Cape Town design in Lagos: Interview with Greg Truen

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by Olamide Udoma

In 1998, Greg Truen was made a partner in the firm, Stefan Antoni Architects, now SAOTA (Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects) based in Cape Town. He has worked on an extensive range of residential, retail, commercial, and educational projects in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. While he was in Lagos for a week I caught up with him to ask him a few questions about Lagos, a city he has become acquainted with in the last four years.

Olamide Udoma: You work all over Africa but your office is in Cape Town. Apart from South Africa which other countries are you working in?
Greg Truen: We are working all over the place; a lot of the projects are in Africa, especially in West Africa. Senegal is one of the places we started working in, outside South Africa. Nigeria has become very important. A lot of the projects are around Ikoyi in Lagos.

OU: What are some of these projects in Lagos?
GT: One of the projects we are doing is around Sandgrouse  market, on Lagos Island. It is interesting because of the street energy and there is still a lot of Brazilian architecture. It is a really gritty area. It is quite an interesting project because it will have a relatively formal retail space that will break down in to the market structure that allows the already existing market to continue functioning.

Recently we received a phone call, where the client said they want to do, what they described as a theme park but it is really an entertainment retail space. There was no real brief, so we have had to make it up as we have gone along. We are also doing a house in Lekki and a residential project in Ikoyi. The project in Ikoyi has started.

We are also working on a mixed-use project in Ikoyi, on the creek, which comprises of offices, a ferry terminal, and a long stay residential hotel. There is an office building on Kingsway, Ikoyi. The site is being cleared as we speak, so construction will commence soon. There is also a shopping centre in Ilupeju, on the mainland. And more housing projects in Ikoyi and we are near completion with one of them. Most of the projects are top end residential or hospitality.

A multi-use building incorporating a Corporate Head Office tower, a Residential tower, a Ferry terminal and Retail components. Image from

A multi-use building incorporating a Corporate Head Office tower, a Residential tower, a Ferry terminal and Retail components.
Image from

Lagos is going to change very quickly. It really has the potential to explode and become something amazing.

OU: One of your projects integrates sleep, work and play and it goes further by including a ferry terminal. How important do you think integrating infrastructure like ferry terminals to projects like this are in Lagos?
GT: I think that linking ferry terminals to buildings is a huge opportunity because the waterways connect. It is such a massive city and it is not that well connected partly because the road system is overwhelmed so there is a huge opportunity for a ferry system. It really could knit the city together. One of the pities about Lagos is that almost all of the water edge is privately owned and there is very little interface with it. The other issue is that we need to connect the road public transport network to the ferry terminals. But that is not impossible to do.

OUAs you mentioned Lagos is congested; there is a lot of traffic, it has a high population, over 40% of Lagos is water, the infrastructure cannot meet the demand and electricity is not constant – How do you think architecture can start to address some of these issues?
GT: We are conscious of things like natural light. The reality is that the briefs that come in from the clients and consultants we work with is usually to try and create completely independent, fully backed up infrastructure of your own.

It is interesting to see the older generation of consultants and the younger, because the guys that worked here in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s have a particular mind-set and perhaps are not as exposed. But there are some amazing people coming in to the system now, so I think it will change quite quickly. I can see it changing but it isn’t on top of anyone’s list right now.

The problem really is because the state infrastructure is so dysfunctional, people have to put these systems in and they are expensive and wasteful. In the projects we do, it is difficult to find meaningful solutions, right now, especially with electricity. We are more aware of trying to manage electrical load with things like not relying completely on air-conditioning in every single space. So those kinds of things are definitely starting to happen but it has got a long way to go.

The Thompson building consists of 18 luxury apartments whilst the penthouse incorporates & terrace boasting lagoon views. Image from

The Thompson building consists of 18 luxury apartments whilst the penthouse incorporates & terrace boasting lagoon views.
Image from

OU: I have been introduced to architecture in northern Nigeria, where they use certain materials that keep the buildings cool. I have seen examples in other hot countries, where building techniques ensure buildings stay cool and well ventilated. Why are architects in Lagos not trying to think about incorporating alternative and sometimes traditional materials, ways of constructing, and buildings design?
GT: We are conscious of these things and we always try to shade our buildings, use double facade systems to keep the direct heat off as much as possible, and try to introduce as much natural air and cross ventilation. And those things are very powerful. The problem is that often they are more expensive solutions. Instead people build in the simplest way, with small windows, whack an air-conditioner in and that’s it.

The state also has to pay a role, using building and environmental laws. This has started in South Africa. They have brought in new legislation, so architects in SA have been forced by legislation to be much more conscious of how and what they build.

The thing about Lagos is that it is such a unique city. There is nothing really like Lagos anywhere else in the world

OU: In this age of globalisation, what do you think the role of foreign architects are in the development of cities that they are not currently engaged in?
GT: Within this era of globalisation the key thing is that communication has gotten a lot of closer. You are able to connect to a bigger market place. The people participating in today’s economy are culturally a lot closer. You go from city to city, to places that should be widely culturally different, whether it is here, India, Morocco, or Moscow and you sit across the table from someone who is similar to you; you are often reading the same newspapers, watching the same shows, listening to the same music. It is kind of a pity in a way because a lot of diversity and richness is getting lost.

On one level people can contribute anywhere in the world, because a lot of the technologies are the same, a lot of the core principles are the same, but I suppose what gets lost is the finer stuff, which people are either not aware of or they can’t really translate.

This is something we are starting to think about; how can we as a company become more responsive? We are already doing this because we do nothing on our own; we use local relationships. For example the projects we do in Lagos are always in association with local consultants. The association starts at the beginning of the project so you get information fed in the right way and early on.

The difficulty on working on projects across Africa from one office in Cape Town is the pressure due to the timelines. For the entertainment retail space in Lekki, we got 3 or 4 days to prep something, yet we hadn’t seen the site. So we were working with Google Earth, hoping that someone had posted some photographs of the site on to Google, so we could visualise the site. It can be quite challenging.

We are starting to understand Lagos a little bit better now but we are just scratching the surface.The thing about Lagos is that it is such a unique city. There is nothing really like Lagos anywhere else in the world. It takes you a while to understand that it is a city. It is like an organism. It’s quite opaque. Not that it wants to be opaque. It is just unusual.

In Lekki, Lagos, the Sky Mall is a sophisticated lifestyle centre.  Image from

In Lekki, Lagos, the Sky Mall is a sophisticated lifestyle centre.
Image from

OU: I am still grappling with Lagos, myself. Though I haven’t lived here all my life, I have been in and out, and it is a constantly changing city. I lived here when I was younger and it is completely different to the city I am experiencing now. I am trying to get a grasp on the geography, the economics, the social issues and the politics; so what makes Lagos, Lagos?

GT: That is a problem with all our cities. They are changing so quickly, so the city of our childhood, those cities simply have vanished, they don’t exist. One of the problems is that we don’t understand that yet so we look at our cities and you only engage with the part that you remember. So your understanding of the city is not what the city really is. That process is going to carry on and on. You have these huge cities where people don’t engage with the city in any meaningful way, and that’s going to be difficult for the development of the city.

OU: In a recent article about Eko Atlantic in the UK, Guardian titled ‘New, privatized African city heralds climate apartheid’, it describes how Lagos is focusing on environmentally friendly development, but  solely for the elite and therefore pushing the poor out of the city. How will architects deal with this challenge?
GT: That is a challenge you see across Africa. Take a city like Harare in Zimbabwe, which had similarly, a lot of migration from rural areas in to cities. It is a big issue and it is difficult to manage. In Harare they simply bulldozed every single settlement and sent everybody on busses, back to the rural areas. You go to Harare now and it looks fantastic but there is that past.

There are just so many people in Lagos. I really don’t know how you can solve these problems. Nigeria’s population is over 160 million and it is projected to double in 50 years time. Africa goes from 1 billion to 4 billion people in 40-50 years time. This will cause a lot of success stories but there is going to be an enormous amount of people left behind. And that will also happen in Lagos; some people will get pushed out to the peripheries.

But I can see the shift. I have been coming here for about four years now, and I can see it. It is definitely a city that is changing. You can see that it’s systems are starting to work better but it depends on what the political vision is for the city. It might be a vision that is completely divided, where they don’t want to see poverty.

Lagos is going to change very quickly. It really has the potential to explode and become something amazing. Though my big worry is that it will all get done by outsiders or people who are just interested in business. It will be a soulless city. This is where you will need the government to intervene.

OU:What can we expect from your work and projects in Lagos in 2014?
GTApart from the on going architectural projects, as part of our World Design Capital 2014 proposal, we aim to transform our 109 Hatfield Street building’s façade into an Interactive Street Museum by using graphic video feeds and dynamic kinetic technologies which will turn our façade into a digital screen that will showcase our work and the work of our collaborators, both here and in the many cities that we work in around the globe.

109 Hatfield St, Cape Town Image from

SAOTA Office, 109 Hatfield St, Cape Town
Image from

The idea has evolved! And we think we should focus on Lagos because Lagos and Nigeria are such a big developing story. What happens here is already starting to change our office and it will have a big impact on South Africa. It has the potential to have a big impact on Cape Town’s creative industry. Nigeria has a certain reputation and it would be interesting and great to start changing that by letting people see what is actually happening here.

So we are thinking why can’t we try to get a live feed in to Lagos from Cape Town and visa versa as part of the interactive street museum? Where people can actually engage and it would be great to collect those interactions. The Interactive Street Museum will be open in a month or two.

About FutureLagos

Olamide Udoma is a researcher, writer and filmmaker holding degrees in BSc Architecture, MA Design and MPhil Infrastructure Management. Olamide has worked in London, South Africa and Nigeria with various organisations focusing on transport management, slum upgrading and housing rights in urbanising African cities. At Our Future Cities NPO, she is the Lagos manager and editor.