Why Our Buildings Are Loosing Characters – And How To Fix Them

When you drive within most city centres and built up areas in Nigeria, observing the exterior look of buildings, one can’t help but notice an increasing loss of character in newer buildings when compared to those built several decades back.

This is most obvious in the premises of our universities where various buildings from different decades can be seen together.

This increase in character loss is not applicable to every new building, however, it applies to majority of contemporary buildings built lately.

The problems these poses to architecture, is that first, they progressively give our urban environment a bland and boring appearance, also, they fail to excite those living in and around them, thus taking an emotional toll on people.

Lastly, it is likely to impact the real estate value of properties in these localities and ultimately their economics. This article sets out to understand why our buildings are becoming increasingly boring and how this can be fixed.

Places showcasing these contrasting architectural characters.

Local universities in Nigeria are classic examples of locations where a variety of new and old buildings can be seen together in one premises.

Here, you will observe a sharp contrast between the old and new buildings. One outstanding characteristics of the old generation buildings are their strong architectural characters, presence and uniqueness, whereas, most new generation buildings have less/no character, similarity in looks and a general lack of presence.

Besides the university environment, you can also find this in our city centres. When you observe older buildings, especially those built by the government between the 60s – 90s as civil service Secretariat, offices and ministries buildings, you will observe the presence of outstanding architectural characters as though their architects were sculptors.

Whereas, when you observe newer buildings, you don’t see much characters.

Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria.

Few cities with sustained characters and unique forms.

However, in the business district and high brow areas of major cities like Lagos and Abuja, the quality of new modern architectural pieces are matching up in characters and form.

The type of architecture we see here are of diverse styles, mostly ranging from modern to eclectic, thus, complementing and beautifying these urban centres.

Perhaps, we can assume that the level of awareness and enlightenment of the populace towards the roles of architects is hugely responsible for this.

City centres and built-up areas in other parts of the country should be encouraged to imbibe these value adding traits.

Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria.

Problems associated with declining characters in buildings.

Often, the increasing absence of characters and unique forms pose aesthetic, emotional and economic problems where these buildings are cited.

According to thecut – A growing body of research in cognitive science illuminates the physical and mental toll, bland cityscapes exact on residents.

Generally, these researchers argue that humans are healthier when they live among variety or work in well-designed, unique spaces, rather than unattractive, generic ones.

In their book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, Tufts urban policy professor Justin Hollander and architect Ann Sussman reviewed scientific data to help architects and urban planners understand how, exactly, we respond to our built surroundings. People, they argue, function best in intricate settings and crave variety, not “big, blank, boxy buildings”. In the case of economics, since it is founded on demand and supply, there is a possibility that boring buildings because of their adverse tolls on residents, will be poorly demanded and thus, sparsely occupied, especially by high paying tenants.

Ultimately leading to a decline in its real estate value and the cities ability to make substantial returns from them.

A typical example of a building with weak characters and form.

The reasons for weak characters and forms in buildings.

No doubt, the practice of architecture centuries ago was undertaken without formal training. Passionate individuals with artistic inclinations took to the profession. Nevertheless, today, it has become more specialised, requiring formal training and technical knowhow.

Architects are therefore expected to be trained and licensed before practice. Most major old buildings in Nigeria (60s – 80s) were executed by architects of foreign training (whether indigenes or expatriate).

Architecture during the time of their training wasn’t taught locally hence the need to get it abroad. As a result of this, foreign influences such as prevailing architectural style, foreign climatic conditions and existing technologies coloured the type of buildings they produced locally.

However, their designs were notable – filled with characters and unique forms. Several decades after, locally trained architects graduated, qualified and underwent tutelage under these established architects, and maintained their architectural style, sustaining the quality of designs we saw at that time.

Thus, we may suggest that the reasons for this decline were that:

  1. When architects alone engaged in designs and trained others in the qualifying pupilage programme, they by so doing sustained the quality of architecture. But today, this pupilage programme is no longer widely embraces by young graduates. Partly because there are not enough registered firms to work in, the regulatory body doesn’t have enough manpower to supervise and confirm actual pupilage by trainee architects, the trainees don’t see it as a profitable feat or the trainees are just being lazy. Thus, those who went through standard training locally should be encourage to go through the qualifying pupilage in order to improve and perfect their knowledge of practice and architectural mastery.
  2. When poorly trained individuals and quacks became prevalent, the quality of architecture started to decline. By poorly trained I don’t mean individuals who went through the standard duration and curriculum for training architects locally, but those who either dropped out of school or went through insufficient architectural training and somehow got into practice (illegally) because of the gap in our system. In my opinion, they haven’t gotten the robust training needed to operate as architects and so shouldn’t engage in it. By quacks I mean people who have no prior training whatsoever in architecture but engage in it because it appears to be a thriving enterprise. These people have no business in architectural practice and will only serve to degrade the quality of new buildings.
  3. Projects of enormous requirements are requested but tied to very insufficient budget. Which is a current trend due to dwindling financial circumstances in developing Nations. Causing governments and private individuals to demand unrealistic values for money, thereby hurting architecture, buildings uses and viewers, and the urban environment. In my opinion, cost limitations in design shouldn’t control the quality of architectural design to be produced, rather cost influence should be limited to project’s scope and size. Also, evey architect should have a minimum quality of design he can give out regardless of dwindling client’s budget.
  4. Architecture is a rapidly changing field and so are our material types, methods of constructions, software and technology use, architectural styles and design, codes etc. Therefore, when architects fail to improve their skills and knowledge periodically, their practice becomes obsolete.

How to fix weak characters and forms in buildings.

To fix the issue of declining architectural characters and weak forms:

  1. Only architects should be engaged by clients in architectural design and not poor trained individuals or quacks, who have insufficient knowledge in sculpturing architectural pieces.
  2. Architects should undertake retraining programmes to update themselves in latest happenings, knowledge and concepts in their field. For instance, as a refresher course on design, architects should remember that to improve the form of buildings, several components needs to be considered:
  • The manipulations of buildings’ generic planes, which are the base plane (floor and ground plane), wall plane, and overhead plane(ceiling and roof plane). There has to be a conscious effort on part of the architects to organise and reorganise these 3 planes in design to produce unique buildings with strong characters. For instance, just using auto-roof in architectural modeling software is not enough to arrive at a good roof design because the roof in most buildings account for at least 20% of what we see in elevation and reality, thus, so should be tweaked consciously. This also applies to the walls and floor planes.
  • The articulation of buildings’ edges is also essential to further improve the forms of buildings. It’s edges can be articulated further and independently to add character to the buildings. This can be done by the introduction of building elements such as windows, extra wall and open staircases in these corners or simply by chamfering, filleting or introduction of columns.
  • The transformation of forms is another way to approach form manipulations, this can either be dimensionally, subtractively, addictively or a combination of 2 or more. Ultimately, improving the forms of buildings and adding characters to them.
Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria.

Conclusion

Though with a few exceptions, buildings built several decades back had better characters and forms than contemporary buildings. This is evident in our first generation universities and government buildings of the 60s-80s.

Furthermore, in business districts and highbrow areas of major cities, where clients are enlightened about who architects are and their roles in delivery value added projects, the quality of the buildings, perhaps, as a result of the patronage of architects, are a lot better.

Also the declining presence of character and unique forms in buildings have adverse effect on the society including aesthetic, emotional and economic.

The cause of this can be ascribed to the infiltration of poorly trained individuals and quacks resorting to architectural services.

Also, fully trained graduates of architecture should be encouraged to engage in the qualifying pupilage programme so as to equipped them with the practical aspects and mastery of architecture.

While all qualified architects in practice should engage in retraining to remind and update themselves on latest happenings and knowledge in the constantly changing field of architecture.

Cheers.