Olufemi Majekodunmi – Founder, FMA Architects

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When the history of Architecture in Nigeria is written, one of the names that will stand out, among those of his peers in the profession, is that of Arc. Olufemi Majekodunmi. Born in Lagos 73 years ago, he is probably the only Nigerian Architect that has turned his practice, FMA Architects (formerly Femi Majekodunmi Associates), into a multinational company, with offices in Nigeria, Botswana and South Africa.

Architect Majekodunmi had his early education at St. Gregory’s College in Lagos and later, from 1960, commenced the study of architecture at the Kingston College of Arts in the United Kingdom, from where he obtained a Diploma in Architecture in 1966. Later in 1969, he was admitted as an associate member of the Royal Institute of Architects (ARIBA), and in the same year, became a member of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (MNIA).

At the age of 32, in January 1973, he established the architectural practice of Femi Majekodunmi Associates, which has since grown into a multidisciplinary and multinational entity with offices in four locations in three countries in Africa. The offices are in Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria, Gaborone in Botswana, and Pretoria in South Africa.

Femi Majekodunmi is a collaborative architect with years of professional experience garnered from working with various firms in London, the United Kingdom and Washington DC in the USA, before his returning to Nigeria in February 1969.

Arc Majekodunmi brings worldwide perspective to his designs, demonstrating an ongoing commitment to working with various architectural organizations to advance the study and practice of architecture in all countries of the world, but particularly in Africa. This commitment has led him to become very much involved in various architectural associations worldwide, within which he has held various offices and positions.

He was the first Secretary General of, and among the founding fathers of the African Union of Architects. He is a past Secretary General and later President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects. He is also a past Vice President for Africa, and later President of the International Union of Architects.

He holds full membership of the following architectural organisations:
Member: Royal Institute of British Architects
Fellow: Nigerian Institute of Architects
Member: Zimbabwe Institute of Architects
Member: Botswana Institute of Architects
Member: South African Institute of Architects

He also holds honorary membership of the following architectural organisations:
Fellow: American Institute of Architects
Member: Bulgarian Institute of Architects
Member: Kenyan Institute of Architects
Member: Trinidad & Tobago Institute of Architects
Member: Indian Institute of Architects
Member: Spanish Organization of Architects
Member: Mexican Institute of Architects

In addition, he is also statutorily registered to practice as an architect in Nigeria, Botswana and South Africa.

In order to assist in the training of architects, and improving on the quality of the architectural graduates from Nigerian universities, Arc. Majekodunmi was offered and accepted the position of a part-time lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Lagos, as an Associate Professor of Architecture, in 2005. This was in keeping with his desire to share some of his knowledge and experiences of professional architectural practice, spanning more than 40 years.

On the occasion of his firm’s 40th anniversary, Arc. Majekodunmi reminisced on the growth and development of the profession in Nigeria and his experience as  founder of FMA Architects. He spoke to Construction Review`s Seni Bello in his Lagos office. Excerpts:

Can you make a comparison between the Architecture profession in the 70s and the present day, in terms of numbers of practices and practitioners in Nigeria? Also, what motivated you to set up FMA Architects in 1973?

As a lead up to answering your questions, let me give you a short preamble. I studied architecture in the UK between 1960 and 1966, part of which involved internship in an architectural practice in Washington DC, in the USA in 1963. Thereafter, I took up employment for the next three years, part of which was a one year statutory requirement for my final professional qualification, leading to membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in 1969. I returned to Nigeria in February of the same year.

It was my intention to work for, and understudy one of the best architectural practices in the country at the time, Godwin and Hopwood, for a period of two years, before setting up my own practice. However, I ended up working at Godwin and Hopwood (now GHK: Godwin, Hopwood, Kuye) for four years before I established Femi Majekodunmi Associates (now FMA Architects) on Monday the 8th of January 1973.

At the time, there were very few Nigerian architects practicing in the country, and the expatriate architects were more than the Nigerians, both in the public sector and in private practices. There were probably about -no more than- 30 Nigerians at the time. The situation was such that, at the time I left Godwin and Hopwood to set up my practice, there were very few Nigerian architects, who were available for employment. They were either working for themselves or for the government.

About the time I established my practice, the only way I could get staff, was to employ four architects from the UK. Most of the expatriates at the time were from the UK, Sri Lanka, Ghana or India, and some of them had set up their own practices. The only school of Architecture in the country, at the time, was the Department of Architecture at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Now, virtually all universities in Nigeria have Schools of Architecture.

The Nigerian Institute of Architecture has been very instrumental in encouraging the increase in the number of these schools, and people, such as Professor John Godwin, my former boss at Godwin and Hopwood, have also been instrumental in the training of architects, as well as in the dissemination of information about architecture in Nigeria. He and his wife, Gillian Hopwood have written about four books on architecture, with particular relevance to Nigeria, and he also teaches at the Department of Architecture of the University of Lagos, and was instrumental in encouraging me to take up the part-time teaching position at the same institution.

In 1973, Nigeria was just coming out of the Civil War and there was a lot of re-construction to be done. New buildings and related infrastructure had to be provided, all over the country, and there was a lot of work for professionals in the building industry. It made good sense for anyone to start an architectural practice in Nigeria at the time, and this is what I did. I was still a bachelor at the time and I wanted to start while I was not encumbered with the responsibilities of marital life and raising a family. Opportunities were abundant for ambitious young Nigerians in the construction industry.

Looking back, have you regretted making that bold step instead of staying with another private practice or taking a civil service job?

I do not regret taking the step I did 40 years ago, of setting up my practice. It has been a most rewarding and satisfying experience and I have been blessed by the decision. I have also been fortunate to have met many people who helped and encouraged me in my career. As said, I wanted to work for two years with the best firm of architects in the country at the time to gain experience, but ended up spending 4 years under Arc. John Godwin and his wife, Arc Gillian Hopwood. My four years at Godwin and Hopwood, were more like being in a training institution, rather than like work, and I learnt a lot, and owe a debt of gratitude to both John and Gillian Godwin. When I was leaving practice, after four years, they asked me to continue the project I was handling in the practice at the time, the Federal School of Arts and Science in Victoria Island in Lagos, and they passed-on the fees received from the project, to me. Such generosity of spirit, I am yet to see again in my life, and I may never see again.

While at Godwin and Hopwood, I met Arc Raja Chatterjee, an Indian, and the Director of Works at the Federal Ministry of Works Head Office, then situated at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos He encouraged me to set up my practice, to the extent of telling my father that he was sure I will be a success. He also promised to patronize my practice with government projects, which he did, with no consideration or gratification from me. He was a highly principled and honest civil servant, and I will forever be in his debt.

I also recollect Mr. Brownlow, the General Manager of GB Ollivant, a multinational British trading company. Just after I commenced my practice, sometime in March 1973, I requested for, and he granted me a discount on the cost of a set of office furniture I bought from his company to start my practice. Thereafter he commissioned me to design a warehouse for the company at Aerodrome Road in Apapa. The building is still there, and I was paid six hundred pounds as my fee, which was a lot of money in those days. With this princely sum, received six months into the commencement of my practice, I was able to defray a large part of the six thousand pound loan my father stood as a guarantor on my behalf, when I started the practice.

There was also the day, in February 1974, when I received a phone call on a Saturday, from Mr. S.O.Williams, the then Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Communications. The former Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed was the Minister of Communication at the time. I was asked to produce a design for the headquarters of the Post and Telecommunication Services at Lafiaji in Lagos, within a week. At the time, there were only three of us in the practice consisting of myself, a draughtsman, Muri Abiola, and Bola, a male secretary.

We worked like slaves and produced a set of drawings within a week. Upon presentation to the team at the Ministry of Communications a week later, there were so many changes demanded and we were told to make all necessary amendments, and return with the finished design the following day, as the minister wanted the building in a hurry.  Muri Abiola and I worked all night, without sleep and presented the drawings on time the following morning, whereupon the design was approved, and we were commended for having a good set of staff which enabled us finalise the work, in such a short a time. The building, is eight storeys high, and is the first multi storey building by FMA. It still stands at Obalende/Lafiaji, almost opposite the former Nigeria Police Headquarters, Kam Salem House, in Lagos.

What gave you the push to multi-nationalise your practice-FMA Architects?
Sometime in 1980, the Nigerian branch of Bouygues, the French construction company, invited us to collaborate with them, at risk, on a Design & Build bid they wished to submit to the government of the newly independent Republic of Zimbabwe, for the construction of the offices for the then Prime Minister of the country, Mr. Robert Mugabe. At the time, Mr Cannan Banana was the President.

We readily agreed to participate, even though we knew we will be working at risk, with no guarantee of fees for our efforts. We duly produced the design drawings and we were later told that, Mr Mugabe liked our presentation and was surprised the presentation were prepared by black architects from Nigeria. Unfortunately the Bouygues bid was unsuccessful, but we were supposed to have come second, whether on the basis of the financial proposals or on the basis of the design proposals, we were not told. The black government officials in Zimbabwe, appealed to me to set up a practice in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and encourage the local black architects to do the same, as the architectural profession at the time was dominated by whites, and there were only a handful of black architects.

However, after two years of trying to set up a practice in Harare, I was frustrated and decided to call it quits. But the local representative of the African Development Bank (ADB), Mr Bisi Ogunjobi, with whom I had become friendly, offered to introduce me to another African country, where he was sure I will make headway in my ambition to set up a practice outside Nigeria.

He gave me a letter of introduction to the Director of Works at the Ministry of Construction in Gaborone, the capital of the Republic of Botswana. Within two months of arrival in Gaborone, I had registered an architectural practice and even got a substantial commission to design a small enclave of 44 housing units for the members of the House of Parliament and the House of Chiefs of Botswana. We never looked back and I will forever be grateful to Mr Bisi Ogunjobi, who is now the Chairman of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria in Abuja.

FMA Botswana has turned out to be a very successful practice, almost rivalling the original practice in Lagos. There, we are located in 25% of our own purpose built four storey office building. Some of our projects include the National Police College of Botswana, the National Library of Botswana, the extension of the Gaborone Campus of the University of Botswana, as well as a 200 bed hospital in a city called Maun.

Later, about ten years ago, we decided to open an office in Pretoria in South Africa, and this office is also beginning to make some headway.

On South Africa, a lot of their professionals and companies in the construction industry are moving to Nigeria to equally explore this large market, do you see them as threat to the indigenous experts?
I do not see South African architects or architects from any other country in the world being a threat to Nigerian architects. Rather, I think such an influx will make for vibrancy in the industry, as there are now many Nigerian architects who can hold their own against any foreign architects.  After all, Nigerian architectural firms such as FMA are also practicing in other countries and we also collaborate with architects from other countries in the world, on projects here in Nigeria.

Spectacular designs seem to be the preserve of Euro-American Architects club, why have we not been seeing such projects in Africa?
No. Spectacular designs are being done by many young and not so young architects in Nigeria today, which are just as innovative as those currently being done in Europe and the USA.

In fact there are a number of Nigerian architects who are based and work overseas and who have gained an international reputation such as Kunle Adeyemi. Within Nigeria there are well known and innovative individuals and firms such as ACCL (the Coker brothers), Ade Laoye (ECAD), Jumoke Odunowo, Bayo Odunlami (DESIGN GROUP), James Cubitt & Partners, and many others, who are all producing world class designs.

What are the challenges facing the construction industry in Nigeria and your own solutions?
There is a deficiency in the number and quality of artisans in the construction industry in Nigeria, to the extent that artisans are now being brought into the country, by contractors who need their skills, to fill the gap created by the shortage of skilled technicians. The existing trade and technical colleges are either not enough to cope with the requirements of the industry, or are inadequate in terms of the quality of training and the expertise of their graduates. There is a real need to establish more technical and vocational schools for the training of artisans.

Secondly, the government has apportioned too many responsibilities to itself and strangling the system. The privatisation program should be pursued to its logical conclusion, and Government should limit itself to providing the enabling environment for professionals to operate as private sector participants and not as a competitor of the private sector. Government should concern itself with promulgating regulations after due, consultation with the stakeholders.

Such regulations should be to the advantage of the professions and enable the practitioners to give sound and qualitative service to the populace, as can be seen from the ongoing success recorded in the Telecommunications sector. It is hoped that a similar success will be recorded after the ongoing exercise in the electric power sector. This will be good for the construction industry and, ultimately, for the nation.

As a respected elder in the profession, has the government been sympathetic to your views on the infrastructural developments in the country, especially the FCT, Abuja? How do you define the relationship between you-the profession- and the government?
When the need arises, I have offered and continue to offer my views and services for the benefit of the construction industry. I was recently appointed as a member of the committee for the National Integrated Masterplan for Nigeria, and was co-chairman of one of the working groups. The Committee has concluded the first phase of its assignment and its report should be another blue-print for moving the country forward.

The Nigerian Institute of Architects has also been approached by state and the Federal Government on a number of major policy issues and has accordingly made its views known. Equally other members of the profession of architecture are very much a part of the current Executive Council of the nation, from the Vice President, who is an architect, to at least four other members who are also architects.

What will you like to be remembered for as far as the profession is concerned?
I will like to be remembered as an architect and a professional who did his best to ensure that the profession of architecture catered for the needs of the populace of my native country, Nigeria, by encouraging good, cost effective and sustainable design. And also as an African who encouraged and promoted the education of architects, by ensuring that the practioners of the profession are the best available.