Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A Nigerian-American architect imagines one of the densest, fastest-growing cities in the world.
The artist Olalekan Jeyifous is fascinated by cities and the changing role they play in art, politics, pop-culture, and the collective imagination of society. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, but was born in Nigeria. And moving to the U.S. at six years of age really shaped his identity, and continues to inform his art.
“My formative years were marked by constantly moving and perpetually adapting to new places,” says Jeyifous, who is an architect by training. “My work often responds to either the anxiety or potential of these spaces, and how one navigates, maps, and perceives them.”
Even though Jeyifous left his country of birth 30 years ago and hasn’t been back since, its biggest city—Lagos—has never really left him. Lagos, one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the world, is “fertile ground,” Jeyifous says, for artists, architects, and urbanists to develop ideas and concepts pertaining to the future of cities. And yet, it’s largely overlooked by city lovers.
His new photo series aims to remedy that. In it, he depicts Lagos with a skyline of ramshackle high rises, mushrooming from its shantytowns and swirling up toward the sky. The megastructures in these images are Bruce Goff-esque mishmashes of architectural typologies: they look as if they were built by stacking Washington D.C.’s iconic Watergate Complex and Mumbai’s mossy Art Deco buildings, wedding cake-like, on top of each other. Each high-rise seems to be buzzing with plant, human, animal, and mechanical parts, giving it the air of something alive. Each is the dominant organism in a lush and interconnected urban ecosystem, not unlike the skyscrapers envisioned by futuristic artist Renzo Picasso’s sketches.
Jeyifous created his “shanty-megastructures” using 3D computer models based on the materials and construction techniques of actual settlements in Lagos, and then fused them with photographs. He was very inspired by dystopian metropolises in Binti, a short story by the Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, and The City & the City by the fantasy writer China Mieville. This project, which he initially created for an architecture competition, is primarily conceptual: it “provides an alternative vision of the future on a continent and in a country that isn’t depicted as much as it should be,” Jeyifous says. Going forward, Jeyifous plans to use this imaginary world as a setting for an interactive gaming and virtual reality experience.
But there’s another point to these images that is grounded in real life. Through them, Jeyifous hopes to highlight urban disparities. Be it Lagos, Mumbai, Brooklyn, or Chicago, the poor often live marginalized and informal spaces, and are almost never portrayed as the central characters in the story of their city’s growth. In Jeyifous’s series, they are the stars. “A primary takeaway is that development should include the disenfranchised and not just the rich or middle class,” Jeyifous says.
He also wanted to pay homage to the ingenuous aesthetic and functional aspects of slums, which are far too easily swept aside, both figuratively and literally. “The project examines the ways in which the nature of impoverished spaces, which are not only highly self-organized but also deploy sustainability practices as a matter of necessity, can be applied to cities undergoing massive population growth,” Jeyifous says.
The design of informal settlements around the world—Rio’s favelas, Mumbai’s Dharavi slums, and the stilt-top dwellings on the Makoko river in Lagos—is often quite innovative. It uniquely serves residents’ needs. In other words, slums hold important lessons for urbanists, and ignoring them would be turning away from the future.