The Architect Resisting Boko Haram With a Community-Centric Approach

The Lagos-based architect Tosin Oshinowo is wrapping up the redesign of Ngarannam, a Northern Nigerian community that was disrupted by Boko Haram. It’s the latest example of her firm’s civic-minded approach.

Tosin Oshinowo. Photography by Spark Creative

When insurgent group Boko Haram attacked Northeast Nigeria’s Borno State in 2015, hundreds of locals from the small community of Ngarannam were displaced from their shelter, livelihoods, social systems, and local leadership. Thanks to the United Nations Development Programme and support from the Nigerian government, the deserted community is undergoing an ambitious redevelopment plan that will see more than 500 houses arranged in a village-like format and include essential services like a school, marketplace, and healthcare facility. 

The community is being designed by architect Tosin Oshinowo whose firm, the Lagos-based CmDesign Atelier, has gained renown for a socially responsible approach to architecture in Nigeria. Ngarannam’s redevelopment may be the studio’s most ambitious project yet—no small feat when compared to previous commissions such as the Maryland Mall, which brought 50 internationally known branded boutiques to Lagos and hosts the largest digital LED screen in Sub-Saharan Africa, a stunning minimal beach house that brings out the natural beauty of the Atlantic on a quaint island near Lagos, and multiple apartment complexes.

Ngarannam in northwest Nigeria designed by CmDesign Atelier

After several meetings with locals to determine their primary needs and aesthetic preferences, Oshinowo determined nostalgia and familiarity were the two most important principles. The result: 500 understated, earth-toned homes built using local materials and arranged in a grid with communal buildings running through the center. 

Perhaps most distinctive are the coral-pink roofs, made using a Tyrolean render mixed with ground soil that eliminates paint costs and is easily maintained by locals. “My hope is that by also using the local community and local contractors to build, this will become a transferable skill so that long after the development project has been completed, they’re able to use it on other projects,” Oshinowo tells Architecture. “It’s an opportunity for people to learn, to grow, and to evolve.” The village will open later in the summer.

Ngarannam in northwest Nigeria designed by CmDesign Atelier

Oshinowo attributes her understated approach to former mentor Rem Koolhaas, who spoke about how Dubai became a hotbed for Western architects to show off flashy, elaborate buildings that—ironically enough—end up blending in with each other. “I remember thinking that as an architect, to be conscious that your design should evoke a feeling or an experience is so powerful,” she says. “So many of us get it wrong by overdoing it. It’s the simplicity in our delivery and the fact that people should be able to go into a building and not know why they like it, or be conscious that somebody has done something so powerful.”

Themes of sustainability underscore much of Oshinowo’s work, both as an architect and a cultural ambassador of Nigeria. She was appointed to curate the second edition of the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which aims to spotlight architecture across Western Asia, Southern Asia, and Africa that focuses on sustainability and adaptability. Oshinowo’s approach will draw inspiration from the history, traditions, and landscape of those regions and will explore design solutions “built from conditions of scarcity,” she says. She also served as a co-curator of the 2019 Lagos Biennial, wrote about afro-modernism and identity for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, and sits on the board of the Lagos Theatre Festival. 

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