Good intentions, elegant architecture, and a useless young man

Peter Halliday is a writer, photographer and member of the Modernist Society. He’s written several publications and produced a photographic documentary How Grey Was My Valley of the disappearing architectural post-war environment in Wales, recently featured in the Guardian. You should follow this brilliant writer and photographer on IG if you don’t already!

In this fascinating article, Peter transports us back to the 1950s when his Dad worked under Maxwell Fry and Jane Dew at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. But how does tropical modernism, a decade earlier, tie in with the plateglass universities? Read on..

PH: Plenty has been written about the University of Ibadan and its architecture.

Established in the late 1940s as Africa’s first university, it has been variously described as an ‘emblem of modernity’, the ‘crown in the career’ of one of our most influential modernist architects, and wholly inappropriate ‘constructions of whiteness’.

In this article, we take a glimpse behind the scenes of an often-chaotic design process and try to get an insight into the motives of one of the architects involved. We also consider how the university may have contributed in some small way to the design of Britain’s plateglass universities – built 4,500 miles to the north, and a decade or so into the future.

First, some background

Our story unfolds in Ibadan, a sprawling, sweltering city in the Southeast of Nigeria, 80 miles inland from Lagos. At the time, Britain was pursuing what was purported to be a new benevolent brand of post-war colonialism. And the aim was to catapult Nigeria directly into the modern world, complete with its own set of state institutions.

One of the prerequisites was a university. Ibadan was chosen as its site. And, in 1948, Edwin Maxwell Fry, the self-appointed doyen of contemporary tropical architecture, was commissioned to develop the masterplan.

Fry came with quite a pedigree. Before the war, he had designed a string of celebrated, future-looking buildings, and was a founding member of the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS). His many collaborators included Walter Gropius, Elizabeth Denby, and Dennis Sharp. And he had recently married and formed a practice with the spirited Jane Drew, who was to become a grand dame of progressive twentieth-century architecture.

Kenneth Dike Library, University of Ibadan, Ibadan
The entrance to the Kenneth Dike Library, the most celebrated of the Fry & Drew buildings in Ibadan (named after Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Nigerian educationist, historian, and the first Nigerian Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan). Image: African Studies Centre Leiden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

During the war, Fry had been posted to West Africa where, as luck (and connections) would have it, he was offered an 18-month contract as Town Planning Advisor. He accepted on the condition that Jane Drew be permitted to join him as Chief of Staff and, from there, the trajectory of their lives changed forever. Even after returning to London, the centre of gravity of their work had shifted to the tropics – commencing with a flurry of school building in what was then the Gold Coast, now Ghana, and extending eventually to Nigeria, India, Iran, and Sri Lanka.

When submissions were sought for the University of Ibadan, Fry & Drew were the obvious contenders. As well as having form as progressive architects, they had practical experience in the region, and supplemented their submission with copious notes, copies of books they had co-authored, and the illusion they had at their disposal a significant London-based operation that could easily handle a project of this scale.

Design work commenced, and Fry melded his modernist convictions with his newly formulated principles of tropical design, augmented by a faint nod to indigenous Nigerian design motifs. At the time, this was all a bold departure. What university building was taking place in the UK was, shall we say, sedate. Almost everything followed a restrained neo-Georgian style, brick predominated, Casson & Conder was the favoured firm, and few universities or architects dared to deviate. It was not until the University of Sheffield invited submissions for its new arts building that the idea of modernism was seriously entertained, and the first phase, the Main Library, did not materialise until 1959. The Oxbridge colleges were equally reticent, with the first example of true modernism, Michael Powers’ discrete Beehive Building for St John’s College Oxford, only arriving in 1958.

The cracks begin to show

Back in Ibadan, the initial enthusiasm surrounding Fry & Drew’s appointment soon evaporated.  

The London-based design work was interspersed with the occasional site visit while, in Ibadan, the project was being closely supervised by the University’s Principal Designate, Kenneth Mellanby – a celebrated ecologist and entomologist, who appears to have had strong opinions, conservative tastes, a short temper, and little patience with the ways of the architectural world.

He had deemed Jane Drew to be persona non grata before the work even began, described the first set of plans as “perfectly absurd”, repeatedly deferred to the traditionalist approach of the local Public Works Department (PWD), and remonstrated with the ultimate client, the Inter-University Council for Higher Education in the Colonies, to circumvent Fry & Drew and “Think of every Oxford or Cambridge college designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.”

Without even informing the architects, Mellanby threw out Fry & Drew’s staff housing scheme and instructed the PWD to commence work on some of its stock housing designs instead. Endlessly irritated by the firm, he described Fry’s management as “undoubtedly extraordinarily incompetent. They seem to be such complete amateurs when it comes to the discussion of any technical problem, and Fry is quite capable of suggesting some experimental technique which he does not understand.”

With issues coming to a head, an arbitration meeting was called in London in the mid-1950. It was agreed that to move matters along, Fry & Drew should appoint a “resident architect” to be based on-site and capable of driving the project forward in consultation with Mellanby.

Into the fray walked the unwitting Tony Halliday.

Just 28 years old, he had graduated from the Liverpool School of Architecture less than three years previously. Under his belt he had a few months with Fry & Drew, working on its scheme for the Festival of Britain, followed by a year-and-a-half with the architects’ office at Hemel Hempstead new town. He had then been intrigued to see the role in Ibadan advertised, applied out of idle curiosity and, before he really knew what had hit him, was on a flight to Nigeria.

Halliday was not quite what was expected by the University authorities. The Building Committee immediately wrote a letter of complaint to Fry & Drew, outraged “that a man of such junior status has been sent”, adding that Halliday had no tropical experience, and was authorised only to make very minor decisions.

Mellanby was incandescent. In a letter to the Head of the Inter-University Council, he described Halliday as a “useless young man” and griped “there would have been no difficulty in getting an experienced person for the job if the firm of Fry, Drew and Partners had been prepared to pay a reasonable salary”. (In fact, his salary was the princely sum of £1,000 a year, equivalent to around £40,000 in today’s money. And, for his part, Halliday always claimed he had been the only applicant.)

Things are about to get worse

It is difficult to imagine what things must have felt like for the useless young man, stranded alone and far from home in the face of such a frosty reception. To compound matters, his contract had included a house and a car, neither of which were forthcoming. So, he was staying at a government rest house and had to rely on his unhappy counterparts at the yet-to-be-built university for transport.

The elaborate concrete screens of the Kenneth Dike Library, provide much-needed shading and ventilation in the pre-air conditioning era. Image: Michael Sean Gallagher from London, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

One can only wonder about the tone and content of Halliday’s first letter to London (for airmail was the only practicable form of routine communication). However, he did keep the letters he received in return, which now provide a remarkable record of the firm’s working practices, the evolution of the University’s design, and Fry’s often blasé attitude to the challenges encountered along the way.

In the first letter back came a warm but brief apology and a few words of fatherly advice: “I am very, very sorry… I am afraid Ibadan must rank among the outposts of architectural freedom, where men sleep in their clothes with their arms at hand…. be of good courage…. by keeping a clear and steadfast line with them you will help to win this long battle”. 

Fry then goes on to explain that, despite all the issues and antagonism, he would most likely be giving the project less of his time and attention: “Now I must tell you of the changes that will affect me first and later Jane too. We have been asked by the Government of India to be the architects for a new capital city [Chandigarh]… Had we been free to do it we could have had it to ourselves, but being tied up, we share the honour with Jeanneret, Corbusier’s old partner, with Corbusier as advisor”. As an ardent Corbusian himself, Halliday must have received this news with a mixture of intrigue and dread.

On the plus side, the Inter-University Council had agreed the latest design concepts more or less extant and cautioned Mellanby against meddling with them. So, it would be a question of pushing through the details, rather than battling over the broader principles. And, as pointed out in a 2014 article in the Architectural Review, Mellanby’s depiction of the “useless young man” was “a very unfair critique as it was Halliday who replanned the campus and managed the construction admirably, if the buildings we see today are anything to go by.”

For anyone with even a faint interest in the architecture of the time, the cache of 20 or so letters makes for fascinating reading. Most are written from Chandigarh, some from Fry, some from Drew, mixing instructions (“don’t let Harris muck up the screen of the library”), with updates on the ongoing design work for Ibadan (“Max is going to start work on the admin block this afternoon and, when I have finished the article for UNESCO, I will start on the women’s college”), chitchat (“the sign on the road ‘To Tibet’ made me feel very far from home”), doodles (for example, an impromptu pen and ink caricature of Drew), and a smattering of gossip about their day-to-day dealings with the grand master himself (“Corbu arrives tomorrow and may be expected to be fairly infantile. He has been quite a lot stupid and ‘grand homme’ already”).

Bit-by-bit, as the buildings took shape and their elegance was revealed, the tone became more cheerful and self-congratulatory. But, as his 18-month tour drew to a close, the useless young man decided it was time to move on and resigned from the project. In the final letter, Fry acknowledges the extent of his contribution. “You took over when things could hardly have been more difficult, and I hope it may be as great a satisfaction to you as it is to me to reflect upon the changed conditions today and to realise how much of that change has been in your hands. We are not through yet, but ready enough for you to leave with a proper sense of a job well done.”

The original intention was to head to Harare (then known as Salisbury) and form a practice with Peter Oldfield, a Liverpool classmate and rapidly rising star of Southern African architecture. But the plan was thwarted by a failed visa application. So, remaining in Nigeria, he headed to the north of the country to become site architect at the Nigerian College of Arts Science and Technology at Zaria, being developed by his old adversaries at the PWD. Here, paths crossed with fellow architect Donald McDonald Webster and, returning to Ibadan, they co-founded their own practice, Design Group Nigeria. Soon they began hoovering up work on the second phase of the University of Ibadan (ultimately building the Department of Nursing, Department of Physics, Department of Chemistry, Department of Geology, Department of Forestry, Institute of Education, Post-Graduate Library, International Bookshop, Conference Centre, Senior Staff Club, and more), and picking up prestigious commissions across West Africa. In the background, Halliday even found time to edit a flourishing trade magazine, the West African Builder and Architect.

Donald Webster (left) and Tony Halliday (right), co-founders of Design Group Nigeria, partaking of some local hooch, at some point in the mid-1950s. Image: Peter Halliday

Halliday ultimately left Nigeria in 1969, returned to the UK, and went into partnership with another Liverpool classmate and one-time Fry & Drew colleague, Norman Starrett. Again, university work began to figure prominently, delivering an early-1970s masterplan for University College Cardiff, followed by several of its student housing schemes and the new Humanities Building.

However, the good times weren’t to last. Starrett struggled with the demon drink and the partnership was dissolved in 1975 under the weight of an acrimonious and irreconcilable drunken row. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Starrett managed to haul himself back on the wagon, and ended his career with Wimpey (the housebuilder, fortunately, not the burger chain). Halliday remained in Cardiff and eked out a living on projects that became progressively more modest and less modernist, eventually retiring in the late-1980s – hating the profession, humiliated by his fall from grace, and embittered by the perceived failings of the modernist movement.

Putting things into context

So, seventy years on from the glory days in Ibadan, what should be made of all this?

For architectural grace and elegance alone, the University of Ibadan is significant. Accordingly, it has become the subject of many academic papers and has been covered in several books. But, today, any analysis is invariable – and rightly – wrapped up in the fraught questions of colonialism, post-colonialism, anti-colonialism, and de-colonialism.

Who were these people and what, in truth, were their credentials? How relevant and appropriate was the institution and its buildings to an emerging African nation? To what extent were indigenous people and their values factored into the design process? Did the very presence of western architects block the careers and opportunities of Nigerian aspirants?

A story often told by Halliday, regarding his interview for the post, sums up the attitudes of the time. Fry, apparently, had been hesitant, concerned by the lack of experience. Drew remonstrated, “Oh Max, do give him the job. He has such a nice face and would be kind to the natives”. Wrapped up in those few words, you have a perfect summation of the blasé attitude, the good intentions, and the condescending world view.

And it doesn’t stop with the university. Design Group was one of several British-owned architectural practices operating in the region (others included James Cubitt, and Godwin & Hopwood, while Fry & Drew continued to dabble, and the likes of the Architects Co-Partnership were also active). As well as honing a distinctive style, sometimes known as West African Modernism (assembled from a pre-air conditioning palette of over-hanging rooflines, ventilators, sun blockers, and brise-soleil), they stand accused of crowding out home-grown architects, starving them of opportunities for exposure, and preventing them from securing coverage in the architectural press.

So, how should history judge the individuals involved?

Halliday always said that what took him to Nigeria – and kept him there – was the opportunity to build, to build big, and to build bold.

Remember, back in the UK, neo-classicism was predominant, the so-called festival style was as progressive as things got. And, in any case, in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was not a lot of spare cash floating around for domestic building projects. For an eager young Corbusian, the opportunity to put theory into practice under the tutelage of Maxwell Fry must have been intoxicating. Then, through Design Group, even as a relatively inexperienced architect in his early thirties, he was routinely winning and leading the type of commissions that simply wouldn’t have been feasible back in Blighty.

Like so many of his professional colleagues, he also regarded architecture as a noble endeavour. Perhaps naïve, perhaps misguided, perhaps with an unconsciously biased viewpoint on what was best for Nigeria and its population. But he clearly believed that, through his work, he was putting in place the instruments of state and the commercial infrastructure that would befit an emergent nation. It was all about building a better world – quite literally.

And yes, he may have been part of an extended network of expatriates who were exerting a collective stranglehold on the Nigerian architectural profession. Yet, even before independence in 1960, several of the architects employed and nurtured by Design Group were Nigerian. Also, Nigerian design motifs and artwork would soon become a signature of the Design Group ‘house style’ (see, for example, Broadcasting House or Aje House in Ibadan, or the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos). And today, the firm is still going strong, Nigerian-owned and operated, part of the fabric of the Nigerian architectural scene, with hundreds of projects in its portfolio, and offices in Ibadan, Lagos, and Abuja.

The Ibadan office of Design Group Nigeria in the late 1960s, with co-founders Tony Halliday, ciggie in hand (seated second from right) and Donald Webster (far left) – by this time, the firm also had offices in Kaduna, Lagos, London, Maiduguri, Nairobi, and Kaduna. Image: Peter Halliday.

So, however self-serving his motives may have been, and however problematic his worldview may now appear, you could say that the useless young man did leave quite a legacy.

And what of the wider influence?

How does all of this relate back to the white heat of modernity and the plateglass universities of the UK?

Of course, it would be ludicrous to try to draw a straight line between the two. But, surely, as a prominent greenfield campus-based university, and one of the first in the world to embrace the principles of modernism, the University of Ibadan exerted some small influence?

Consider, for example, that Denys Lasdun was a Fry & Drew partner. He took charge of several projects in neighbouring Ghana and, once Fry had absconded to India, was inevitably involved in the London-based design work for the Ibadan project. So presumably, he took some of this experience with him when designing the University of East Anglia (not to mention his work for Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, the Royal College of Physicians, the University of Leicester, and the University of London). Then there was Fry’s own work for his alma mater, Liverpool, namely the Veterinary School and Civil Engineering building. And, given the sheer throughput of young architects in the Fry & Drew offices, there were bound to have been more connections and cross-fertilisations along the way (not least, Halliday & Starrett’s work for University College Cardiff).

And remember, as it took shape, Ibadan enjoyed a high profile in architectural circles. It was the subject of a prominent feature in the Architectural Review in 1953 and again in 1960, was discussed in a high-profile 1953 Conference on Tropical Architecture hosted by the University College London, and appeared in a number of plush books on what was then termed Commonwealth Architecture – all aided and abetted by Fry, an incorrigible self-publicist. 

Against the backdrop of the brick-bound neo-classicism still prevailing in so many British universities, it must have drawn plenty of attention and a few envious glances. So, surely, as the plateglass universities were envisaged and planned, the architectural spirit of the Ibadan campus became a reference point? And would it be wishful thinking to suppose that the pristine white lines at Lancaster, or the lush landscaping at Sussex owed just a little to their Nigerian predecessor?

Five ways to get a better feel for the subject:

1.Intrigued and want to find out a bit more? There’s PLENTY of content out there about the University of Ibadan, some good, some bad, some unreadable. But a great place to start is this fine article by Iain Jackson in the Architectural Review (you’ll soon find that most lines of inquiry lead to Iain Jackson), which looks back at the journal’s 1953 coverage of Fry & Drew’s projects in West Africa. Also, this thoughtful piece for the Twentieth Century Society by Tim Livsey is well worth a read.
2.Intrigued and want to find out a lot more? There’s a most excellent book by Iain Jackson and Jessica Holland called The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Lots of pictures and archive material, and plenty of great detail on the shenanigans with Mellanby. And, yes, many of the direct quotes in this piece were filched directly from it. (Other intriguing looking resources include Nigeria’s University Age by Tim Livsey, and pretty much anything by Ola Uduku – but, TBH, as a non-academic, none of these were affordable or accessible to me, so I can’t vouch for them.)
3.Fancy taking a closer look at the letters? The entire collection, plus a few other bits and bobs, are stored safely away in the University of Liverpool archives so, for anyone who’s determined, there should be a way to take a closer look. Many of the letters, were also reproduced in a lush little book called Fry and Drew: Tropical Source Book by (yes, you guessed it) Iain Jackson. Published by the Transnational Architecture Group (see below), I suspect it’s long out of print, but you may be able to find a copy knocking around.
4.Want to learn more about the import/export of architectural ideas from one region to another? There’s an excellent if sporadically updated blog called the Transnational Architecture Group. Bringing together a loose affiliation of academics from around the world, it’s dedicated to cross-border architectural connections and cross-fertilisations (cross-contaminations?). And, although it imposes no geographical boundaries nor limits to age or style, a significant strand of the content involves West African architecture of the immediate post-war era.
5.Interested in the wider context of British imperialist architecture? Of course, the University of Ibadan represents just the tail end of a long and inglorious tradition of architecture and urbanism imposed in the name of the British Empire –stretching from North America, through the Caribbean, across Africa and Asia, right down to Antipodes. If you’re interested to see how West African modernism fits into this broader context, take a look at an intriguing book called Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire – which includes a chapter on Sub-Saharan Africa by (no prizes for guessing this one) Iain Jackson and Ola Uduku.

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