Puzzling Makeover of Entrance Building to the Oba’s Chambers in the Palace of the Oba of Benin 2

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Oluwatoyin Adepoju

Nov 24, 2022, 2:01:07 AM11/24/22
to Yoruba Affairs, usaafricadialogue

The new architectural style in use in a part of the palace of the Oba of Benin is grounded in Western aesthetics, philosophy and architectural history and has no direct relationship with Benin culture.

The neo-classical style employed by this make over resonates with ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of beauty and style, relating to the work of such thinkers as Plato and Longinus, thereby suggesting the thought and practice of another clime, importing this into a primary cultural center in a different world, another cultural space.

The palace of the Oba of Benin needs to showcase Benin architecture, evoking its philosophical, spiritual, artistic and historical significance bcs the palace is a focal point of Benin culture.

Unlike the newer orientation to using cement in the building directly leading to the chambers of the Oba of the palace of the Oba of Benin, mud is the primary building material in Benin architecture, serving both as a cooling mechanism, according to one view, and as symbolizing the nexus between life and death, spirit and matter that defines existence, as suggested by the liminal character of mud, both earth and water.

It is clear, from examples in Benin, that mud can be a very long lasting substance, when adequately built.

Benin architecture represents the symbolizing qualities of Benin culture,the transformation of nature into culture, the generation of immediate, terrestrial and cosmological
meaning in relation to practically every aspect of existence, from trees to roads to colors to houses, unlike the use of cement in Western architecture which has no direct symbolic significance.

Where else should this far reaching architectural creativity, evoking realms of knowledge unifying earth and cosmos,be showcased, if not in the palace of the Oba of Benin, the Anthill of Totality, as he is known, the conglomeration of Benin culture, the present as it radiates backwards to the past and forwards to the future, carrrying into the unknown the seeds of an ancient civilization, a unique contribution to humanity’s efforts to make meaning of existence, the palace a privileged center for learning about this ancient culture of perennial significance.

Change may have its value but the outright importation of an architectural style from another civilization into such a prime cultural center is problematic.

Cornelius Hamelberg

Nov 24, 2022, 11:55:25 PM11/24/22
to USA Africa Dialogue Series

Right on ! Even if some of the uncle toms think you are too revolutionary whilst others among them may think that you are too conservative, and restrictive, considering that after all, the world and all its civilisations and glories of the past, the present and the future belong to us, for us to use as we should like to and that includes fashion ( clothes) medicine and all kinds of technology etc etc etc.

Re - “mud is the primary building material in Benin architecture, serving both as a cooling mechanism, according to one view, and as symbolizing the nexus between life and death, spirit and matter that defines existence, as suggested by the liminal character of mud, both earth and water.”( Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju) 

 Indeed, mud as the main building material was conceptualised and put into practice by the Egyptian architect  Hassan Fathy who was awarded  the  Right Livelihood Award in 1980, “ For developing an 'Architecture for the Poor'.

His Acceptance Speech begins with

We need a new way of knowledge. The enforced academic knowledge of schools has alienated us from nature just as industrialisation by force has taken away the possibilities of our participating in satisfying our needs. We have only ready-made solutions, prefabricated ideas to be carried out. In the fields of life which need a high cash outlay, like housing, we have been cut off from solving our problems by using our own hands and our own potential…”

Nowadays, in Nigeria for example, cement is the staple building material , don’t know the lay of the land now, but back in the early 1980s the bandits would put some chloroform in the air conditioning and that would send everybody nicely  into a coma or deep sleep for the count of as long as necessary for them to complete their grand larceny/ looting…

Remember the saying, “ Blood’s thicker than mud”

Not that we are about to witness the beginning of a Mud Revolution starting with the building reconstruction revolution from -cement-to-mud starting at the Oba’s Palace - as that is likely to be seen ( not only by the nouveau riche and culture imperialists as regression not progression. With such assumptions some of the Oyibos in the Wild West imagine that  they are  giving  some of us a hard time explaining that our last abode in Africa / “ shithole countries”  wasn’t exactly mud houses.

 In Nigeria the mud revolution is unlikely to take off any time soon when you consider these main facts about the role and status of cement in Nigeria 😂: “Nigeria possesses the largest cement industry within West Africa, with at least 12 registered companies amounting to a merged cement capacity of 58.9 Mt/yr.”

Oluwatoyin Adepoju

Nov 25, 2022, 2:55:58 PM11/25/22
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Great thanks Cornelius, for introducing me to Hassan Fathy and his ideas, his  work complementing the conceptualization of mud  as artistic and building material in Benin centuries before his 20th century achievements, even as his verbal summations suggest the need to adequately and critically foreground older ways of knowing and doing.

Benin is a Mecca of knowledge inadequately aware of itself. 

The neoclassical make-over of the Oba's palace is not as impressive as that at the entrance to University College, London, where I studied, and yet UCL, with its massive knowledge complexes in curricula and infrastructure, as one of the premier  universities in the Western university system, cannot replace the cultural depth  and cognitive range of Benin's cognitive ecosystem.

The difference between the Western knowledge systems represented by UCL and Benin  knowledge systems,   in the latter's embedding in the Edo-Yoruba complex, its closest similarity within the Igbo, Cross River and even Fulani and other knowledge complexes in Nigeria within the larger classical African and neo-classical African knowledge systems, is the ever escalating levels of organisation, application and institutionalization  of the Western knowledge systems, in contradt to those of Africa, the investigation, systematization, application and institutionalization of which is a vast network, many of its arteries, its connecting nodes, in need of clarification and development.

Benin's  magnificent culture  of sacred trees, for example, needs to be adequately presented and explored, both at theoretical and experiential levels, their cosmological implications spelt out, their cognitive potential explored, their physical environments beautified, their character clarified to explorers as part of a distinctive exploratory network with significant educational and tourist potential.

This culture  of arboreal spirituality may be correlated with the superb vegetative landscape of the University of Benin, shaped by exquisite fields and remarkable trees, the city/university correlation suggesting, not only correlative values in relation to landscape, one spiritual, the other purely aesthetic, but the value of this synthesis as a matrix of study of these values.

My forthcoming essay on the spirituality of trees in Benin thought will contribute to this vision. I will also share my pictures of the University of Benin landscape.

These possibilities may be correlated with the glorious landscape of Obafemi Awolowo University, the university in a forest, both universities, OAU and Uniben,  and the endogenous nature philosophies of the environments, Yoruba and Benin,  in which they are located, in relation to a broader spectrum of responses to these magnificent natural spaces, coming together to generate a powerful knowledge network, even more potent when the Oshun forest at Oshogbo is added to this complex, taking advantage of the work of Ssusanne Wenger and her collaborators in developing relationships between space, nature, art and architecture in a great philosophical and spiritual convergence, Yoruba thought in dialogue with non-African streams of knowledge in a glorious synthesis.

Great thanks



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Cornelius Hamelberg

Nov 26, 2022, 12:53:16 AM11/26/22
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Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju, 

Prince of Peace

You’v said it all really, and there’s precious little to add to what you've said here. Can only ask questions.

O yea, Greece and Rome as the intellectual foundations of Western Civilisation, including a lot - if not all of New Testament Theology.

You remember that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, jokingly, he said, “ I think it would be a good idea." 

My cousin Rudolph Hamelberg (brought up by my grandfather Louis, who was also an architect)  studied Architecture in Italy - and in London. Goodness knows what kinds of pillars inspired by the Capitolium of Ancient Rome feature in their architectural plans and buildings that they actually constructed, 

As a relevant example, let's take The Black Star Gate //The Arch of Freedom in Accra (  a Ghanaian piece of architecture ) - does it in any way remind you of  the Arc de triomphe in Paris ?

We have  the Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Basilica almost outdoing St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Who knows, sometime in the near future we could have some hot, Bible Thumping Nigerian pastor all set to replicate the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, probably somewhere in Lagos - Victoria Island or Ikoyi, there’s no limit to how far Sacred Architecture can inspire the faithful. And  since Royalty usually dreams big dreams, why should it surprise in time to come, should the Oba’s Palace in Benin want to outshine the design known as Buckingham Palace? And what kind of Palace would you like to build or want to be built for the Oba of Benin in Heaven, “where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

And what kind of pillars do you suppose the pillars of the palaces in heaven will look like? LIke Sacred Mosques? Hindu Temples? Eastern Orthodox Churches ? Westminster Abbey? Cologne Cathedral ?

 I’m just thinking that  Almighty God gave specific instructions about the dimensions for Noah’s Ark and for the Tabernacle…certainly of interest to you :  the Construction of the Tabernacle

But back to our more pressing problem:

Nigeria : mass illiteracy

Nigeria : the nouveau riche

Nigeria vs cultural imperialism

It’s not easy. Yours is an uphill battle.

We’re not discussing the whole country  - the national mindset, just this sensitive little problem in your Edo section, one of the most educated sections, inarguably also thanks to investments  in education made by Ambrose Alli when he was governor of Bendel State with the city of Benin as its administrative and cultural capital. As to the distance between the traditional/ the traditionalists and the so-called modern-ity , the distance between His Majesty the Oba of Benin and his subjects, I trust that you are the better judge of such matters.

As said before, there are some uncle toms who may think that your view is too parochial, you raise your voice on behalf of cultural chauvinism, for “desuperiorising” treasonous infatuation with , good or bad, everything Western, and against what the uncle toms and others among them who don’t know what time it is, never got Marcus Garvey’s message “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”, God-forsaken house negroes whose minds( consciously or unconsciously) are still terribly clouded, colonised and see no oppression anywhere where cultural imperialism operates. All in all, if we care then it’s our business, our concern - we cannot exculpate ourselves by merely calling others names because in fact some of the toms who may not quite realise that they are toms, self-righteously believe that there’s nothing wrong with their brother’s keeper mentality having been self-appointed custodians of  the everything concerning the nations present and future freedom.…and seriously, the fact of the matter  is that illiteracy is our business whether it occurs predominantly in the South, West, East or North, or not. In my view, patriotism/ Pan- Africanism dictates that it is our business - and of course when we can, we must act locally….

On the spectrum  of from left to right - no matter how,  in this case, left and right  ( and right and wrong) are defined, how do we  - you and me and the rest of us fit in to this picture  of what could or should reasonably be expected of us, post-colonial citizens , this matter for our serious consideration The Empire Strikes Back - written by the man who was struck by some of the uncle-tom kind of questions you asked about colonialism in this thread  and that he  took up in this blog piece - please click on the title itself : Colonialism: What If?

Nigeria  -in a way simultaneously a microcosm and macrocosm of Africa, is a very complex country,  and although the problems are very easily diagnosed and clear for all to see,  it’s really only the tradition / culture of corruption  - and mass ignorance that’s blocking the way to a peaceful solution/ resolution of all the problems. In the meantime the word REVOLUTION scares the people at the top, sometimes referred to as “ the Corrupt elite" - which Muhammadu Buhari referred to in that Achebe Interview.

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