Nigeria

The Alan Vaughan-Richards House

Writer

John Burns

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A stone’s throw from the highlife of Awolowo Road in Lagos, the Alan Vaughan-Richards House stands as a fine but frail reminder of post-independent Nigeria’s brief indulgence in tropical modernist architecture and organic design.

Conceived in the 1960s by British architect Alan Vaughan-Richards as a residence for his new, Nigerian family, the building – unlike the sprawling pre-fab mansions nearby – is exceptional for its experimental combination of climatic modernism, innovative design and preservation of local heritage.

Left unoccupied after Vaughan-Richards’ death in 1989 for almost 15 years, part of the house is now the full-time base of his daughter, Remi, who, along with Ola Uduku and Hannah Le Roux from the universities of Edinburgh and Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, respectively, is working to conserve both the ailing architecture and the intangible legacy of her parents’ unconventional lifestyle.

Vaughan-Richards’ hoard of over 300 architectural drawings has already been digitised by Uduku and her team at the University of Edinburgh for future research, and Remi and Le Roux are working to conserve the physical architecture of the house, exploring options to convert Remi’s childhood home into a living museum of Lagosian life in the 1960s.

Conservation

‘I live in what you could call a round hut,’ says Remi Vaughan-Richards, a Nigerian filmmaker, describing her Lagos home. Though a modest description, the ‘hut’ is unlike those found mushrooming in the city’s slum networks. Rather, it sits in the shadow of a tropical modernist masterpiece in Ikoyi, a cosmopolitan neighbourhood that’s home to some of Africa’s most valuable real estate.

Designed as a family residence in the 1960s by Remi’s father, Alan Vaughan-Richards – a British architect who trained at the AA School of Architecture in London – its value, instead, is one of cultural and architectural heritage due to its exceptionally experimental mixing of modernist design principles with local tradition.

Remi lives in a ‘geodesic dome’ among the overgrown tropical thickets of the garden. ‘I would describe it as a blend of African inspired design and European modernism, with a sustainable heart,’ she says of the main house, her childhood home. ‘It is a house in which there are no straight lines and no conventional rules of construction.’

Unfortunately, the landmark structure is in need of reparation. ‘The legacy of the house and how to preserve it weighs on my shoulders,’ says Remi. Its singularity, though, along with her father’s larger architectural legacy, has attracted the attention of Dr Ola Uduku, a reader in Tropical Architecture and Environmental Design at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Now, with a grant from the British Academy, and further funding from Edinburgh University, Uduku is digitising the architect’s drawings for future research, and there are plans afoot to turn the building into a living museum, of sorts, with scope for an artist’s residency.

‘He was ahead of his time,’ Uduku says of her interest in the architect. ‘Alan Vaughan-Richards’ buildings are quite unique because there doesn’t seem to be any further development after them,’ she says. She explains how Nigerian architecture stalled at the end of the 1970s, an anti-climax to the ‘golden era’ of the previous decade. ‘He didn’t just ground [the house] in what would have been the old, traditional vernacular, he actually responded to modernist ideas within an African context.’

The House Today

When the home was built in the 1960s, the surrounding landscape was a sleepy fishing village – ‘an idyllic setting,’ says Remi. Today, the neighbourhood has changed beyond recognition. ‘Now, we have a huge estate of middle-income housing in front of what was once a lagoon, as well as a squatter village and a massive, soggy marsh area right in front of the house. There is nothing to engage with in a positive manner,’ she says of the building’s relationship to those nearby, which Uduku describes as ‘anonymous, Western architecture.’

Despite his experimental architectural approach and unusual designs, Alan Vaughan-Richards was careful to frame the house according to his growing family’s lifestyle. ‘You get the idea that it has been designed as a family home, with an emphasis on informal entertainment,’ says Remi, one of four children. ‘You get the sense, too, that the house was in constant evolution by my father. I often wonder what direction he would have taken if he had lived longer.’

The Vaughan-Richards Family

After arriving in Nigeria in 1955 as Alan Richards, Remi’s father fell in love with and married Ayo Vaughan, a descendent of one of the seven ruling houses of Lagos, a former Miss Nigeria and a strong proponent of women’s rights. ‘Remi’s parents were socialites – it was a house that hosted parties,’ says Uduku, who uses the word ‘innovative’ to describe the couple. ‘It’s very much a building of its place and probably of its time,’ she continues. ‘When you’re there, you can almost feel what it would’ve been like back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.’

‘Growing up in the house was an incredible experience as a child,’ Remi recalls. ‘The garden seemed like a huge forest of discovery. My siblings and I had local canoes and would go exploring on the lagoon, meeting with the fishermen. On our birthdays, we would have friends over and my folks would hire a donkey and a projector to play Laurel and Hardy movies. The house was something I took for granted, not knowing that it was not a normal environment until much later on.’

‘We were part of the house and the house was part of us,’ she continues. ‘As children, we helped lay the sculpted carpet in the bedroom and also created the coin crocodile on the curved wall of the spiral staircase, leading to the wooden section of the house.’

Forty years on, Remi now spends her days in the outhouse – ‘the hut’ – with all of the doors and windows open ‘until 6pm, when the mosquitoes gather force.’ She tends to a forest of bamboo and ancient trees in the garden, which she says has a certain ‘faded glory – a bit like Venice.’ ‘There is a sense of peace in the garden, an oasis in the crazy environment of Lagos,’ she says. ‘It needs more love but the spirit is there.’

An Artist’s Home

Inside the main house, artworks and interiors survive as a Vaughan-Richards time capsule, a preserved merging of the couple’s interests. ‘I see beauty not only in how I look or what I wear but also in my environment,’ Remi’s mother once wrote in a 1988 Chicago Tribune article. Her respect for local Yoruba and indigenous artwork is evident in the clusters of earthenware pots found dotting the timber niches, and in the Nigerian masks and figures that watch over the ‘Aladire’ upholstered seating from whitewashed walls. ‘It’s very much an artist’s house,’ says Uduku.

‘They lived an innovative lifestyle, I guess,’ says Remi of her parents. ‘One less formal than their peers, which is reflected in the “casual” nature of the living room,’ where, she says, there are no chairs, only moulded flooring and a circular grass mat inset in the ceiling. ‘It is hard for me to know how innovative they were because I took our way of life as normal,’ she adds.

Uduku has visited the house on several occasions, and has become friends with Remi. ‘I spent about four years in Lagos, and [the house] is not like anything I’ve lived in there. Everything is circular, so there is a kind of embryonic feeling – like being in a womb. It’s got a very calming aura,’ she says.

What loss would it be to Nigerian architecture if the unthinkable were to happen? If the house, despite the efforts of Remi and Uduku, were left to crumble? ‘I mean, that is intangible,’ Uduku answers. ‘If a building can embody a person’s vision, I think this house does it. In the sense that in some ways it’s almost, for lack of a better word, sacred. You feel the architect’s touch.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.

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