Łukasz Stanek

1980 in Parallax: Zbigniew Dmochowski in Nigeria


In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives beyond the West, while reflecting on its legacies today. Seventh in the series, Łukasz Stanek writes about Polish architect and scholar Zbigniew Dmochowski’s research on traditional architecture in Nigeria, and the contradictions and complexities behind his decolonising ambitions.

1980 was an ordinary year for the Polish architect and scholar Zbigniew Dmochowski (1903–82).1 It was his last year in Nigeria, where he arrived in 1958 after almost two decades of exile in Britain that began during World War II. In service of the Nigerian state, which became independent in 1960, Dmochowski and his Nigerian and Polish collaborators developed an extensive survey of ‘traditional’ or indigenous architecture in the country, which built upon his studies of wooden architecture in interwar Poland. In 1981 he returned to Poland, where he continued to work on his research, published posthumously as the three-volume book An Introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture (1990) [Fig. 1].2

In other words, to write about Dmochowski from the point of view of 1980 does not mean to describe a watershed in his career. Rather, this perspective offers a glimpse into the scholar’s work before it concretised in his book, and it allows us to think about the indeterminacy, uncertainty and contingency of his research, and perhaps of architectural research more generally. Taking one year – any year – as a starting point for a historical account emphasises simultaneity of events across geographiesover narratives that combine these events into diachronic chains and their culminations. At the same time, starting specifically in 1980 connects Dmochowski’s research to debates that were taking place simultaneously at venues such as the first Architecture Biennale, in Venice, and its turn towards non-canonical, populist and vernacular architecture as a way to guide the discipline’s move beyond Modernism. This perspective highlights tensions in his work, notably his reliance on Modernist concepts, such as space, which he saw as foundational to his thinking. However, by 1980 this concept – and the desire for foundations in general – had been challenged by architectural thinkers in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In 1980 Dmochowski was 77 years old and, with short interruptions, had spent 22 years in Nigeria. As his collaborator, architect and educator Ekundayo Adeyinka Adeyemi, recalled the Polish architect’s health was deteriorating and he was mobilising a range of institutions in Nigeria and abroad to help finish his work.3 These institutions included the School of Architecture at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, and the Institute for Tropical Architectural Research, which he had founded in the late 1960s at the Gdańsk Polytechnic in socialist Poland. Staff and students at both institutions were instrumental in the production of the survey drawings of indigenous buildings in the country, which constitute the core material of An Introduction. Some of these drawings served for the reconstruction of buildings on the grounds of the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture in Jos, of which Dmochowski was the first director and head architect [Fig. 2]. In charge of the museum was the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the successor to a string of institutions responsible for heritage sites and objects in Nigeria, which went back to the colonial Department of Antiquities, his first employer in the country.

This institutional landscape reveals various objectives that informed Dmochowski’s work, from the Cold War confrontation that motivated the socialist countries to fund research units focused on Africa, such as the Institute in Gdańsk, to the ambition of Nigerian institutions, such as the National Commission, to heal ethnic and political divides in the wake of Nigerian civil war (1967–70). The Commission was part of what historian Samaila Suleiman called the ‘Nigerian history machine’, or a knowledge-production regime through which the discursive parameters of the Nigerian nation were defined and stabilised.4

The stabilisation of history took place at the museum in Jos in the most literal sense: that of the materiality of buildings. Based on Dmochowski’s survey drawings, the museum team built replicas of selected buildings in which some original temporary materials were replaced with more permanent ones, notably cement [Fig. 3]. This procedure contrasted with such building traditions in Nigeria as the practice of constructing Mbari houses or shrines, one of which was built at the museum compound. Dedicated to the earth goddess Ala in the central Igbo area in south-east Nigeria, Mbari shrines were traditionally built of temporary materials such as earth and wood, and left to decay while the community built other ones. As argued by the novelist Chinua Achebe, ‘purposeful neglect of the painstakingly and devoutly accomplished Mbari house’ meant privileging process over product ‘so that every occasion and every generation will receive its own impulse and kinesis of creation.5 Achebe pointed out that the tropical climate both provided abundance of materials for such creation and ‘formidable enemies of stasis’, such as humidity and termites.6 In contrast, as Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie observed, the Mbari structure at the museum grounds was made with concrete, the goddess Ala was displaced by a Christian deity and the Nigerian artist commissioned to build it was not part of the Mbari building tradition [Fig. 4].7

This tension between evanescence and permanence was one of many that characterised Dmochowski’s work at the museum. Another was the need to select a small set of buildings from 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria that would be put forward to represent the indigenous architecture of the country. For this scholar, the first step in this process was to identify what was shared by buildings that seemingly differed in everything: programmes, scale, technology, structure and decoration. In response, he referred to the Modernist understanding of architecture as ‘three-dimensional art.8 Accordingly, he praised the ‘splendid forms in space’ created by the building cultures he studied, and the differentiation of the ‘spatial composition[s]’ of the buildings surveyed.9 In so doing, he saw these structures as expressing the spatial imagination of their builders. Just as cement, an essentially modern material, gave the building replicas a permanence that the originals never had, so was the Modernist concept of space instrumental in stabilizing the value of these buildings.

The concept of space was central to Dmochowski’s understanding of his work as a contribution to the decolonisation of Nigerian architecture. Space was for him the starting point to counter the devalorisation of indigenous architecture that took place under colonialism and often continued among African elites, as Adeyemi pointed out.10 For the Polish scholar, a wider appreciation of indigenous buildings would require their inclusion in the curricula in architectural schools in Nigeria. This pedagogical ambition comes to the fore in his book, which Dmochowski dedicated to ‘young Nigerian architects’. He encouraged them to take ‘tradition as the starting point of their creative, independent thinking’ about a prospective ‘modern school of Nigerian Architecture’.11

Dmochowski saw the concept of space as instrumental to this effort to decolonise architectural education in Nigeria. As I have argued in my recent book, this comes to the fore in the controversy around education at the Zaria School of Architecture – the first to offer professional training in the country.12 The curriculum of the school was written by British teaching staff according to the British model stipulated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). This model came under fire by the late 1960s when Zaria students targeted the curriculum as unsuitable for an African school. They challenged their British lecturers on the very high attrition rate and accused them of blocking access by Nigerians to the British-dominated profession. The lecturers countered that the drawing skills of the majority of the students did not match the RIBA requirements. These requirements centred on ‘the ability to observe or think in three-dimensions and reproduce this in drawing’ which, as argued by a British professor, most Nigerian students were lacking.13 Dmochowski’s work demonstratively contradicted such statements, and his studies of Nigeria’s indigenous architecture as a product of three-dimensional practice reverberated in Zaria’s new curriculum, as well as other architectural schools in Nigeria.

The perspective from 1980 challenges this argument. Writing a few years earlier, Charles Jencks questioned the Modernist assumption that space was the ‘essence of architecture, its ultimate stuff, but also [that] each culture expresses its will and existence through this medium‘.14 Dmochowski’s search for spatial expressions of Nigerian building cultures lends itself to such critique. For example, at least some of the Jos Museum visitors’ book comments studied by Suleiman voiced concerns about what visitors perceived as the privileging of Islamic buildings on the museum grounds, resulting in a misrepresentation of the religious and ethnic diversity of Nigeria.15 Furthermore, Jencks’ comment on the historical specificity of the concept of space also points to its geographical specificity, and thus suggests that the instrumentality of this concept for the decolonisation of Nigerian architectural education was a double-edged sword at best. Dmochowski’s presentation of Nigerian building traditions in terms of spatial cultures contradicted the claim that Nigerians had no spatial imagination and hence countered the exclusion of Nigerian students from professional standards adapted by the university. Yet in so doing, it confirmed the validity of these standards and the validity of educational models and professional practice stemming from the colonial metropole, and from Europe more generally. In this perspective, the scholar’s conceptual choices seem to have undermined the decolonising ambitions of his work.

But what was the nature of Dmochowski’s work in 1980 precisely? At that time, his book was nowhere near completion as he continued to compile field notes, including descriptions of buildings, their programmes, building materials and construction techniques, as well as interviews with builders, owners and chiefs, and sometimes small glossaries which explained the names of the building components in local languages. It included drawings of various kinds, starting with measured field notes, through their redrawn versions and their multiple iterations in various scales and representational techniques to which, as his dispersed notes show, Dmochowski paid great attention. Furthermore, this work included photographs documenting the construction processes of a range of buildings, as well as whole buildings and their details, notably sculptural elements.

In 1980, these materials were circulating across various places, above all Jos, where much of the survey drawings were collected and redrawn, and Gdańsk, where his Polish team, occasionally supported by a Nigerian student, continued working on the drawings. In other words, this was a multitude of disjointed research materials, which were constantly on the move, and the bureaucracy associated with these movements across Cold War borders is conveyed in customs documentation still preserved in Gdańsk. The final act of these efforts happened in 1981 when during Dmochowski’s departure from Nigeria his drawings were confiscated at Lagos airport.

In short, the view from 1980 reveals the fragmentation of Dmochowski’s research materials, which only confirm what an attentive reader would notice anyway about the posthumous book: its fundamentally incomplete character, with numerous gaps, missing texts and inconsistencies. But this view also shows something relevant about the character of his work and its mode of impact on Nigerian architecture: the ways in which it was moving within and across various areas of architectural practice in the country. Circulating in ozalid and xerox copies, Dmochowski’s drawings appeared in books, journals and magazines with and, more often, without acknowledgment [Fig. 5].

They infiltrated architectural schools in the country, where they were used for the education of students of architectural history and design. They also circulated in drafting rooms across Nigerian cities, both private architectural offices and various ministries where his drawings inspired architectural designs, notably the programme of new regional museums in the country [Fig. 6].

This fragmentation of Dmochowski’s work also pertains to his uses of the concept of space. In particular, his drawings make it clear that far from having one stable meaning, space was a varied and possibly inconsistent concept in his drawings. Space could mean an additive composition of volumes, as in the axonometry of the Emir’s Palace in Potiskum. It could refer to a sequence of planes, as in the drawing of the Masallaci Juma’a in Zaria [Fig. 7]. It could refer to a volumetric composition, as in the Kano market stalls. Sometimes, the scholar used the same linear drawing and differentiated its spatial understanding by means of rendering, as was the case with two alternative drawings of a section of a Nok building [Fig. 8]. The first showed the building as a composite of two materials characterised by specific structural logic: the stereometry of mud and the tectonics of wood; the second with its deeper and continuous shades conveyed a sense of bodily enclosure. This suggests that while the work of Dmochowski was often presented, also by himself, as conveying a catalogue of distinct spatial cultures of Nigeria, his drawings may undermine that essentialist vision.

A reading of Dmochowski’s drawings in the context of Nigerian debates around 1980 may reveal their own ‘complexities and contradictions’ and ‘double coding’.16 Against the materiality and structure emphasised by axonometry, they may appear as carriers of memory and myth since, as the Cameroonian architect Asa Pehn (Edouard Din) argued, ‘an architectural logic is not only that of the needed materials and the functions involved in towns but it is also the logic of enhanced and materialised meanings’.17 Against the emphasis on essentialised identities, the scholar’s drawings could reveal places ‘where a collage of scenes are acted and played out without a script’ – as historian and educator David Aradeon described the Oshodi area in Lagos in the 1990s.18 The very assumptions of stable national identities are challenged by the hybridity of the Afro-Brazilian architecture in Lagos, which Dmochowski studied by means of both drawings and photographs. They reflect Aradeon’s observation about architecture in Nigeria that ‘in the same space, cultures exist and co-exist’.'19 In short, a reading of Dmochowski’s drawings from the vantage point of 1980 may help us to discover their subversive potential beyond the Modernist narrative.

But to write about Dmochowski’s work from that perspective may also mean something else. It may mean reading his work retrospectively, starting with the last year of his stay in the country and proceeding against the chronological sequence of events. Such a retrospective view on his work brings to the fore his transnational trajectory: his arrival in still-colonial Lagos in 1958, his career in the United Kingdom starting in World War II and his research in 1930s Poland. That research, carried out at the Institute of the History of Polish Architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic, included surveys of wooden architecture in Polesie, in the then-eastern territories of Poland (today in Belarus and Ukraine), which were submitted to the practices of ‘civilizing mission’ and ‘internal colonisation’ by the government in Warsaw [Fig. 9].20

It was the same survey techniques and drawing methods that he and his collaborators employed in their research in Nigeria informed, in contrast to his work in interwar Poland, by the ambition to decolonise architecture in the country. This contrast extended to his uses of the concept of space: his discovery of Nigerian indigenous builders as ‘producers of space’ was at odds with his earlier explicit refusal to attribute any aesthetic intentions to the builders of the wooden structures in Polesie.21 Reflecting on these contrasts in Dmochowski’s work opens a postcolonial view on the Polish borderland – and the Eastern European borderlands more generally – that starts from situated experiences of colonialism’s aftermaths on the African continent.

  1. I would like to thank Eszter Steierhoffer for the invitation to contribute this essay and for her comments. The essay has benefited from a conversation with the participants of the Salon at The Cosmic House on 15 May 2023, including Nelly Bekus, Mark Crinson, Edwin Heathcote, Lily Jencks, Michał Murawski, Neal Shasore, Eszter Steierhoffer and Adedoyin Teriba. The writing of this essay was supported by a residency at the Jencks Foundation in London in May 2023.

  2. Zbigniew Dmochowski, An Introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture (London: Ethnographica; Lagos: National Commission for Museums and Monuments, 1990).

  3. Ekundayo Adeyinka Adeyemi, ‘Zbigniew R. Dmochowski: A Review of His Corpus’, 1. Private archive of Ekundayo Adeyemi, Lagos.

  4. Samaila Suleiman, ‘Politics of Heritage: Ethnic Minorities and the Politics of Heritage in Northern Nigeria’, in Things Don't Really Exist Until You Give Them a Name: Unpacking Urban Heritage, eds. Diane Barbé, Anne-Katrin Fenk, Rachel Lee and Philipp Misselwitz (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2017), 124–9.

  5. Chinua Achebe, ‘The Igbo World and Its Art’ (1984), in Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965–87 (London: Heinemann, 1987), 62–7.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, ‘The Historical Life of Objects: African Art History and the Problem of Discursive Obsolescence’, African Arts, 38/4 (Winter 2005), 62–9, 94–5.

  8. Dmochowski, An Introduction, vol. 1, viii–ix.

  9. Ibid., vol. 1, viii; vol. 2, 1.2.

  10. Adeyemi, ‘Zbigniew R. Dmochowski’.

  11. Dmochowski, An Introduction, vol. 1, ix.

  12. Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

  13. Ekundayo Adeyinka Adeyemi, In the Making of an Architect. The Zaria Experience (Ota: Covenant University Press, 2012), 68.

  14. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1991), 96.

  15. Suleiman, ‘Politics of Heritage’, 127–8.

  16. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 41; Charles Jencks, What is Post-Modernism? (London: Academy Editions; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 14-19.

  17. Asa Pehn, ‘Radioscopy of a Black City’, African space = Espace africain. Quarterly Magazine for Architecture, Urban Planning, Arts and Building in Africa, 1 (1985), 63.

  18. David Aradeon, ‘Oshodi: Replanners’ Options for a Subcity’, Glendora Review:African Quarterly on the Arts, 2/1 (1997), 51.

  19. David Aradeon, ‘Search for Identity: Inaugural Lecture’ (Lagos: University of Lagos, 1998), 1.

  20. Kathryn Ciancia, On Civilization’s Edge: A Polish Borderland in the Interwar World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

  21. Zbiginew Dmochowski, ‘Sprawozdanie ze studjów nad poleskiem budownictwem drzewnem w r. 1934/5’, Biuletyn historji sztuki i kultury III/4 (1934), 314.

Łukasz Stanek
1980 in Parallax: Zbigniew Dmochowski in Nigeria
1980 in Parallax