July 27th, 2005


So bad it's good: Koolhaas on Lagos

At Berlin bookstore ProQM the other day I bought Lagos Wide & Close, an interactive journey into an exploding city, a DVD about Rem Koolhaas' study of the Nigerian city by Bregtje van der Haak. In a spontaneous demonstration of the fallibility of planning and the limits of high-tech solutions, the DVD failed to play properly on either of the iBooks in my house. I responded with characteristic human ingenuity, implementing a quick-and-dirty knowledge patch: I googled everything I could find about the jittery, apparently fascinating DVD and the jittery, apparently fascinating city. To show the amazing human capacity to cobble something together out of secondhand junk, I'm pasting the 10 most interesting bits here.

1. "In 2002 Bregtje van der Haak, in cooperation with architect Rem Koolhaas and The Harvard Project on the City, made "Lagos/Koolhaas", a documentary on self-organization and urbanization in Nigeria. As a sequel, together with designer Silke Wawro, she developed a new project: Lagos Wide & Close, an Interactive Journey into an Exploding City. This innovative DVD contains an interactive video documentary (60'), edited from 55 hours of unused material that brings the viewer closer to the explosively growing megalopolis Lagos. With bus driver Olawole Busayo, the viewer moves through the city and has a choice of a distant ('wide') or an involved ('close') perspective, at any random moment in the documentary." Subshop

2. "In Africa, despite a flagrant lack of infrastructure, certain cities succeed in joining in the worldly flux of exchange and therefore grow incredibly quickly. Lagos, the [former] capital of Nigeria, is one of these cities. It's a town which, despite its 15 million inhabitants, is little known in the developed world (there isn't even a satellite photo of Lagos) but which nevertheless "overturns all received ideas about the characteristics of what we call the modern city". In this way, starting from the Alaba Market, a new "market-city" took shape, with its own system of streets and addresses, its own police, its private justice, its churches, its banks, but without any overall control systems. An "enterprise city", in short, ruled only by the laws of the free market, whose fate may surely be to resemble more and more closely Dubai: a vast free market with world-scaled ambitions. And it works. Thanks to its proximity with Lagos airport, Alaba has within a few years become the entry point for new technology into Africa. For Rem Koolhaas, Lagos and its market are "the avant garde of global modernity", and perhaps reveal the "future state of Chicago, of London or of Los Angeles"." Transit City, translated from French.

3. "According to current estimates, well over a thousand people settle daily in Lagos in the hope of finding work; the city, which as late as 1960 had only one million residents, now has a population of around 13 million, a number expected to rise to 24 million by the year 2015. In view of its rapid population growth, one can no longer speak of planned urban development in Lagos. The city, marked by four and a half centuries of Portuguese and British colonial dominance, also lacks the basic structures for a well-financed and politically functioning city-wide planning structure. But the African metropolis occupies and fascinates artists, urban planners, and architects not least because of its apparent unmanageability." Artnews

4. "Lagos, home to an estimated 15 million people, is a dangerous, polluted and dysfunctional city. Architect Rem Koolhaas, with the help of documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, decided to study this megapolis in an attempt to understand the hidden logic that makes a 'dysfunctional' city function. His research revealed a population's unique ability to cope inventively within an urban landscape of disorder." Nai Booksellers

5. "There is some kind of function in the dysfunction. And Rem Koolhaas saw that. It's like some elusive perfume in the air. If you could capture it, put it in a bottle and spray it, your life would be different. There is an energy and a resourcefulness about Lagos that, if we could just learn how to manage it, would be a showpiece for the entire world to see." Pieter van Huijstee

6. "The people have a way of organising themselves in interesting ways to overcome the not-so-good things about the city. They sell items in the streets, they have “incredibly efficient” markets literally on the train tracks - they have to pick up and move when the train rolls past." Jurgen dot ca

7. "Talking of the chaos of Lagos, Koolhaas says: 'What I thought would be depressing was powerful, inspiring and brutal.'

Koolhaas is trying to prove that the well-intentioned architects who tried to tame the contemporary city with pedestrian precincts and conservation got it all disastrously wrong. They should have been trying to intensify the city's intrinsic qualities, not neuter them. 'What is amazing is that you can draw a genealogy between Jane Jacobs and Disney. Since the Sixties, the most well-meaning brains in our profession have con tributed to this final, terminal condition of shopping.'

The effort to preserve the street, the hostility to the car, the hostility to all those elements that were the inevitable elements of the twentieth century - all of this has somehow created the space for this preservation, and, in the name of preservation, the conversion of entire areas in the centre of the city to fundamentally anti-urban conditions. This ought to make everyone weep. Nobody could have guessed that the twentieth century could end on a Faustian bargain with a mouse." The Observer

8. "Lagos, whose catastrophic and yet productive chaos represents the terminal condition of the modern city. The photos of this Nigerian metropolis are heart-stopping. Lagos grows by hundreds of people daily, and every form of congestion is exploited for improvised commerce. "Lagos has no streets; instead it has curbs and gates, barriers and hustlers," writes Koolhaas' team. "Even the Lagos superhighway has bus stops on it, mosques under it, markets in it, and buildingless factories throughout it." Wired

9. JEN: Tell me more about what you're doing in Lagos.
REM: This time I was there with Edgar Cleyne, a photographer and an experienced Africa "recorder" who has been instrumental in the whole project. We borrowed the helicopter of President Obasanjo and flew over the city for two days.
JEN: What did you see?
REM: We made an unbelievable video about a traffic jam in Lagos, which is really scary because the sheer pressure makes everything liquefy. There are these jams that are mostly buses — rivers of yellow trying to go through arteries that are too narrow. Huge trucks — almost everything is public transport and trucks — really colliding and squeezing. And in between them, there are these people — almost like cement. According to the myth, they are dismantling the vehicles that are in the jam. Not only are you stuck in the jam — you're also being disassembled. Maybe that's the only solution to the jam. So it's not just a traffic jam. It's actually a traffic jam turning into a car market, turning into spare parts turning into a smoldering ruin. All in consecutive phases. It's really about metabolism and flows and scale. And unbelievable organization.
JEN: Organization? It sounds like a mess.
REM: Every residual space is put to use. There are these highway cloverleaves that lead to nowhere, but they are somehow cooperatively made into a car market. These cloverleaves are patterns of solid color, because all the car parts are organized according to color. That's how they exhibit them.
JEN: That must have been beautiful from a helicopter.
REM: The city has these unbelievable — you can only call it abstract — compositions. Red turning into white turning into black. You've never seen geometry at that scale in the world.
JEN: But why Lagos? What made you go there in the first place?
REM: Intuition. And I really think I was right. Nigeria's been independent for thirty years, so it's really an African story. With 100 million people, it's one of the most populated countries, and potentially the wealthiest. It has a complex history of colonization. For instance, Nigerian slaves exported by the Portuguese went back to Nigeria after they were liberated in Brazil and they imported Portuguese architecture to Lagos. It's like an infinite ricochet. And when they came back to Africa they became the authorities who controlled the people that never left. So that's an internal colonial situation. I like this connection to Africa because it's so unexpected, particularly for me... In Nigeria, there is at the same time an incredible slowness and an incredible speed. So people who first seem capable of not acting at all are then suddenly capable of incredible action.
JEN: What kind of action?
REM: At almost any point in Lagos, there is, somewhere in the periphery of your vision, someone who seems to just slumber — in the street, near a pool, at the station — but who at any moment can turn into a money changer who, in five seconds, organizes the transfer of a huge physical amount of Nigerian money. That's only one example.
Interview with Rem Koolhaas, Index magazine

10. "One can only hope that this fascinating report into uncontrolled processes in an African city of 15 million people, a city 'completely out of control', will not be interpreted as an urban recipe for the future of the European city. Even though the text refers to Lagos as 'a city at the forefront of a globalizing modernity', and even if it were true that Lagos could be seen as a foreshadow of the terminal phase of cities like London, Los Angeles and Chicago, that in no way implies that Lagos is an ideal model for the future European city or that no resistance should be offered to fend off this development. Lagos demonstrates that the city's potential for self-organization is much greater than many policy-makers would dare consider, and much can be learnt from that. Deregulated urbanism can apparently result in an urban condition that functions. But the piece makes no mention of the price that has to be paid. The living conditions of the 15 million inhabitants of Lagos, for example, are completely ignored in the text, just as they were ignored in the Pearl River Delta and The Generic City. When Koolhaas talks about the city, and he almost always talks about the city, then he never mentions living. That is his personal blind spot." Piet Vollaard