Today, around 30% of people living in cities across the world are housed in informal settlements – self-built cities made out of breeze-blocks, crude brick, straw, mud, recycled plastic, and scrap wood. The overwhelming majority of these shanty cities are in the Global South and, although they are declining in number, there’s still some cities where more people self-build their houses than live in ones designed for them. In direct opposition to the general tendency of municipal authorities to demolish informal settlements, Nigerian-born Brooklyn-based artist Olalekan Jeyifous has created fantastical, futuristic images of shanty-structures evolving into high-rise buildings in Lagos in his Shanty Mega-structures series, which were first shown in the 2015 Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. Originating in Makoko – a vast informal settlement in Lagos that includes many makeshift homes built on stilts in a lagoon – Jeyifous’s future vision sees improvised towers built over existing shanties, melding a formal programme (a timber or metal space-frame) with informal practices already in place. As the images show, the space-frame would be infilled over time with a panoply of salvaged materials, the individual towers linked by makeshift bridges and walkways. In a nod to recent developments in the barrios of Medellin in Colombia, Jeyifous’s images also include cable cars linking the high-rises via a web of steel ropeways, enabling the urban poor to travel freely across the megacity.
Although Jeyifous’s colourful and vibrant images of the imagined evolution of urban ‘slums’ might be criticised as romanticised depictions of poverty, they nevertheless offer a powerful challenge to the conventional view that informal settlements are inferior to planned developments. Jeyifous also challenges the ways in which architects might engage more positively with these settlements: for example, in calling his imagined space-frames ‘megastructures’, he deliberately challenges modernist understandings of the word as denoting a form of top-down planning in which architects would impose gigantic space-frame structures to reorganise urban life along more rational lines. Turning the idea of the megastructure on its head, Jeyifous reimagines it as a tool for participation in urban design – the bare structural bones provided by the architect, the ‘filling-in’ of the body of the building done by citizens themselves according to their own needs and desires. These images are also powerfully political. They elevate the urban poor to the place of the planner, showing what might happen if power were placed in their hands. Jeyifous has agued that the Shanty Mega-structures were developed in response to plans to demolish parts of Makoko to make way for new development; and also the displacement of marginalised communities in American cities like Chicago in favour of luxury high-rise housing. In some of the images from the series, the informal towers spread to more affluent areas of Lagos, scaled-up so that they dominate the city’s skyline – a direct challenge to the current power of the luxury high-rise in almost every city across the world. This kind of engagement with the current socio-economic realities and specific geographic locales of a megacity like Lagos imbues the obvious seductive aesthetics of these images with political bite. They ask for a reevaluation of the urban poor and their relationship to the rest of the city.
The series also taps into a distinctly African-centred futurism, the long tradition of which has recently entered the mainstream with the Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther (2018) and the Binti trilogy of novellas by Nnedi Okorafor (2015-18), the latter cited by Jeyifous as another inspiration for his images. The word ‘Afrofuturism’ was first coined by writer Mark Dery in 1993 and, according to curator and critic Ekow Eshun, has particular relevance when it comes to questions of architecture and urbanism; in many African cities, the colonial era was characterised by the rigid spatial segregation of black communities in substandard housing. In common with many other Afrofuturist visions, Black Panther imagines an African state that has never been colonised and which has become the sole global superpower, its capital Wakanda a paradise of soaring skyscrapers and high-tech wonders intermingled with the vernacular forms of rural African architecture. These cylindrical, thatched-roofed high-rises bear a startling resemblance to Jeyifous’s Shanty Mega-structures, articulating a vision of a bucolic and prosperous African city where the self-built structures of the poor are not consigned to oblivion, but rather integrated into the very fabric of the future city.
This celebration of indigenous forms of architecture does not romanticise poverty; rather it proposes that the utopian city must embrace rather than reject the city as it is, seeking to include all its diverse elements in its future evolution. In a more recent version of the project shown at the Africa is Not a Refugee Camp exhibition in Munich in the Summer of 2018, Jeyifous collaborated with artist Wale Lawai on the animations and texts that comprise Mad Horse City. Here, interior views of the Shanty Mega-structures are animated by stories of everyday life as imagined in Lagos in 2115 – texts that highlight the extreme disparities within African cities rather than Western views from outside. Even though these visions are far from the utopian urban future imagined in Black Panther, they share with it a desire to put the development of African cities like Lagos into the hands of those who already live in them, rather than international elites. Only then will the libertarian politics imagined in Black Panther bring forth truly African cities of the future, where any form of colonial occupation is vigorously rejected.