Universally, architecture is dependent on culture, which, in simple terms, embodies the way of life of a people. Even though factors such as climate, materials and methods directly influence building practices, they submit to the common denominator of culture. The traditional Yoruba man was a polygamist, counting his wives and children when numbering his properties – and his lifestyle fed into his building. Yoruba architecture is a family panegyric – it shouts the glory or misfortune of a family in clear structural language. Traditional Yoruba settlements were vast cities (as evidenced in Oyo, Ife and their sprawling counterparts) whose land-use patterns were confined to residences, markets, palaces, shrines and farmlands.
The Yoruba house as the physical manifestation of unity
In mainstream African cultures, the man is both arrowhead and anchor of the family. From this perspective, it is only sensible that the blessing and responsibility of owning a house is bestowed on him. In the past, whenever a Yoruba man decided to build a house, he began by informing his friends, who gathered their wives and children at the building site on a fixed date. Construction was hardly a vocation until much later. While the actual construction work fell to the men, the women and children were in charge of the catering and house finishing.
The Yoruba home could take one of two forms: The traditional compound, built around one or more courtyards, or the rooming house, famously called ‘face-me-I-face-you’. The rooming house became popular in the 1930s, but the courtyard design is the root architecture of the Yoruba people, inspired by a culture of honouring family.
To accommodate an extended family, the house would be a rectangular, open-plan compound, with one entrance gate and rooms opening onto one or more courtyards. Between the rooms and courtyards, there would be porticos of lean-to roofs with timber columns for support. A segment of the compound would belong to a lineage or, in the case of traditional rulers and, perhaps, the wealthy, a wife and her children. This system allowed for much personal contact, which contributed to the unity of the community microcosm that is the family. The image of co-wives connecting and gossiping in a courtyard was, in fact, a cliché.
The more recent face-me-I-face-you is a non-compound design with rooms arranged in two rows opposite each other along a passage that leads to a shared corridor that served as space for domestic chores and relaxation. This building type, which could accommodate almost as much as the compound, was not necessarily for close relations as it was not uncommon to find two, usually more, different families (even cultures) occupying a housing unit. However, it is not exclusive to the Yoruba landscape.
The traditional Yoruba city is a model of social hierarchy. The king’s palace is at the centre, his chiefs are around him, and then come the people, in order of importance. The town radiates from the king’s palace to the outskirts, after which there are farmlands. The defining characteristics of palaces include multiple courtyards and ornamentation – usually columns of abstract sculpture. The principal market, which is the city’s equivalent of the courtyard, shares the city centre with the palace.
The ambition of Yoruba architecture
Before the emergence of expertise, architecture followed a process of trial and error. The way doors and windows vary in size – especially in and around preserved traditional groves like the Osun shrine in Osogbo – is proof that measurements were achieved by instinct rather than knowledge. The standardisation of Yoruba vernacular architecture started when European missionaries arrived, armed with the paraphernalia of change. It progressed when ex-slaves returned home from Brazil with a newfound style and reached a peak after Portland cement became popular.
In 1842, when Reverend Henry Townsend laid the foundation of the White House in Badagry, he rerouted a country’s architecture. The Badagry building was the first storeyed building in Nigeria and its construction marked the point at which Yoruba traditional architecture started aspiring to modernism. Later, 85 Odunfa Street, built by a Sierra Leonean in 1914, became the first three-storey building in Lagos. Christened Ebun House, it is in the theatrical Baroque style of 16th century Italy. Soon after, storeyed structures became the new measure of wealth. Bungalow owners began to deck their old houses and new buildings would not stop after the first floor. When the owner could not afford more than one floor, he decked his house and hoped to complete it later.
Ancient Yoruba houses still stand in the hinterlands. Some of these visibly falling structures have become relics, representing a family’s age-old history. Others have received a more modern makeover – mortar roughly applied over wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs replaced by corrugated iron sheets. It is the morn of the 21st century and history is crumbling under the weight of the future. The root architecture of the Yoruba people is fast disappearing. Ancient houses are being torn down and modern buildings grow in their place. Marketplaces are giving way to malls and palaces have been supplanted by ultra-modern government houses. The nouveau riche make their way to architects with images of Caribbean mansions taken off the Internet.
The world is a global village now and local culture is losing its influence on Nigerian architecture. There is a Small London and a Chinese Village in Lagos. The ancient courtyard buildings that spoke for the wealth of families in the not-so-distant past are now markers of poverty. Cultural identity has been stripped from the architecture of Yorubaland.