to his prominence as a beacon of inspiration for younger generations attests to his unwavering will and the resonance of his designs that captured a post-colonial identity.

Onafowokan attended the Public Works Department Technical School in Lagos from 1933 to 1937—a time of questioning of the dominant colonial conventions—and went on to work as a junior technical staff member in many Nigerian and Cameroonian regions before moving to Scotland in 1946 to pursue his studies at the Royal Technical College and the University of Glasgow.

Returning to Nigeria in 1953, Onafowokan started working as a town planning officer in the Old Western Region. His knowledge and experience made a lasting impression as he moved through the departments of the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Lands and Housing in Ibadan. After retiring as the Regional Chief Architect in 1968, he went into private practice under the name of Onafowokan Cityscape Group. Onafowokan Michael Olutusen’s willpower and fortitude remain visible in the many buildings he designed that still stand today such as the first skyscraper in West Africa, the Cocoa House in Ibadan, as well as churches and hospitals in Lagos.

Western architectural influences were introduced to Nigeria through the colonial buildings and infrastructure designed and constructed by architects and engineers who were part of the colonial administration. Onafowokan’s interest in architecture grew from studying these buildings, but also from his interest in the colonial rulers’ clothing patterns—with their precise fits and straight lines. Clothing became a doorway to a world of aesthetics that focused on practicality while being linked to technological know-how, administration, and government. This ostensibly unimportant facet of colonial life served as a strong impetus for Onafowokan’s lifetime dedication to the architectural field.

As a central figure in reshaping of the physical landscape of western Nigeria, Onafowokan’s dedication to developing a tropical modernism design philosophy was an integral contribution to the Nigerian built environment and post-colonial identity. After its independence from British colonization, governmental efforts were focused on developing a more independent society, which involved reconsidering the built landscape without colonial elements. In the early 1950’s, oil was discovered, and Nigeria now had the resources and economic stamina to develop as a nation in this new era. Onafowokan’s design philosophy continues to influence how people interact with their built environment. Particularly, his use of landscape features like the verandah—balconies that enhance relaxation of users while enabling them to relate more with the environment—were crucial in developing a post-colonial style and their impact lingers today. Notable examples of this philosophy are evident in the design of the Patriarch Bolaji Methodist Church, the General Hospital in Ikeja, and the many schools located throughout the western region. His legacy serves as a tribute to the blending of modern and traditional styles and the regional climate and culture.

Patriarch Bolaji Methodist Church

Michael Olutusen Onafowokan, Ground floor plan of the Patriarch Bolaji Methodist church at Ita-Elewa in Ikorodu, Lagos State, Nigeria, 1964. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Patriarch Bolaji Methodist Church at Ita-Elewa in Ikorodu blends modern architectural components with the unique environment and climate of western Nigeria while embodying a breathtaking fusion of imagination, passion, and familiarity with the local landscape and traditions.

Hailed by Onafowokan’s son, Arc. Ayokunle Onafowokan (FNIA) as a work of art that defied the accepted conventions of architecture at the time of its design, the ability to work with unusual forms, arrangements, and materials produced a structure that came to represent Onafowokan’s inventive nature.

The church has two arms that radiate from the centre building and resemble a butterfly’s wings, operating as expanded areas for different church events, providing cover and shade, and fostering a sense of camaraderie within the membership. But the building’s most remarkable geometric characteristic is its three concentric circular floor design, a feature that has a rich spiritual and symbolic value in its cultural context while offering an interpretation of the Christian Holy Trinity.

Like many other parts of Nigeria, Ikorodu has a strong feeling of community and spirituality along with a rich cultural legacy. And while in Christianity the number three represents harmony and wholeness, it also has a strong cultural and spiritual significance in the Yoruba culture that is popular in Ikorodu. The three concentric circles are used in the church’s design as a visual representation of continuity and unity, and in a cultural setting where art and symbolism are closely related, these architectural manifestations can have a significant effect on the neighbourhood. The church is thus elevated from a place of worship to a cultural icon by fusing religious and cultural meaning and serves as an example of how local culture may be celebrated and preserved in the setting of modern architecture.

Onafowokan’s meticulous attention to detail was a defining aspect of his architectural approach, evident in every facet of his work, from structural elements to intricate furniture design. At the same time, his sons late Dr Ajose Oluwasesan Onafowokan and Arc. Onafowokan Ayokunle (FNIA) worked for him, and this precision was carried through keen supervision of staff during the documentation process. In the Patriarch Bolaji Methodist Church, this attention to detail extended to the design of the pews, pulpit, and clergy chairs. And because of Onafowokan’s dedication to quality workmanship, every detail was performed with accuracy.

Onafowokan’s close attention to detail also extended to the interior design. The church’s architectural design skillfully integrated the movement of the crowd, the pulpit’s visibility, and the space’s visual hierarchy. He paid meticulous attention to the layout, ensuring optimal spatial arrangements for congregation visibility and engagement. The church’s interior was not just a space; it was a carefully orchestrated design, utilizing architectural elements that provided acoustic excellence and resulted in an immersive spiritual experience.

Onafowokan’s architectural philosophy, consistent with modernist ideas at the time, was not limited to the grandeur of the building but extended to every minutia within it—all elements conceived as integral parts of the architectural narrative.

The General Hospitals in Ikeja and Ikorodu

The legacy of tropical modernism is seen in most building designs from the 1980s until today. Despite changes in materiality, the design concepts of most architectural production still follow tropical modernism and with increased concerns about the impact of climate change, contemporary Nigerian architecture, now more than ever, is looking back to tropical modernist design philosophies. The General Hospitals in Ikeja and Ikorodu are excellent illustrations of how Onafowokan used contemporary architectural concepts to design aesthetically pleasing, practical, and climate-appropriate healthcare facilities that embrace local climatic and cultural considerations. The hospitals’ architecture adheres to the ideas of tropical modernism by including features like natural ventilation, shade, and the use of regional materials. These amenities not only improve the hospitals’ operational efficiency but also foster a comfortable and restorative atmosphere for both patients and medical staff.

Michael Olutusen Onafowokan, Isometric drawing of the Ikeja General Hospital Nigeria, 1972. CC BY-SA 4.0

Michael Olutusen Onafowokan, Isometric drawing of the Ikorodu General Hospital Nigeria, 1972. CC BY-SA 4.0

The design of the General Hospitals seamlessly integrates modern architectural elements with the region’s tropical climate and environment. This architectural approach prioritizes patient and staff comfort and well-being, while also promoting sustainability and functionality. In these designs, natural ventilation plays a pivotal role, using strategically positioned windows, louvres, and ventilation shafts to ensure fresh air circulation and reduce the dependence on mechanical ventilation systems. Shading and overhangs, such as extended eaves and shading devices, shield the hospital from the sun’s intense heat, creating shaded outdoor areas and minimizing the need for energy-intensive cooling systems. Courtyards and open spaces are thoughtfully incorporated into the layout, offering versatile areas for relaxation, recreation, and waiting, enhancing the overall comfort and aesthetics of the hospital.

Local materials are used to support sustainability and the regional economy while ensuring that the materials are well-suited to the local context. A connection to nature is established through the inclusion of gardens, green spaces, and views of the natural environment, creating a therapeutic atmosphere that benefits patient well-being and recovery. A highly functional layout, including well-organized departments, corridors, and patient rooms, ensures efficient navigation for patients and medical staff. The design complies with healthcare standards and regulations, addressing critical factors like infection control, accessibility, and the provision of specialized areas for medical equipment.


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