Obafemi Awolowo University: A Look at Africa’s Most Beautiful Campus

From academic institutes in North America to residential projects in the Middle East, the various disciplines of Bauhaus and its influence on architecture and design are noticeably present in projects all over the world. While most projects acquired the school’s universal language, a few unique ones combined Bauhaus‘ theory and design principles with the site’s cultural and climatic specificity.

One of these exceptional projects is the Obafemi Awolowo University; an architecturally and historically-layered campus of concrete buildings, Nigerian patterns, staircases, and courtyards where light and air wander about freely.

Faculty of Humanities-1962. Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive
Faculty of Humanities-1962. Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive

The University of Ife, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, was initially conceived in the early 1960’s in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, shortly after Nigeria gained its independence from the United KingdomIsraeli architect and Bauhaus alumna Arieh Sharon, in collaboration with Nigerian office A.A. Egbor and AMY Company, continuously worked on the school’s structures and master plan for a span of 25 years, completing what is known as Africa’s “most beautiful campus”.

Sharon chose to construct the university on this particular site due to its distinct topography. He erected buildings that “move up and down the hills”, preserving the landscape and integrating within it as much as possible without physical or visual destruction. The end result was a “rural-urban hybrid” separate from the city but well-respected by all its people. 

The Assembly Hall 1970 . Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive
The Assembly Hall 1970 . Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive

While designing the project, the architect was faced with two main challenges: the architecture style and the country’s climate. How can he design a university campus whose modernist style surpasses buildings preceding it (the Ibadan Campus, for instance), and how can he do so without resorting to the existing climate solutions? Accordingly, he put construction on hold to revise all the initial plans and find solutions superior than installing typical sun-shading devices.

Since the development of the project took place during a transitional period, many refer to the project’s architecture style as “post-colonial” or “Quasi-colonial”. Stylistically, the newly-independent Nigerian government wanted to rebuild the nation and present it in a new modernized manner. Based on this vision, Sharon referred to Bauhaus, a well-established international style, but in a way West Africans can relate to. He reinterpreted the nation’s historic characteristics and integrated traditional Nigerian elements in the details of the space.

The Campus. Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive
The Campus. Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive

Architecturally, the campus can also be interpreted as a melange of modernist systems and classical Nigerian principles, integrating courtyards of varying scales within the buildings themselves. Although the buildings may seem grand in size, but they were made light through the display of open spaces within their walls. The architecture was designed without doors, blurring the boundaries between the spaces and allowing the “external” to flow into the “internal” and vice versa. Perhaps the campus’ most significant building is the Odudwa Hall, a large structure whose concrete can be seen as a sculpture that leads students and visitors into the space.

The Campus . Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive
The Campus . Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive

Nigeria’s climate was one of the biggest challenges that Sharon faced while developing the project. British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew first promoted the topic of climate in Africa while designing the Ibadan university campus. However, the solutions they implemented, along with the book they published, were presented from a foreigner’s perspective, and not with respect to a local’s standards and level of comfort. Consequently, the university commissioners and Sharon himself aimed to propose a sustainable and further-developed alternative.

One of the solutions was the orientation and placement of the buildings. To capture the Southwest winds and to minimize the infiltration of the sun, most structures on the campus were designed with a North-South orientation with an elongated East-West direction. Moreover, the “fluidity” between the interior and exterior allowed for natural ventilation across the spaces. 

The Secretariat 1968. Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive
The Secretariat 1968. Image Courtesy of The Arieh Sharon Digital Archive

Many changes were appropriated recently to adapt to the current spatial needs and previous architectural flaws. Due to the excess number of students, the administrators transformed the amphitheater and sports center into teaching and lecture halls. The initial flat roof design did not sit well with the country’s occasional heavy rain, which is why it had to be covered in a way that is naked to the eye as to not destroy the original design. 

This iconic project has remained active and in use until nowadays. Take a look at some current images taken by Iwan Baan.

Source: ArchDaily and the Arieh Sharon Org

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