Things Fall Apart
A feat of elegant design wowed elite architects and promised to bring education to poor children in Nigeria. Then it collapsed.
Kunlé Adeyemi hustled across the ballroom in Venice, Italy, with a wide smile on his face. He wore a tailored tunic and pants—classic Nigerian menswear—cut from glossy brown fabric. The staid crowd that had gathered to witness his coronation applauded politely as he beckoned his team to join him on stage. There Adeyemi embraced each member of the jury that had named him the victor and seized his prize: the Silver Lion, awarded to a “promising young participant” in the International Architecture Exhibition, better known among the global design elite as the Venice Biennale.
It was May 2016, and the Biennale’s theme was “reporting from the front.” To curator Alejandro Aravena, “the front” encompassed spaces both literal and figurative. Aravena was the most recent recipient of his field’s top honor, the Pritzker Prize, and he designed buildings that prioritized public interest and social impact. He wanted his Biennale to crack open assumptions about architecture by drawing on the talent, knowledge, and imagination of those bearing witness to the world’s most pressing problems. “We are not interested in architecture as the manifestation of a formal style,” Aravena said before the exhibition, “but rather as an instrument of self-government, of humanist civilization, and as a demonstration of the ability of humans to become masters of their own destinies.”
Adeyemi, at whom Aravena beamed with pride during the award ceremony, was one of the Biennale’s darlings. The 40-year-old Nigerian was given his prize for designing a school in Makoko, one of the largest slums in Lagos. Described by the Silver Lion jury as “at once iconic and pragmatic,” the school was meant to serve poor children whose neighborhood the government wanted to demolish. What made it singular was its location: The school floated on the water that envelops much of the coastal megacity. The structure suggested an alternative to tearing down slums to make way for development, a new approach for elevating instead of erasing the poor. Thanks to Adeyemi’s innovative design, the children of Makoko had a space in which to expand their minds and horizons.
In his acceptance speech, Adeyemi compared his project’s setting to the Biennale’s. “It’s said that the early settlers of Venice were fishermen in the marshy lagoons, not very different from the people of Makoko,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be standing here representing the intelligence of the people of Makoko as well as countless waterfront communities all over the world.” The crowd standing before him could see the Makoko Floating School for themselves: A replica, called MFS II, sat between brick arches and white Istrian columns in the Gaggiandre, a 16th-century Venetian dockyard. Built specifically for the Biennale, the structure included a buoyant platform, on top of which blond wood beams crisscrossed into triangles that formed a classic A-frame.
MFS II projected a sharply modern geometry onto the still surface of the ancient canal. To rapt Biennale participants, it also reflected the far-reaching potential of Adeyemi’s design. Built in ten days by four Italian woodworkers, MFS II had been “adapted for easy prefabrication, rapid assembly, and a wide range of uses,” according to the architect and his team. Inside the replica, Adeyemi hung maps of coastlines from around the world. Pushpins designated construction projects in “water cities,” the coastal metropolises likely to bear some of the most drastic impacts of climate change and rising sea levels. With the floating school, Adeyemi wanted to spark a conversation about how cities like Lagos can adapt to their shifting environments and set examples for sustainable design.
It was a beautiful pitch, and Adeyemi is a gifted orator. When he spoke to reporters, he was articulate and self-assured. Before the Biennale, the school in Makoko had made headlines in The New York Times and The Guardian and been featured in segments on CNN and Al Jazeera. After Adeyemi’s victory in Italy, the accolades continued. On social media, the architect shared an image of his Silver Lion nestled in the grass of a Venetian park and another of a barge tugging MFS II into the Gaggiandre. Congratulatory notes littered the comments of both photos.
Then, suddenly, the praise evaporated. Shock and censure took its place. One week after Adeyemi claimed his statuette, the Makoko Floating School collapsed. All that remained of the structure heralded as a bellwether of change for a slum and its inhabitants was a flattened pile of planks adrift in the waters of a polluted lagoon.
What follows is an account of the school’s stunning rise and fall. Though it deals with the question of who is to blame for what happened, it is ultimately a parable of complicity. It is about the myths that people want to believe about the world, noble intentions sullied by ego or derailed by the mundane, the intractability of parochial politics, and the ethics of social experimentation. It is about gossip and spin, the spectrum between honesty and deceit, and the dilemma of who can speak for whom. It is also about the moral of the empty barrel—the emptier it is, the louder the echo—and bad belle, a Nigerian term for jealousy.
Stories that seem simple aren’t always so. Heroes and villains are rarely pure. In the case of the Makoko Floating School, the truth is shambolic, the characters changeable. It is fitting that our story takes place somewhere fluid.
Lagos is shaped by water. Its name comes from the Portuguese word for “lakes,” and the city is situated on the western and southwestern shorelines of a 2,500-square-mile lagoon. The water abuts a swathe of mainland before splitting into serpentine channels that flow between several small islands and empty into the Gulf of Guinea. The islands house Lagos’s business districts and elite neighborhoods, while the mainland is where government offices and the airport are located. It’s also where most of the population lives. No one is sure how many people are in Lagos; official estimates range from 14 million to 21 million. Thousands more arrive each day seeking economic opportunity. Many wind up in the city’s slums.
Kunlé Adeyemi didn’t live in Lagos until he was a young man. He grew up in Kaduna, an industrial city in northern Nigeria. His father was an architect who constantly amended his family’s house. Adeyemi followed in his father’s footsteps, studying architecture at the University of Lagos (Unilag) in the late 1990s. In the design world, it was an era of grandiose projects and personalities, of “starchitects” like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Structures were celebrated for their hyper-visibility. A loud, iconic statement was as valued as functionality. Buildings weren’t just buildings; they were triumphant displays of vision.
During Adeyemi’s studies, Rem Koolhaas, one of the period’s most famous architects, came to Lagos for a research project. Koolhaas was known for his global media presence, conspicuous constructions, and sweeping philosophical missives on urbanism and space. While scholars and policymakers tended to frame Lagos in apocalyptic terms—too big, too dirty, too frenetic—Koolhaas saw purpose in the city’s chaos. “In terms of all the initiatives and ingenuity, it mobilized an incredibly beautiful, almost utopian landscape of independence and agency,” he later told The Guardian. From his research, which involved design students at Unilag, Koolhaas produced a documentary that showed Lagosians moving through their rapidly growing city, utilizing its spaces and navigating its economies.
After graduating, Adeyemi got a job at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Koolhaas’s renowned design firm in the Netherlands. For several years, he worked within an organization known for long hours, radical dreamscapes, and savvy publicity. He participated in projects in Doha and Seoul. When he set out on his own, launching the firm NLÉ in 2010, its main office was in Amsterdam. He later opened a second, smaller branch in Lagos.
Adeyemi wanted his firm to shape the future of developing cities, particularly in Africa, through projects that created affordable housing and common-use spaces. This philosophy was captured in his firm’s name: Nlé means “at home” in Yoruba, the dominant language in southwestern Nigeria. “‘Home’ is much more than walls, floors and ceilings,” the company’s Facebook page reads. “It refers to the fundamental building blocks of the city, to everyday life and the uses of public space in the emerging and endlessly complex urbanisms of developing regions.”
In Lagos, one place drew Adeyemi like a magnet. For years he’d seen it from a distance. Like many Lagosians, he glimpsed it to the west every time he crossed the citys’s lofted, curving Third Mainland Bridge. That place was Makoko.
The slum looks now as it did then: distinctive and arresting. Many of its shanties jut out from the mainland, transforming the appearance of the shoreline. Resting on stilts sunk into the lagoon’s muddy bed, they form jagged rows that seem to hang over the water’s surface. This ad hoc characteristic predates colonialism and forms part of Lagos’s architectural heritage. It is also vulnerable to the elements and the pressures of a swelling population: Makoko is home to an estimated 100,000 people and counting.
The structures wooden walls are waxy with wear. Denizens move between them in canoes. So do hawkers; unlike their land-dwelling counterparts, who tote wares in round bins balanced on their heads, the vendors of Makoko array hair accessories, tomatoes, sodas, and fried snacks in their laps as they ply the neighborhood’s channels. In other parts of Lagos, there are honking horns, rumbling exhaust pipes, and roaring engines, but in the slum you hear only the hum of human voices and the occasional quaking of a generator. Water imbues the scene with a preternatural serenity.
The government has long thought of Makoko as a festering eyesore. “It’s shameful, it’s embarrassing, you don’t see this in Europe, in the U.S.,” a state press liaison told me, his voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. But journalists, photographers, and urbanists come to the slum with the zeal of explorers. There is a messy mystique to the place: It is at once inspiring and upsetting, intriguing and shocking. The permanent haze that hovers overhead, a mix of smoke, dust, and fumes, imbues Makoko with a beguiling light. The bright colors of patterned clothing pop in photos, and the visual drama is deepened by the blackness of the lagoon.
When Adeyemi latched onto Makoko as a potential project site, friends in Lagos’s design community suggested that he talk to Isi Etomi. A young architect with an ebullient laugh, Etomi is a native Lagosian who values pragmatism and restraint. While studying architecture at Canterbury University in Great Britain, she wanted her senior project to be “a realistic proposal that someone could take to the government and say, ‘This is how you solve a problem’”—not one of the “fantasy projects, up in the sky, in the clouds” that many young architects prefer. She scoured her memory for a candidate in her home city and recalled Makoko. She’d never visited, but she’d smelled its scent, which wafts up to the Third Mainland Bridge: smoked fish, fresh sap, diesel fumes, and unprocessed sewage. “It’s not particularly off-putting, but it is memorable,” Etomi told me. Her two-volume thesis, which drew on Koolhaas’s research and comparative examples like Brazil’s favelas, proposed a new market and a gradual upgrading of the slum, one row of shanties at a time.
When she moved back to Lagos, Etomi began a year with the National Youth Service Corps—compulsory for university graduates—and requested placement in Makoko. She taught at one of the neighborhood’s only Anglophone schools, called Whanyinna (Love). Adept at navigating their unusual neighborhood, students scurried along beams suspended over the lagoon to get to their classes, which were held in derelict rooms spruced up with red flowers hand-painted on the walls. The school was a charity project of the Lagos Yacht Club, but the funders hadn’t allotted money for teachers’ salaries or even toilets. The building’s foundation was submerged underwater and rested on sand fill. Sometimes when it rained, the interior flooded. Whanyinna was also overcrowded, with a waiting list for admission. “The project failed practically and socially,” Etomi noted in a report she wrote about the school. “Unsupported capital investments simply add management burdens to already under-resourced communities/governments and end up wasting the capital investments.”
In a serendipitous twist, actor Ben Stiller visited Makoko and met with Noah Shemede, the school’s director and a native of the slum. When Shemede mentioned that Makoko’s children needed more classroom space, Stiller offered to fund construction through his philanthropic foundation. Etomi began working on a feasibility study for an extension of Whanyinna’s original structure. At the same time, she drafted and completed a smaller-scale project: a shelter for people awaiting canoe taxis at one of Makoko’s watery intersections. “It’s something that makes life a little easier in a discreet kind of way,” she told me. It took two days to build.
Whanyinna’s extension was still in an early drafting phase when Etomi and Adeyemi met. They discussed their shared interest in Makoko and brainstormed designs for the school. In Etomi’s mind, this was “charity work, a community project,” and she was “not thinking of anything further than that.” Adeyemi started on the same page. His early ideas were straightforward: a two-story, open-plan structure, with a playground downstairs and a classroom upstairs.
Around the third draft, though, Adeyemi hit on a new idea: What if the school floated in the lagoon? That would make it resistant to flooding, he hypothesized, and speak to the growing threat of climate change. It could be shaped like a triangle, with sloping walls that enabled drainage into the lagoon. It would be a beacon of invention among Makoko’s dilapidated stilt structures and a “reusable modular building prototype.” In an early rendering, Adeyemi labeled the structure with the words “indigenous, ecological, local materials, self sustaining, economical, adaptable, movable, safe.”
In a 2012 budget prepared for the Stiller Foundation, Adeyemi estimated the outlay for his project at about $130,000, including what amounted to $13,000 for him to fly business class between his home in Amsterdam and Lagos. Etomi balked at the price tag, which was roughly seven times the cost of Whanyinna’s original structure, and at the idea that the building would be replicable. “It cannot work, because they cannot afford it,” she told me, referring to the slum’s residents.
Etomi and Adeyemi debated the matter in text messages, which were obtained for this story from a third party. “You can provide a higher standard of building but it need not be so… elaborate,” Etomi wrote in one exchange. “The simplest solutions are often the best.” Adeyemi replied, “I’m surprised u don’t see the simplicity in the new proposal.” Etomi also worried that the structure wouldn’t be able to withstand storms. “I keep thinking about driving rain,” she texted. “Driving rain is a detailing issue,” Adeyemi responded.
There was also the matter of the project’s visibility, which Adeyemi wanted to maximize. Makoko residents live under constant threat of eviction, which has a long, brutal history in Lagos. Many of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods sit where slums once did. In 1990, a single mass eviction affected some 300,000 people. The area was covered with sand and, later, McMansions. Eko Atlantic, a luxury district built on land “reclaimed” from coastal erosion through dredging and specialized infrastructure, displaced a poor community on the fringes of Bar Beach. Evictions are often violent affairs; bulldozers and armed police plow into communities with little or no prior notice. Etomi feared that a high-profile project intended to help and celebrate Makoko’s residents risked making them targets.
Adeyemi told Etomi that she was behaving like a “side critic” who wasn’t “actually properly engaging with the work.” She decided to back out of the project. “I just didn’t have any confidence in it,” she told me. Stiller’s foundation stepped away as well. (It didn’t reply to a request for comment.)
Adeyemi looked for other funding and secured it from the United Nations Development Program and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which funds environmentally friendly projects worldwide. Noah Shemede, the school’s director, wondered what had happened to the other collaborators, but the project was gaining momentum. “All I needed was a school to put the students in, so I said no wahala,” Shemede recalled, using Nigerian slang for “no problem.”
He showed Adeyemi around the neighborhood and welcomed the architect into his home. The men traveled together to neighboring Benin to observe other water-based architecture. The future looked bright. Then came a searing reminder that, in Makoko, daily life is a precarious balancing act.
On July 12, 2012, Makoko residents woke to find the slum papered with flyers. Printed on letterhead from the Lagos State Ministry of Waterfront Infrastructure Development, they accused residents of continuing to “occupy and develop shanties and unwholesome structures on the waterfront without authority,” which “constituted environmental nuisance, security risks, impediments to economic and gainful utilization of the waterfront such as navigation, entertainment, recreation, etc.” Residents were given 72 hours to vacate.
A few days later, police raced into Makoko on speedboats. They cut homes down with chainsaws. Shacks were reduced to haphazard piles of broken beams. Displaced residents drifted in canoes with whatever belongings they could salvage, or they crammed into the already crowded homes of sympathetic neighbors. Activists sprung into action, imploring the government to cease demolition and alerting the press. Adeyemi joined in by posting updates on NLÉ’s Facebook page. He shared aerial photos of the slum, delineating the parts that had been destroyed and those that might be next. Bright yellow text overlaying the images read “Save Makoko.” When the police shot and killed a local leader, the outcry from residents and activists forced the government to back down, at least for the time being. The campaign had lasted five days. The next one, locals feared, would be worse.
Adeyemi folded the event into his pitch for the floating school. Suddenly, the project was about more than a place where children could learn. It was a redemptive emblem for a threatened community. That October, NLÉ shared an image on Facebook of Adeyemi sitting at a conference table with the government’s commissioner of the environment, discussing plans for the school. It was one of many events that Adeyemi documented for public consumption. On social media, he posted photos of kids jumping and kicking a soccer ball on a test raft, a platform of wood planks resting on recycled blue barrels lashed together and bobbing in the lagoon. He shared images from a local lumberyard where he procured wood for the school’s frame and from meetings with community members where they reviewed diagrams and designs.
The most important liaison in Makoko was Shemede, whose life story became another thread in the compelling narrative of Adeyemi’s project. The youngest of 22 children, Shemede has soft features and deep-set eyes. His father was one of Makoko’s six traditional leaders, called baales. Shemede was the only child in his family to make it to high school. He hated it, but his mother and siblings forced him to go, sometimes with beatings. When he grew up, his mother said, he should start a school to share what he had learned. As director of Whanyinna, Shemede was deeply proud—of the school and his home. “Makoko is very fine. It just needs improvements,” he told me once. “If you put a fish on dry land, can it survive? That is the way we people here are like. We cannot live on land. Living on water is part of our culture.” The comment reminded me of a quote by Langston Hughes: “Misery is when you heard on the radio that the neighborhood you live in is a slum but you always thought it was home.”
Local builders were hired to erect the floating school in late 2012. The process took a few months. The final design included three floors: a bottom level of more than 1,000 square feet where children could play and community members could gather, and two upper floors that would house classrooms. There were louvered windows for shade and ventilation, a sleek blue roof, and plans for systems that would harvest rainwater and compost waste. With its A-frame shape, low center of gravity, and base of more than 250 blue barrels, the school was supposed to be resilient against storms and tides.
In an interview with Fast Company in February 2013, as construction was nearing completion, Adeyemi said that the school was “very stable” and that kids in Makoko loved it. “It has been exciting for them since we built the first platform,” he said. “They are always around it.” It was for the benefit of children, Adeyemi noted, that he’d embarked on the project in the first place. “I was inspired, shocked, and motivated by the environment,” he explained. “I asked if there was anything I could do, and they said the school was always flooding, and they needed an extension. So that’s what we did.”
NLÉ celebrated the school’s opening in March 2013. Residents raced fishing boats along the slum’s central channel, as if parading down Main Street. Courtesy of the design firm, people wore bright yellow headscarves and custom-printed polo shirts with the “A” of Makoko fashioned into an icon of the school. More than 200 people packed the structure: NGO workers and students, community leaders, journalists, even an envoy from the Ministry of Environment, despite the fact that the government still hadn’t given the school its official blessing. “The ‘boat’ remained steady while the event rocked,” NLÉ wrote on its Facebook page.
The firm brought Iwan Baan, one of the world’s foremost architecture photographers, to shoot images of its creation. The results were triumphant, hopeful, and gorgeous. Baan’s images capture children in crisp blue and yellow uniforms riding in a boat near the school, climbing the open-air stairs, and peering out at the lagoon from the classrooms. They show fishermen using the lower platform as a space to mend their nets, while canoes angle off the structure like the limbs of an asterisk. The photos ran in The New York Times and other internationals outlets.
Adeyemi plugged the images into PowerPoint presentations and took his story on the road. At conferences and universities around the globe, he presented his project as a collaboration with the people of Makoko and a case study for a future in which rich countries take cues from poor ones about sustainable ways to cope with inequality, population growth, and climate change. Rather than pity, there would be solidarity. Computer-generated images of the school were clustered onto photos and maps of various locations around the world; Adeyemi suggested that entire neighborhoods might one day float. He described his project as “a seed that actually addresses issues of urbanization. It grows. We’re hoping it can be cultivated to create more.”
Media attention exploded abroad and echoed back to Nigeria. Adeyemi’s school offered a refreshing, accessible counter-narrative to the relentless poverty porn streaming out of Africa. Many Nigerians were glad to read about something other than terrorism and corruption. Adeyemi was portrayed as a visionary—a fluent spokesman for Lagos, for the wider continent, for coastal cities, and for the poor. Features about the school appeared in magazines and design journals from South Africa to the Netherlands, Italy to the United States. The Architectural Review praised the project’s “determination and ingenuity in harnessing the transformational potential of architecture to address an extreme social context.” It also remarked that while the building was to “serve primarily as a school,” its design was “scalable and adaptable for other uses, such as a health center, market, or housing.”
Makoko was suddenly on the map, not as a hotbed of squalor but as a site of innovation. Many Lagosians felt proud of their architectural monument, whose blue roof they could spot from the Third Mainland Bridge. Isi Etomi told me that, although she still had reservations about the project, she “had to eat humble pie” whenever she ran into Adeyemi. Ultimately, she told herself, all that mattered was that the school served its intended purpose. “If it was good, then fine,” she said. “I’ll put my hands up.”
There, however, was the rub. Beneath the projections and pride was an uncomfortable truth: The famous floating school was not a school at all.
Empty classrooms dot the landscapes of poor countries like the skeletons of do-gooders’ shallow or disingenuous objectives. Infamously, the Central Asia Institute, cofounded by Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, built schools in Afghanistan but didn’t invest in sustainable operations; the structures were left to languish while Mortenson promoted his book and its sequel. The Makoko Floating School was supposed to be different, less complicated, an extension of an existing school rather than one started from scratch. But what I saw when I visited for the first time in 2014 was alarming. The gap between the gloss presented to the world and the reality on the ground was vast.
At the time, I was reporting on slum demolitions, tromping through soggy neighborhoods listening to people describe their experiences of violence and anxiety, protest and resistance. In Makoko, locals insisted that I visit their prized landmark. By then it was one of the most famous contemporary buildings in Nigeria. When I set foot inside, children were sprawled across the deck playing with a balloon. They were relaxed and enjoying the view of the lagoon, but they weren’t studying. Upstairs, in the classrooms, beams were splitting. The floors were covered in dust. Desks were shoved into a corner. I soon learned that when the school had opened the previous March, toilets and blackboards hadn’t been installed. Since then not a single class had been held.
What explained the false impression of success conveyed to people around the world? Noah Shemede told me that, to keep the project’s reputation intact, he sometimes moved desks into the school when Adeyemi warned him that journalists were coming. I also spoke to Andrew Esiebo, a photographer who shot footage of the school for Sweden’s arm of the United Nations Foundation. He recounted how he’d ferried kids to the structure and filmed them running gleefully up the stairs. “We staged it,” he said, to evoke the school’s intended purpose. Esiebo’s video was later published on The Guardian’s website.
Media outlets rarely mentioned that the school wasn’t in use. When they did, it was usually in passing, excused with a wave of blame aimed at the government. In September 2014, a few months after my visit, Al Jazeera premiered an episode of its series Rebel Architecture that profiled Adeyemi. Clad in a white shirt, dark jeans, and designer glasses, the architect rides in a canoe around Makoko. When he arrives at the school with Shemede, he seems surprised to find that the ceiling on the second level is crumbling. “Quite a bit of repair work to do,” Adeyemi says, noting that some overhead lights are detached from their wiring and mounts. “So what I think we need to do is to take out, just replace this—very, very easy,” he continues, hurried and reassuring. The episode then cuts to an interview with Shemede, who explains that the school is “in neglected condition” because it hasn’t received approval for use by students; the government still considers it an “illegal structure.” When I spoke with the office of Lagos’s commissioner of the environment, a representative told me that Adeyemi “did everything in his power to get government buy-in into that school but was not successful.”
Behind the scenes, other factors were eroding the project. Shemede cut a controversial figure in Makoko. If Adeyemi was the project’s international ambassador, the school’s director was its man on the ground. With his new fame, Shemede fashioned himself into a local oga (boss). On behalf of the Nigerian Field Society, a cultural association for which he’d long run tours of Makoko, he took visitors to the floating school. A guided slum visit cost about 4,000 Naira, or $30. Shemede told me that he used his cut to pay teachers. Given the small amount of money in question and the lack of codified records, it’s impossible to verify this claim. When tourists or other visitors were moved to donate to the school, Shemede told them to pay in cash or make checks out to him; he promised to allocate the funds appropriately.
Shemede’s stature was often as isolating as it was empowering. Although the school project was supposed to be collective, benefiting the entire slum, some leaders in Makoko didn’t see it that way. “They gave it a community name, but it is more or less an individual affair,” said Ayeseminikan Bawo, who runs a private school in Makoko. It didn’t help that Shemede often referred to it as “my school.”
He and Adeyemi had agreed that, over time, the Makoko community would take ownership of the school, including its maintenance. But the baales felt sidelined and weren’t compelled to contribute. For two years, the onus fell on NLÉ to fix problems like rotting planks and leaky roof panels. Shemede was frustrated that, while the school sat empty and deteriorating, Adeyemi was off globetrotting.
Finally, in the summer of 2015, there was some positive news. The government was including the school in a plan to regenerate Makoko. NLÉ framed this acknowledgement as the long-awaited signal of official approval, even though the government still hadn’t explicitly given it. The firm also formally transferred control of the school to Shemede, which it viewed as a clear line in the sand: From there on out, the Makoko community would be in charge of all upkeep and NLÉ would no longer send maintenance workers to the site. That fall, two and a half years after the school opened, Shemede moved two classes, 49 students total, into the building.
In December, there was another gesture of good will from the government. Folorunsho Folarin-Coker, then Lagos’s minister of tourism, was tired of seeing “the same smog-filled, gloomy” view of Makoko each day. So, as part of a holiday celebration called One Lagos Fiesta, Folarin-Coker agreed to provide solar panels and external lights for the floating school. “You know, Christmas lights in Makoko,” he explained to me. He clarified that he saw the donation as “an act of kindness,” not of government recognition. “If there’s anything I can do for those people, I won’t turn my back,” he said.
NLÉ hired a photographer to shoot the installation. In one image captured at night, a child steering a canoe is silhouetted against the glow of the lights reflecting in the rippling lagoon. “#MakokoFloatingSchool lights up the Lagos waterfront with #solar power! Thnx to #Lagos State Govt’s #onelagosfiesta initiative,” read the photo’s caption when the firm posted it on Facebook.
Shemede wasn’t impressed. “Is it solar panels we need?” he asked angrily when recounting the installation. Thieves sometimes stripped wiring and other materials from the building to sell for cash. The panels, which were more valuable, would likely have to be guarded.
For Shemede, keeping an eye on fancy technology was asking too much. He was already dealing with what he considered to be more than enough trouble. Water sometimes breached the school, and wind shook it violently. Students were scared, and parents complained. “If you have children, can you allow them to go to schooling like that?” Shemede asked me later. In March 2016, just over four months since they’d been relocated, Shemede moved the students back to the original school building. There wasn’t any space for them there, so they squeezed into Shemede’s office for their lessons, bumping elbows at shared desks.
Adeyemi’s account of all this was recorded in an email sent to Shemede on March 19. He said that the situation wasn’t his firm’s fault. He also expressed concern that some of the chains anchoring the school were “missing/stolen”:
We cannot continue to carry out repairs on the building, particularly with little or no efforts or contributions of time or resources from you or the community. The structure belongs to you and the community. It is your responsibility and it is up to you to manage it as we have discussed many times extensively.… Please be advised that the current state of the structure is dangerous and at risk of causing major damage to properties and lives.
No repairs were made. A few weeks later, the school detached from its mooring and drifted across the lagoon, colliding with several shacks. Adeyemi sent money for improvements, along with another frustrated email begging for Shemede to invest in maintaining the school. For his part, Shemede felt that he didn’t have the resources, expertise, or support to do so.
Around the same time, a reviewer for the Aga Khan Award visited Lagos to assess the school, which had been shortlisted for the prestigious architectural prize. Tomà Berlanda, director of the School of Architecture, Planning, and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, met with Shemede, toured the school, and discussed the project with NLÉ staff and Makoko residents. In his report, Berlanda acknowledged the school’s “state of abandonment.” He noted sympathetically that, “given the very limited resources which are available in the community, it is understandable that repairs have not been kept up to speed.”
Adeyemi was out of town when Berlanda visited, but the two men had communicated earlier on Skype. In their conversation, Adeyemi repeated the concerns he’d shared with Shemede but stood by the existing structure. He didn’t mention plans for renovations.
All of which made a press release that NLÉ issued a few weeks later very peculiar. Adeyemi was fresh from his triumphant appearance at the Venice Biennale. The release clarified why the building that the architecture world was feting had suddenly ceased to exist: “After 3 years of intensive use, and exceptional service to the community, the first prototype structure Makoko Floating School has come down on June 7, 2016. Following its decommission since March, the structure has been out of use in anticipation of reconstruction.”
The language was a spin on what, by the time the release landed in journalists’ inboxes, was gist (gossip) all over Lagos: The school had collapsed.
The storm on the morning of June 7 was strong, but it wasn’t the worst of the season. Makoko was accustomed to torrential tropical downpours. Wind whistled through the cracks in the shanties’ walls and whipped at their stilts. Shemede stood outside the original Whanyinna building in the pounding rain.
The floating school stood tall in the distance, a promise just out of reach. Then it began to shake. In a matter of seconds, it came down in a terrific crash of wood, metal, and plastic. Shemede shouted in alarm, and some of his staff ran out of Whanyinna to join him on the edge of the lagoon. They stood gawking at what was now an absence on the horizon.
Word swept outward via WhatsApp and text message. I heard the news from an architect. “Holy shit, I’m going over there now,” I wrote back. I wanted to see the pancaked structure for myself. I met with photojournalist Sulayman Afose Senayon, who lives in Makoko. I followed him through twisting alleyways down to the muddy shore, where we caught a canoe into the lagoon. On the way to the school, we stopped so that Senayon could climb onto the second-story balcony of a shack and speak to Shemede’s older brother, a baale. When Senayon descended once more into the canoe, he repeated what the baale had told him: Adeyemi had called and said to stop journalists from going to the wreckage. Senayon argued that, as a Makoko resident, he could go wherever he wanted. So we continued.
What was left of the school was both tragic and anticlimactic. Here was an internationally lauded feat of design undone by the very forces it was supposed to resist. Here, too, was a neglected, dysfunctional building that had finally fallen down. The lagoon was placid; the rain had passed. Senayon and I were among the very few people who’d paddled to the site to observe what was left of the school. Makoko residents, I realized, had already given up on it. For them there was nothing to ogle.
That night I met Shemede at a bar. His voice was tired because he’d been talking all day. Distant believers in the floating school had contacted him to express their dismay. He’d fielded phone calls from journalists, donors, and former volunteers at Whanyinna. Sipping a Guinness, he told me that he felt particularly obligated to engage with the press. After all, reporters had been good to him for years. “When the school was progressing, journalists were the ones that made people know about it,” he said. While we sat talking, his cell phone continued to buzz.
“The school collapsed. Nobody did it; the school collapsed by itself,” Shemede said at one point. “Everybody that comes to that school appreciates it, like, ‘Oh wow, it’s a good building,’ but nobody knows the inside, what is going on. We that are living there, we are the ones that know.”
When he talked of Adeyemi, Shemede sighed dejectedly. “Kunlé,” he said. “Kunlé is for Kunlé.”
The NLÉ press release went out the next day, bearing the headline “Makoko Floating School Comes Down for Upgrade.” According to Shemede, that an upgrade was in the works was news to him. So was the release’s mention of the school having been “decommissioned” in March. “I decided to move the students from the school myself,” he insisted. A few days later, Berlanda wrote in The Architectural Review that Adeyemi “had ostensibly been silent about the decommission.” He also described the press release’s headline as “worryingly misleading.” Berlanda said, “The fact is that the prototype’s load-bearing structure fell apart, and with it the hopes of the community.” A Guardian headline expressed similar concern: “Does Makoko Floating School’s collapse threaten the whole slum’s future?”
Other reactions were more pointed. James Inedu, a fellow architect, wrote in a scathing opinion piece, “All the school did was to blow up the designer’s ego and to give him highly coveted international attention.… It was simply bad architecture done iconically.” Privately, Isi Etomi compared the situation to The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Through all this, Adeyemi remained mostly silent, giving only a few interviews in which he reiterated the language of the press release. He sent the document to journalists, colleagues, even his old mentor at Unilag, who had reached out by email to urge his former student not to be discouraged. When I contacted him, Adeyemi agreed to meet for an interview on June 17. The night before, when I called to confirm, he said that he couldn’t make it—he’d be traveling. “I don’t really have anything to say,” he added. I sent a text the following week, which he didn’t answer. I asked friends of his whom I knew to put in a word; that didn’t work either.
Several months later, NLÉ published a 24-page document entitled “Why Did Makoko Floating School Collapse and Other FAQs.” It addressed everything from who was responsible for maintenance (from 2013 to 2015, the design firm; after that, Shemede and other Makoko leaders) to what happened to the school’s materials after the collapse (Shemede’s brother had “led the disassembly and recycling,” collecting equipment for “reuse in future reconstruction”). In the appendix appeared the press release and the emails exchanged between Adeyemi and Shemede regarding upkeep.
Shemede aired feelings of betrayal and sadness to the press. He talked of doubting the structure’s integrity months before the collapse. The FAQ addressed some of Shemede’s criticisms directly. “His comments about the long-term relevance of the structure were mostly personal and understandably, expressed in grievance and defense of his responsibilities. It is unfortunate that his views were reported as a victim or antagonist of a personalized situation,” the document read. “Noah Shemede’s position on the project has been overplayed and misrepresented in the media,” the FAQ continued—a characterization that would seem to contradict NLÉ’s own description of Shemede’s role, provided just a few pages earlier. “He was responsible for the operational, maintenance, financial and management of the structure,” it read.
The FAQ was what Adeyemi directed me to when, a year after the school’s collapse, I began to put this story together. I replied with a list of detailed follow-up questions, to which a manager at NLÉ responded, “Unfortunately, due to numerous inquiries, we are at this time unable to provide individual responses about Makoko Floating School.” The manager then pointed me, circuitously, back to the FAQ.
In September 2017 and February 2018, I reached out to the architect and his firm again. My requests for an interview were declined. At the bottom of the emails sent by NLÉ were links to adulatory press for the firm, including two articles about the floating school. Both were published before the building’s collapse.
It is essential to probe beneath the defensiveness and finger-pointing to take stock of the Makoko Floating School’s dimensions of failure. The project failed as a school, housing classes for only about four months in the three years that it was moored in the lagoon. It failed as a sustainable structure, sliding into disrepair and then falling victim to a late spring thunderstorm. It failed as a collaboration between an artist and members of a community.
From a more abstract perspective, however, it’s arguable that all wasn’t lost when the school fell. As Berlanda wrote in The Architectural Review, the project showed how architecture could be “a vehicle for a message of resilience towards both climate change, and the growing project of inequality that is increasingly marginalizing poor communities.” This was the idea that Adeyemi embraced more than ever in the wake of the collapse. In July 2016, while presenting at a conference, he described the school as “a temporary structure that is designed as a catalyst to stimulate and think about different ways of building, to innovate, to address issues of adaptation, climate change and for education.” Later he responded to critics by saying, “The most important part of this is the structure is really a prototype, a pilot project.”
Residents of Makoko never saw it that way, however. They expected functionality and permanence from the beautiful building that drew so much attention to their home. Which raises the question: For whom is there benefit in trying and failing, particularly in marginalized communities? Reams of scholarship have been dedicated to the terrible global legacy of experimenting on the poor, including in Nigeria. It is one of three countries in the world that hasn’t eradicated polio, partly because of fears and myths surrounding the vaccine that are informed by a history of clinical trials carried out on citizens without their consent.
There is a persistent risk of doing harm, dashing hopes, and eroding trust with trial and error, no matter how virtuous the objectives. It is the duty of the powerful to minimize that risk as much as possible. “It was supposed to be innovation, but now we’re being told it was experimentation,” Papa Omotayo, a Lagos-based architect and friend of Adeyemi’s, said of the floating school a few days after the collapse. “The issue is, can you experiment in a community like [Makoko] knowing things like budget, like social issues, and more importantly knowing that children are involved?”
A final layer of failure pertains to the damage done by storytelling. Makoko is a place where the nearly unfathomable poverty and inequality that underlie our global economic order are glaringly visible. When confronted with these dynamics, outsiders are prone to transmuting it from place to concept—a mental backdrop for dreams, arguments, and theories, a chance to make readers and viewers feel better about the world. Members of the media and design circles slipped all too easily into this trap, stripping Makoko of its specificity and its residents of their humanity, rendering them symbolic, and placing faith in what promised to be shiny and new. They stuck with what was digestible: a narrative of Makoko redeemed.
A lie is an intentionally false statement. It is also, according to Oxford Dictionaries, “used with reference to a situation involving deception or founded on a mistaken impression.” This last phrase neatly describes the myth of the Makoko Floating School. The project was a chimera composed of flawed and superficial ideas and curated by deflection, obfuscation, and overestimation. The people who wanted the illusion to be real allowed it to spin unchecked—until a precipitous void made it impossible to believe. “Falsehood flies,” Jonathan Swift once wrote, “and truth comes limping after it.”
In March 2017, the replica of the floating school in Venice was disassembled and put in storage. By then, Adeyemi had been named the Aga Khan design critic in architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He’d received grants to continue researching water cities, an outgrowth of the Makoko project, and he was constructing another school, this one on terra firma, in Tanzania.
Today, his NLÉ bio includes a personal quote, part of which reads, “In each project the essential needs of performance, value, and identity—critical for success—are fundamentally the same for me. Although quantitatively different from place to place, the responsibility of achieving these needs at maximum, with minimum means, remains the same.” The bio also describes the Makoko Floating School, in the present tense, as “acclaimed” and “innovative,” even though it fell short of Adeyemi’s own metrics and was never reconstructed.
In the slum, concerned parties have returned to the drawing board. Three days after the floating school buckled into the lagoon, Etomi and a friend set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of about $40,000. “We want to focus on a more basic, grassroots approach than the floating school and enable the community to do what they’ve already taken ownership over rather than building a second ‘fancy’ structure,” the campaign’s explanation read. The organizers’ aim was to improve Whanyinna’s condition and construct the long-awaited extension with Shemede’s guidance. The campaign raised about one-fifth of its target, but Etomi was pleased. It would be enough to give the children of Whanyinna a durable solution, which she hoped would include a board to oversee the school’s management and curriculum and a trust for its finances.
Shemede, however, disagreed with Etomi’s approach. He thought he should make the decisions about what to do with the school and the donated money. “I am the one that has been controlling it before,” he told me, “and the way their own things are going they would now be the one.” The project stalled while Shemede vied for a seat in the local government. (He wound up with an appointed supervisory role.) Afterward he and Etomi debated some small-scale investments, such as fortifying the school’s foundation to mitigate flooding. As of this writing, they’re still assessing how to proceed.
This ending is unsatisfying, poetic, and true. Change is never linear, humans are ever contradictory, and answers are rarely easy. “The money is literally just sitting there,” Etomi told me. Meanwhile, in Makoko, school years pass; children grow.