An Architect With an Eye on the Environment

This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions , which focuses on the changing relationship between the people and the pl...


This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which focuses on the changing relationship between the people and the planet.

As climate change accelerates, one of the many contributing factors is the built environment — that is, the structures people have created over eons, including buildings and infrastructure like bridges and roads.

Increasingly — although perhaps not quite fast enough — people are thinking about how to do less harm and how to build more sustainably, how to help the environment rather than destroy it.

One of those people is the architect Kunle Adeyemi, who has built his career on the principle that, in fact, the two can exist together seamlessly.

Born in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, Mr. Adeyemi, 45, is known for his sustainable projects — the Black Rhino Academy, in Karatu, Tanzania, and African Water Cities, an ecosystem of built environments in large and developing waterfront urban destinations that are meant to bring people closer to their natural habitat.

He is also behind the Makoko Floating System, a series of triangular structures on the water in five cities. The ones in Lagos, Nigeria; Venice; Bruges, Belgium; and Chengdu, China, were used temporarily, while the Floating Music Hub, which he is building in Mindelo, Cape Verde, is designed to be permanent.

“My mission is to promote diversity and coexistence of humanity and the environment,” he said.

Based in Amsterdam, Mr. Adeyemi studied architecture at the University of Lagos and at the Princeton University School of Architecture, where he received a post-professional degree. He was introduced to the field through his father, Fola, a modernist architect who died 12 years ago.

Kunle Adeyemi worked at small architecture firms in Lagos before becoming an assistant designer at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas’s firm in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. During his nine years with the company, he was promoted to senior associate and led the design of projects such as the Shenzhen Stock Exchange tower in China and the Qatar National Library and Qatar Foundation Headquarters in Doha.

In 2010, Mr. Adeyemi left the Office for Metropolitan Architecture to start NLÉ, which means “at home” in his native Yoruba. The architecture, design and urban planning firm has five employees, several freelance consultants and focuses on projects in developing cities, particularly in Africa and on or near the water.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

How did your upbringing in Nigeria affect your work?

The way I grew up has been fundamental to my understanding of the environment. I lived in northern Nigeria, but traveled often to the south and experienced how the landscape transformed from desertlike and arid to very wet and green. I was always very aware of nature, and my interest in coexisting with the natural environment was cemented from a young age.

In what ways did your father influence your career?

He is integral to it. We grew up on a farm in a modern home, and he was always adding different parts to it using local materials and Indigenous building techniques and craftsmanship. His practices shaped my way of thinking.

What did Koolhaas teach you about architecture and design that plays into your work?

My biggest takeaway from our time together is the view that there is always room for improvement in any design. You need to question your own work and address every challenge. Rem taught me that satisfaction comes over time, not at the initial pass.

Why have you focused your work on cities that are developing?

Because I think that these cities present challenges and opportunities. The challenges are the daily realities of living in a developing region, such as issues with infrastructure, power, scarcity of resources and modern technology. On the other hand, the opportunities are the intelligence of the people and the deep historical insights they can offer for solutions for the future. For example, in Nigeria, homes have been built using local soil and wood for centuries, and when it comes to small buildings and homes, this is still the best way to build.

In your opinion, what are some of the most important elements of sustainable architecture?

Context is key. Buildings need to be constructed so that they optimize sun exposure, which controls the use of natural light and heat gain. Relying on local materials and labor is also a crucial part of sustainability, as are relevant modern technologies. Many of my projects, for example, incorporate solar energy and seek newer water management systems like graywater [wastewater] recycling.

Can you share the idea behind African Water Cities?

The two biggest challenges that developing cities and all major cities in general face is rapid population growth and climate change, which is causing flooding and sea levels to rise. Most of these cities are on the water and in danger of flooding.

Rather than building dams and reclaiming land to build around water, Water Cities is about not fighting with the water but learning to live with it. We want cities to adapt to climate change impacts by making more room for water to come into their urban fabrics. My firm is working on building solutions for several vulnerable African cities, including Lagos, Accra [the capital of Ghana] and Kinshasa [the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo].

We can’t immediately stop rising sea levels, but we can design our cities to adapt to changes in water conditions.

The Floating Music Hub in Cape Verde is part of Water Cities. Can you talk more about the project?

The Floating Music Hub is a platform for culture and creativity built using our Makoko Floating System. It’s inspired by a slum community on the water in the heart of Lagos called Makoko. The people who live there build homes using local materials and resources and ancient methods. We adopted the community’s techniques and designed a simple prefabricated floating building system that’s built from local wood and can be used for various purposes such as homes, schools, health care, hospitality and culture.

The Floating Music Hub in Mindelo is a center for the arts and consists of three modular buildings connected to a central floating plaza. A large one is a performance hall that can accommodate 100 people, a medium one is a recording studio, and a small one is a food and beverage bar. It will be completed by late summer.

You also designed a boarding school, the Black Rhino Academy in Tanzania, which is in the wilderness. How is a project away from the water different from one that’s on or near it?

The environmental drivers become different. While one may be dealing with abundance near water, extreme scarcity is often the issue when far from it. At Black Rhino Academy, our aim was to immerse the children in a natural environment, where they can also learn from nature. The building sits on a slope and has a series of arches that we built from bricks using an ancient method of hanging a chain under its own weight. Students can overlook the wilderness, which is their classroom.

Do you think the architecture and design field has gravitated more to considering the environment?

I think there is some movement toward this, but still a huge gap in the profession and consciousness of most architects in prioritizing the environment as a key driver for design.

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