After decades of neglect, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest metropolis has suddenly found itself under intense critical scrutiny. The new attention comes not so much from development specialists or Africa scholars but from a high-profile convergence of architectural and cultural theory and critical urban studies, often focused around major international art exhibitions. Once known as the ‘Venice of West Africa’, Nigeria’s former capital—a smoky expanse of concrete and shanty-towns, sprawling for miles across the islands, waterways and onshore hinterland of the Lagos Lagoon—has become the subject of such mega-shows as Century City (2001) in London and Africas: the Artist and the City (2001) in Barcelona, and featured prominently in the 2002 Documenta 11 in Kassel. The Harvard School of Design’s Project on the City, led by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, has announced its intention to produce a whole book devoted to Lagos.footnote1

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In part this focus is the result of the initiatives, energy and imagination of a new generation of Nigerian intellectuals. Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2002 Documenta quintennial, explained his decision to expand the already substantial Kassel exhibition by hosting a series of international ‘Platforms’ (conferences, workshops, public discussions, film and video projects) in the run-up to the show as having both political and aesthetic objectives in such ‘tense times’ as these, when ‘incertitudes . . . make deeper demands on the sunny projections of globalist progress’. Platform 4, held in Lagos in 2002 in conjunction with the Goethe Institut, was entitled ‘Under Siege: Four African Cities’. It brought together local advocates and a range of African and European researchers and writers to provide a week-long forum, a manifestation of Documenta 11’s concern ‘that the space of contemporary art, and the mechanisms that bring it to a wider public domain, require radical rethinking and enlargement’.footnote2 For Enwezor, the crisis-ridden African mega-cities are ‘centres that still hold great potential for human vitality, creativity and inventiveness.’footnote3 Lagos has become both the venue and focus for a radical urban agenda.

Yet the current flurry of interest in Lagos masks divergent modes of analysis and interpretation. Two approaches have dominated. The first is an eschatological evocation of urban apocalypse: poverty, violence, disease, political corruption, uncontrollable growth and manic religiosity; a city of between perhaps ten and fifteen million (the administrative means to take a reliable census do not exist), with minimal access to running water and sanitation, in which some 70 per cent are excluded from regular salaried employment. In this nightmare vision, the city is on the brink of a cataclysm brought about by civil strife and infrastructural collapse. Robert Kaplan’s treatment of Lagos in The Coming Anarchy would be one example of this genre; Pep Subirós’s ‘Lagos: Surviving Hell’ and much of the German press coverage of Documenta 11 another.footnote4 In these and other contemporary accounts by Western commentators, Lagos takes on the allure of a ‘new Bronx’: a wild zone of the urban imagination, a realm of irrationality beyond the reach of human agency or any realistic prospects of improvement. An inverse of the globalization thesis is presented, in which certain regions are seen as totally excluded from the reconfigured world economic system.

The second view, by contrast, is far more upbeat, focusing on the novelties of the city’s morphology. Exemplified by Rem Koolhaas and the Harvard School of Design’s Project on the City, this approach also emphasizes the seemingly chaotic aspects of Lagos’s development, but does so in order to highlight the homeostatic complexity of newly evolving socio-economic structures, with the city conceived as a series of self-regulatory systems.footnote5 In this perspective, Lagos is seen not as a threatening anomaly but as the precursor to a new kind of urbanism, hitherto ignored within the teleological discourses of Western modernity; one which may be perfectly adapted to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Koolhaas’s contributions on Lagos—in the Documenta 11 Under Siege volume and in the Franco-Catalan Mutations collection—form part of the Project on the City’s ongoing work on contemporary urbanism. Its mission, Fredric Jameson has argued, is ‘to explore a new reality’, rather than to propose solutions.footnote6 The interest of Lagos for this project is threefold. Firstly, of the 33 megalopolises projected to exist by 2015, the vast majority will be in poor countries; Lagos is predicted to become one of the world’s biggest cities, and may perhaps be taken as some sort of archetype for the urbanization process at work in the global South. Secondly, the intention is ‘to understand and describe how an African city works’, a goal driven by the realization that:

The engrained vocabulary and values of architectural discourse are painfully inadequate to describe the current production of urban substance. They perpetuate an image of the city which is essentially Western, and subconsciously insist that all cities, wherever they are, be interpreted in that image; they systematically find wanting any urban form that does not conform. Our words cannot describe our cities with any precision or pleasure.footnote7

But the fundamental conundrum of Lagos, as the Harvard Project sees it, is how it can continue to function as a city at all, given that it lacks all the basic amenities and public services deemed essential in traditional urban studies. Most Western planning experts have concurred that Lagos has ‘none of the infrastructures, systems or even environmental resources’ to support a population considerably below its current level.footnote8