Visions for the National Tear-ter of Nigeria

Four Conversations and Seven Performative Pamphlets

Seven Performative Pamphlets: Ayodele Arigbabu, Hunter & Gatherer collective

When exploring a complex object like the National Theatre of Nigeria (NT), one may do so through a variety of registers, approaches or methodologies, such as those developed through Constanze Fischbeck’s and Daniel Kötter’s filmic exploration, or Andreas Müller’s political reading of architecturalsocial space. In our own approximation to the NT we began by considering how our role as professionals within the field of architecture might be conditioning, and could itself condition the exploration of the theatre. One of the pitfalls in this regard was that the State Theatres project would always be in some way conditioned by our presentation within the project as professional architects – in other words, the project’s actual constituency has a bearing on the way the project is perceived.

Presenting ourselves as architects within an art project, we inevitably fall into the role of “consultants”, which we think can be problematic in the context of an exhibition where the core of the work will stand as artistic and our input, if purely displayed in an architectural format, might be interpreted as somehow legitimising the subject matter with a varnish of technical expertise. With this as a starting point we decided to adopt a more performative research position, but without renouncing our condition as architects. This consideration was also born out of the actual process of thinking about the National Theatre.  The building first originated as a monument, a representation of modernity that was imported to impose a presence on the African/world stage: it was originally built to host the 2nd World Black and African festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 1977). The NT was meant to represent the cultural (and therefore socio-political) advancement of Nigeria through modern construction within an important moment of its national history. The building was therefore more of a symbol, or a sign, than a purely technical entity; functionality was considered a secondary issue, in favour of its monumental and symbolic dimension. The inclusion of architect’s sketches on a wall could be interpreted as a similar representation of modernity, where technical legitimisation in the form of functional solutions takes over the more important aspect of  the building as a cultural sign. The idea of modernity hinges around functional planning – within which sketching is the archetypical modern act.

We thought that a discourse presented in this form could be interpreted as a series of solutions based upon functional issues, but in fact, the reality of the National Theatre is far more complex than issues of accessibility, typology or air conditioning. Its nature is symbolic and performative (the representation of an aspiration and a certain standard), not functional.  When approaching the NT as a cultural object, we thought that concentrating on functionality was missing the point, thus we decided to communicate at a cultural level (of which architecture is but one of many elements). We believe cultural programming should precede and inform  architectural programming as an intervention, leading to a symbiotic relationship that eventually transforms the building as a sign.

In our pursuit of a more performative approach we considered ways in which the representation of the ideas we have been discussing around the NT could adopt a less functional or technical form. It would be more interesting, we thought, if our engagement was the result of an interaction, or the adoption of a certain performative role, such that the product of our engagement could be a document rather than a finished product or a solution. We discussed using a model of the building as raw material to engage with a series of non-architects, in the quest for collecting non-functional approaches; perhaps a catalogue of myths, historical interpretations, contemporary frustrations and hopeful futures.  Other ideas involved introducing a notion of dis-functionality in our discussions to see what came out of the struggle.

In our pursuit of a more performative approach we considered ways in which the representation of the ideas we have been discussing around the NT could adopt a less functional or technical form. It would be more interesting, we thought, if our engagement was the result of an interaction, or the adoption of a certain performative role, such that the product of our engagement could be a document rather than a finished product or a solution. We discussed using a model of the building as raw material to engage with a series of non-architects, in the quest for collecting non-functional approaches; perhaps a catalogue of myths, historical interpretations, contemporary frustrations and hopeful futures.  Other ideas involved introducing a notion of dis-functionality in our discussions to see what came out of the struggle.

The question of identity and self-projection is still very much alive in Nigeria, as we discovered from our conversations in Lagos. There is a tendency to caricature the debate of Nigerian identity with the dichotomy of Mimesis vs. Originality: “We should not copy the West, but discover our own identity.” Given that Nigeria is a young nation state this position is understandable. Yet, culture is born of a diverse set of influences and inputs, whereby the concept of original culture becomes irrelevant. Rather than “Mimesis Vs Originality”, perhaps the question of defining contemporary Nigerian  culture (and representing it through symbolic state symbols, such as the NT) should be more an effort of Aggregation: “Mimesis + Originality”, wherein the idea of culture as aggregation involves thinking of identity as layered influences.

We asked ourselves, how could we communicate this cultural layering within representations of the building, of which functionality and the performance of architecture as a discipline are undoubtedly important elements?  We could consider the  NT as a canvas on which to represent the complexity of national identity itself.

In tourist leaflets, we have adopted a format well suited to the recruitment of an audience to experience the performative essence of a cultural space. In this format, we can display different, opposing, and complimentary layers of national identity – an invitation to explore the diverse ways in which the place/symbol could be reprogrammed or managed, perhaps pre-empting a new architectural dimension in the process.

This format gave us the opportunity to engage performatively with the building itself through the performativity of architecture and a multiplicity of voices to provoke diverse visions of the building, not only in terms of function, but also of national values. This type of provocation engages the mind of the audience by assigning them a performative role as cultural tourists.

We set out to exhibit a shelf of A4, folded tourist brochures, each representing a different vision of what the National Theatre could accommodate – different uses, different values and different readings from different audiences. In doing this, we reduced the architecture of the theatre to a symbolic shell. However, by allowing the audience to experience the diversity of the building and what it could do, and perhaps choosing one that best represents them, we brought more possibilities to the building’s iconography.

The making of these leaflets was performative in itself as we were engaging with the NT by staging new forms of use represented in the leaflets through real and fictional images and interviews borne of performative interaction with the building.

We produced a total of seven leaflets for the following uses for the National Theatre:

1. Vineyard / Wine Conferencing Centre

NT - Vineyards - Inner copy

NT - Vineyards - Outer copy

 

2. Performative Museum of Nigerian history

NT - Scare Attraction - Outer copy

 

3. Casino

 

 

4. Mall / Transport hub

NT - Mall & Station - Outer copy

 

5. Elitist private business school

NT - National Business Scool of Nigeria - Inner copy

NT - National Business Scool of Nigeria - Outer copy

 

6. Religious building / Convention Centre

 

 

7. Planetarium

NT - Planetarium - Inner copy

 

These categories seek to de-stabilise the building’s image as a national theatre and provoke questions that resonate with Lagos’s contemporary cultural reality. They purposefully walk the line between utopian and dystopian appropriations and distortions of Nigerian culture to engage viewers in the discussion of what national identity is and how it may be imagined, packaged, exploited and consumed.

 

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