Many a Lagos summer has begun with the crack and shatter of a thunderstorm. But one heavy downpour in June of this year left a particularly destructive trail in its wake. The storm left behind the ruins of Whanyinna Primary, an innovative floating school that had brought the world’s attention to the Makoko settlement of Lagos lagoon. This collapse is unfortunately just the latest indignity suffered by the riverine community over the last decade.

Makoko is a labyrinth of stilts and canoes, with an estimated 85,000 people calling it, and the waterway it sits upon, home. Brimming with fisheries and smokehouses, depending on who you talk to, Makoko was born out of either the legendary love of a Yoruba carpenter and a Egun fisherwoman, or out of the rather less romantic relationship between a booming sawmill and an adjacent fishery in the 1700s. Either way, Makoko today is a well-established and dynamic settlement, a major landmark of the Lagos metropolis that cannot be missed from the city’s colossal Third Mainland Bridge.

A litany of problems

But all is not well in Makoko. Despite its vibrancy, there is no escaping the fact that Makoko is a slum that suffers from high levels of urban and industrial waste, as well as a chronic lack of decent quality housing or accessible communal space. In this way, despite its distinctive qualities, Makoko is much like many of the numerous other slums found throughout Lagos. Slums have arisen in the city over the last several decades as its population has grown at a faster rate than its infrastructure. Taking off in the 1970s following the end of the civil war and the arrival of abundant oil wealth, in addition to the development of telecommunications and the prevalence of rural poverty, the population of the city has grown from 1.1M in 1963 to 12M today. However, whilst the rate of population increase has certainly played a central role in the arrival of slums in Lagos, inadequate municipal planning and an insufficient institutional capacity, coupled with a lack of political will and the prevalence of corruption, are also to blame. Lagos is now frightfully short of facilities for both water and sewage treatment, as well as waste disposal, and in 2012 Nigeria was reportedly facing a 17 million unit deficit in its housing supply. With the city possessing between 100-200 distinct slum settlements, it is estimated that 60-70% of Lagosians live in slums.

Now, it is not that Lagos state authorities have no plan for addressing the prevalence of slums. There have been ongoing and sustained efforts to install and upgrade an extensive network of roads, water pipes, and power cables throughout Lagos. However, there is much more to infrastructure than the technical. Communities also require access to decent housing, as well as health and education services. Nominally, the policy of the Nigerian state is an ‘adaptive’ approach: the in situ development of these ‘soft’ infrastructure facilities rather than merely clearing the slums. And yet between 2000 and 2011, across the country the state has forcibly evicted over two million people from their homes. This has certainly been felt in Makoko. Amnesty International has tracked the development of slum clearance in this settlement, highlighting the destruction of houses, churches, and medical clinics in April 2005, and the extensive use of violence by law enforcement officers in 2011. These evictions, it is reported, have been neither preceded by sufficient notice, nor been followed by the provision of compensation or alternative appropriate accommodation. The situation escalated in 2012 when Lagos state officials deemed the settlement ‘illegal’. This classification was formally justified on grounds of both sanitation and the violation of environmental legislation, though many have instead suggested that it was both the embarrassment of state officials and the lucrative value of the waterfront real estate that lay behind the decision. Either way, 3,000 people have since been evicted from their homes. With increasing numbers of Makoko residents thrown out into ever more precarious positions, what is being left behind instead is that technical infrastructure, ready to be utilised for potential future commercial development.

It needn’t be this way

The development of African slums does not have to happen in this way. It is possible to establish facilities and services, in a sustainable manner, that are of immediate benefit to the day to day lives of a slum’s current residents. It is here that we return to the floating school.

For many years there existed only one English speaking primary school for the whole of Makoko, one built on reclaimed land that was often prone to flooding. Directly addressing this deficit in soft infrastructure came Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi and his firm NLÉ. NLÉ is based both in Lagos and in Amsterdam, a city with a rich architectural pedigree in water-based living. NLÉ’s approach is to consider waterways not as a ‘backyard where water is dumped’, but instead as an ‘asset’. Thus was born the new site and structure of Whanyinna Primary. A 10m high triangular A-frame sitting upon a 10x10m base, this facility floats upon Lagos lagoon on a bed of 256 plastic barrels. The ground level serves as a recreational space, with a second-tier divisible into four classrooms that serve 60 students, complete with adjustable wall slats for ventilation. At the very top lies an additional open-air space for classes or group workshops, all under a solar-celled covered roof. Constructed with facilities for rainwater catchment and composting toilets, the frame itself is easy to assemble and inexpensive, composed of wooden offcuts from a nearby sawmill, as well as with a locally grown bamboo found in abundance in Nigeria (much like the recycled plastic barrels).

The school was constructed in 2013 by 8 Makoko-based builders, who were taught the means of assembly in order to foster their own additional projects. When out of hours, the school can accommodate one hundred adults as a space for community meetings, clinics, or educational programs. This school is very much designed to serve those living in Makoko today and in doing so the school has attracted much acclaim, particularly for its embrace of water-based living. In celebrating the aquatic character of Makoko life, the school was a powerful statement that the development of Makoko need not fight against the culture of its residents, that this unique way of life need not be hidden away in exchange for a positive future. With climate change likely to impact urban life in a number of unpredictable ways, the floating school provocatively questioned an orthodoxy that seeks to endlessly control the flow of seas and rivers. As stated by Adeyemi, perhaps it is time to recognise the “opportunity for living with water as opposed to fighting it”.

With the arrival of its very own ‘pin’ on Google Maps, the floating school has put Makoko and its residents very much under the eyes of the international community. The model was shortlisted for both the London Design Museum’s 2014 Design of the Year award, as well as the 2015 International Award for Public Art.

A sour turn

However, following the collapse of the school, some residents are now doubting its virtues; It has been reported that both the headmaster of Whanyinna and some of the parents have now stated that they would rather that the school had never been built at all. Instead, some residents would have preferred a more stable school, accommodating 200 students on the land. As part of a sustainable community-led approach to slum development, these concerns must be heard loudly and clearly. However, it must also be recognised that through its innovative design, one that perhaps sacrifices pure functionality for a degree of aesthetic charm, the people of Makoko and their way of life are now being recognised and discussed internationally as a rich component of the urban fabric of Lagos. Who knows what the course of slum clearance within this settlement would have been without the arrival of the school that brought the eyes of the world?

With the new model, MFSII, having recently won the Venice Biennale’s Silver Lion award, it is likely that a similar school will once again return to serve Makoko. It is hoped that in creating this new model, the present concerns and demands of Makoko residents have been both considered and acted upon. And yet, whilst the floating school may not necessarily be everyone’s perfect vision of what we can do together to make slums a safer, happier, and more prosperous place to live, through its innovative design, the sustainability of its form, and the manner in which its function is of immediate benefit to its intended users, the school remains nonetheless a shining testament to what can be achieved when we break away from the often-harmful trajectory of slum development.


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