Standing Tall in a Male-Dominated Profession

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Architect Adejumoke Adenowo’s firm, AD Consultants recently set a record for African entries, winning three 5-star awards and regional award for Best Public Service Architecture at the recently held World’s Best Africa and Arabia 2013-2014 Property Awards in Dubai. The stunning and curvy-shaped Adenowo runs what is by several measures Nigeria’s fastest-growing architectural concern. Her rapidly increasing list of projects speaks for itself. You name it, she’s done it: institutional buildings, shopping malls, villas (about 30 so far, including a N350 million luxury apartment complex in Victoria Island, Lagos), residences, banks, hospitals, office complexes, churches (like the 2,500-capacity Guiding Light Assembly auditorium in Ikoyi, Lagos) and so on. So it comes as no surprise that the Obafemi Awolowo University alumni was recognized internationally in one of the most-sought-after awards in her profession.  In this interview with OMOLOLA ITAYEMI, Adenowo speaks about architecture in Nigeria and surviving in a male-driven profession
You were up against the likes of David Adjaye, an OBE awardee at the Property Awards in Dubai, but you walked off with higher ratings. How does it feel?
It validates what I always felt that Nigerians are well able to hold their own at the highest levels in any sphere of endeavour. A lot of us just need an equitable playing field. It also makes me realize the seriousness of the awards and the rigorous judging the entries were subjected to because Architect Adjaye has been awarded an OBE in Britain for his contribution to architecture.
With this award, it shows that Nigerian Architecture is being recognized internationally. What role do you think architecture can play in nation building?
Nigerian architecture has been recognised internationally in select circles well before now. However, without a doubt, not to the level of our potentials. I mentioned that some countries give national honours to architects, even knighthoods but we all know what obtains in Nigeria. Architects are interpreters of the spirit of the age. Every visionary leader has an architect who translates his vision to built form. Napoleon had his architects and city planners who built the Arc de Triomphe and planned Paris, Hitler had his Albert Speer who designed every set he spoke from. This is architecture deployed at the lofty level of vision, not to talk of the nitty gritty of developmental issues such as housing the masses sustainably and affordably. The architecture of a nation is its defining feature. The Sydney Opera House is the symbol of Sydney and by extension of Australia; the skyline of Manhattan defines the city; the Tower Eiffel is synonymous with Paris. Emerging nations who understand the power of architecture deliberately seek global share of mind with their buildings.
Have you handled any project outside Nigeria and how challenging has it been breaking into the international market?
We have handled interior projects in England. It boils down to the same issue – networking. However the workmanship is much better outside the country.
What is your view on the seeming influx of foreign practitioners into the country? Are they a threat or assets to the indigenous practitioners?
The world is a global village. Therefore ideally we should have partnerships between the Nigerians and the non-Nigerians and our firm has had opportunities for collaboration. So, I can say confidently that Nigerian architects can hold their own anywhere in the world. However, there is a vast difference between the way some clients treat the Nigerian architects and the way they treat non-Nigerians. While the clients typically pay the foreigner the fees he demands gladly, they don’t even want to pay the Nigerian on the basis of a 17-year-old inflation eroded fee scale and one thing leads to another. The foreigner who is paid will then devote enough of his time and resources to the project. The Nigerian must juggle up to 10 projects to earn as much as the foreigner cannot devote enough time to projects. However, we don’t take any project we can’t devote our attention to. One of our foreign collaborations who does a lot of work for a popular hotel chain saw our design for a hotel and gasped. I was worried so I asked if everything was okay. He said ‘this is so good. This is 150% better than any work I have seen from Nigeria’. They work with Nigerian developers on so many hotel projects; so this comment was very affirming.
How will you rate the patronage by governments at all levels in the award of contracts to foreigners over Nigerian architects?
It is embarrassing for example that the symbol of Lagos – The National Theatre was done by a foreigner and quite a few other iconic buildings in Nigeria. In essence, we are saying we don’t know who we are and we need foreigners to define who we are to us. Collaborations are good but we need to value and celebrate what is ours. The fashion for foreign imports should not go that far.
Which project(s) have you handled that excite you most?
The next one.
How many awards have you received so far and which of them excite you most?
For architecture, about fourteen, but most recently, African property awards.
What are the challenges that are confronting architectural practice in Nigeria today?
The same challenges confronting the whole nation confront architects. We are especially affected by the lack of respect for ideas. The society is still not sophisticated enough to understand that you should pay more for ideas (intellectual property) than for tangibles. This is the reason why people scramble and kill for extractive resources like oil and diamonds all over Africa while other nations like Singapore develop their human capital and outperform. We need to evolve to realize that ideas govern the tangible. When we celebrate men and women of intellectual capacity who add value by their ideas, the nation will finally start moving forward again.This is why we work only with discerning clients. We design for the discerning who understand that an artist is paid for her vision ad not her labour.
How are the old hands in the profession impacting on the younger ones? Are the younger ones benefitting from their experience or do they see the upcoming ones as a threat?
From 1991, I was blessed to work with one of the best bosses I could have had, Chief Femi Majekodunmi of FMA Architects. He was such an encouragement; he allowed me to express myself and challenged me and I love challenges. He was then President of the International Union of Architects and with his vast exposure to the world’s best, he told me I was the best designer he knew. Now that was humbling and extremely profound for me so I strived even more. It was unheard of allowing the youngest member of a firm touch a major design but he gave me the opportunity to design the Federal Ministry of Finance, Abuja. Now, the mind blowing part is that he acknowledges the fact till today. I have been blessed by a good mentor. I therefore owe it to God to mentor others. So in our firm, young people work on projects they would not dream of elsewhere. If every “older hand” was like my own boss, the industry would progress. We must remember that no one owns the ages; we only trend in our seasons. If the preceding generation will be remembered in the future, it’s only through their relevance to the next generation. We must be generational in our thinking, even at the level of governance.
There is this rivalry among professionals in the construction industry as per whose role is more important. Do you see any basis for comparison?
The Architect has always been the leader of the design team; however everyone’s role is equally important. All the body is n   ot made up of a head; the body has many parts working in synergy. The hidden parts are even more vital to survival – we should take a cue from this and work as a team.
Architecture seems like a male- dominated profession. What would be your advice to the younger/prospective female professionals that are into Architecture?
I hear it is a male dominated field; my parents forgot to warn me. My advice to females is the same as the advice to males and every young professional. Make sure architecture is what you really want to do. Our Firm is always full of young people interning with us – I call it “AD College”. However, I tell the younger people ‘there are easier ways to make money if money is your aim’. An architect is a noble artist, creating art to live in. The execution of your edifice should be in itself a huge part of your reward, like a woman is fulfilled at a fundamental level after she births a new life. If money is your real aim, become a contractor – that’s more lucrative.Particularly for men and women in architecture, if you must marry then marry right. Make sure you marry someone who understands the demands and pressures of our profession and the sacrifice and patience it involves before your reward (or as we Nigerians put it “your breakthrough”) comes.
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