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Olajumoke Adenowo: The architect who wants to build Nigeria a good name

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Smog. That is not a word. It’s two words masquerading as one. Smoke and fog:smog. Smog is a portmanteau word. Like Romcom, like shopaholic, like Brunch. In regular terms, a portmanteau is a sturdy luggage in which you might haul an assortment of possessions. This story, however, isn’t about bags. It is about Olajumoke Adenowo, and the reason I speak of containers and bonded words in a narrative about her is that she reminds me of them. It is why we might say, with all due respect of course, that the famous Nigerian architect, Olajumoke Adenowo, is a portmanteau of capabilities.

As you read this, perhaps you’re inclined to argue that, wait, isn’t Ms Adenowo a 52-year-old big name who has been in private practice for 27 years? How does that make her a member of The New Establishment? If you thought that, your perceptive inclination would be fair.

Yes, compared to every tech, fashion, art, finance, music, entrepreneurship, and showbusiness person so far analysed in this series, it wouldn’t be totally unthinkable to consider her a part of the previous guard. She has indeed been around the block a few times.

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Adenowo was raised on the monumental campus of the Obafemi Awolowo University by parents who were both fêted professors — dad (Prof Olatunji Oloruntimehin) was of history and mum (Prof Olufunmilayo Oloruntimehin) was of sociology. At 19 years old, a perspicacious Olajumoke received her architecture degree from the university where her parents were employed.

Six years later, a couple of short but brilliant stints at Towry Coker Associates and Femi Majekodunmi Associates, and with precious work experience from such momentous projects as the Federal Ministry of Finance head office in Abuja, she launched out under her own banner. AD Consulting, the bespoke architectural and interior design company she founded, is the pillar upon which she’s now constructed her ginormous career.

Per AD Consulting’s self-reporting, their frequent private, frilly commissions aside, a number of the modern masterpieces you see around Nigeria are also products of the firm’s colourful imagination. Their work may now be mentioned in the same breath as some of the nation’s most fascinating buildings—the NNPC Towers, the International Conference Centre, Civic Centre, the Nigeria Senate Building, and the Lagos City Hall.

For instance, there’s the GTBank High Net Worth Individual Centre, the Guiding Light Assembly church complex, and the OAU (Obafemi Awolowo University) Senate Building. As any self-respecting architect is expected to say, AD Consulting suggests that each of these buildings doesn’t just deliver on its expected utilitarian purposes; it doubles also as an ambitious landmark, deserving of the pride its owners may bestow on it.

Beyond that, however, Adenowo would like her buildings to be remembered for stretching into four dimensions, rather than the natural three.

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“The fourth dimension is time,” she said in an interview with CNN. “Each space I design changes in time. I design lighting schemes in such a way that by night the building is a totally different entity from what it was in the morning. I design buildings in such a way that as you move through the space, you experience something new at every step.”

And, to her, exceptional architecture cannot simply be about plaster, wood, steel, and elevations. As the self-described polymath puts it, great architecture is about being a see-all, know-all—sort of a god.

“You have to know history,” she said. “You have to understand culture, sociology, anthropology. You need to know physics; you have to understand chemistry to a point. You have to understand art and the history of art to be a really good architect.”

So, if she’s loaded with knowledge in all these fields, could she excel in other fields the same way she does at architecture? Well, apparently yes. And this is where the portmanteau part of this article opens.

You may look at philanthropy as one other column in which Adenowo thoroughly excels. Twenty-two years ago, just as her business was taking off, she elected to not be one of the elite slacktivists who routinely griped about the plight of the Nigerian (and African) child but only in the media.

Guided by her Christian faith, she built something to tackle some of the most imposing problems she saw. Adenowo founded the Awesome Treasures Foundation, ATF, a charity intended to work especially with underprivileged women and youngsters. The organisation’s purpose? Raise one thousand leaders by 2030. According to data from ATF, more than 70,000 people attended its leadership summits within its first 15 years.

While the summits have continued, ATF also hosts Camp Dawn to help fill the educational gap for low-income children; and its Awesome Princesses programme provides care for young girls who may be in danger of contracting HIV.

Somehow, the work she does with the foundation appears like a recurrent tip of the hat to one of her earliest bosses: Femi Majekodunmi, who was at a time the president of the International Union of Architects. It was this man who first acknowledged and rewarded Ms Adenowo’s indefatigable drive and let her create the Federal Ministry of Lands headquarters, Abuja. “If we had more mentors like that in Africa,” Adenowo has said, “I believe the younger generation would blossom faster.”

Besides, this foundation may become then quasi familial bedrock for these youths, a pedestal on which they can install their own ambitions. As Adenowo sees it: “The family is the matrix of aspirations… watching [my mother] contribute value, as she travelled the globe and handled her affairs competently, unwittingly gave me permission to aspire.”

In the meantime, the world continues to recognise the author and in-demand speaker’s towering stature.

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Before Forbes named her Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 2020, she’d earned a stack of awards for her work, including plaques from International Property Awards Africa, Interior Designers Excellence Awards, and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2019, the Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM) in Germany appointed her a visiting professor — a Laureate and Guest Scientist at the Chair of Theory, History of Architecture and Art & Design arm of the university’s department of architecture.

Now, all of this considered, Adenowo design on the future of Nigeria’s architectural landscape qualifies her as a member of The New Establishment. As has been repeatedly asked and debated, has the country delivered any iconic structure that could go head-to-head with the Burj Khalifas, the Gherkins, the Eiffel Towers, or the Chrysler Buildings? Not yet.

Which is why Olajumoke Adenowo would like to pave the way to that accomplishment. This is what she said to CNN in 2015: “In the next five years, it would be a dream come true if I have the opportunity to design a building that would define Nigeria’s identity. The way you see [La Tour Eiffel] and you think Paris, the Empire State Building and you think New York.”

As the planet punches and scratches its way out of the clasp of COVID-19, and with the undeniable yet growing esteem attached to Adenowo’s name, this starchitect’s time may now be upon us.

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Olajumoke Adenowo
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