A text is only understood when it is walked. The ideas that you read become tangible as soon as they become part of your inner dialogue, of your daily walks. This is to say that every idea has a personal story. Every building, every text. For ideas require time to go through a transition passage into action, into materiality. Ideas, apart from time, also require a shape to find themselves and this shape normally can emerge through a language. Ignaside Solá-Morales understood - and practiced - both the architectonic and the philosophical languages. It makes me wonder why it was that Solá-Morales chose these two languages; maybe due to this in-between character of professions – philosophy and architecture – as both create beauty out of a structure that aims to understand and inhabit the world, but also strives to find the mystery and poetry it hides. Both philosophy and architecture are a framework for thinking the world, both respect a tradition that combines freedom with structure. The aim of philosophy is the construction of concepts; the aim of architecture is the display of a concept into space. I can only imagine the thoughts that went through Solá-Morales’ mind whenever he would walk from a philosophy class to another in the architecture department. This – I imagine – became his professional rhythm, going from theory to praxis, from praxis to theory, until they melted into the singularity that are Solá-Morales’s texts and buildings.
“Sorry, I am already late! I’m stuck in traffic,” I had to tell a person I had an appointment with. “Welcome to Lagos,” he replied. “You will need to follow my instructions,” he warned me. “OK, so take a bike from E Centre, tell them you are going to Morocco. It’s 200 Naira. When you get to Morocco, take another bike to Popoola Street. It’s number 5. A green two-story building with a black roof and a black gate.” He made me repeat Popo-olaa few times so that people would understand what I was saying, where I was aiming to go. There I was, I had a map of words that would lead me to a destination. I hadn’t pointed out any of those words in a map, my destination could have been in the south, in the north, or in the east for all that matter. It was already night and I was new to the place. I went out of the hotel where I was staying and I walked to the informal motorbike station across the street. The motorbike system in Lagos is astounding; young drivers with passengers on their backs know every shortcut, every narrow street, and every fake bridge of their assigned territory. It could be said that they own their respective part of this big city.
Each city provokes a different rhythm in its walker, and it makes me think that each city may also set a different rhythm of thinking. It will never be the same to walk through Vienna in the middle of the night as it would be to walk the streets of Mexico City’s downtown – my natal city. I will never fully understand how is it that Viennese streets can become so quiet, so open, so coldly friendly when you walk them at 3am. Riding that motorbike in Lagos Mainland was a strange form of “walking” a city, if I could be allowed such a jump. I ponder on whether the vertiginous rhythm of motorbikes talks closely to the rhythm of a city like Lagos. Lagos has the most amount of information of any city that I have walked so far: posters, people, cars, motorbikes, third-floor standing mannequins, lights, signs, fruits, textiles, mirrors, sounds… You can enter a quasi state of trance; as if the city itself would otherwise overflow the self.
In his text “Terrain Vague”, Solá-Morales suggests that photography has been the medium par excellence for representing and remembering cities. “Because we have already seen or are going to see some of these places, we consume this semiological mechanism of communication, and the memories that we accumulate through direct experience, through narratives, or through the simple accumulation of new signals, produce our imagination of the city.”1 That is his starting point for pondering upon the fascination of the terrain vague in contemporary cities, linking it with the freedom of non-identity, non-productivity, non-expectation as a form of resistance to the capitalist logic of usage of space. Lagos has not been primordially narrated by photographic images, the narrative of the city is not that of the encounter with the already seen, it doesn’t follow the logic of a romantic wanderer – like Paris or Solá-Morales’s Barcelona would. Lagos imposes itself in a vertiginous rhythm in which its buildings are in constant reformation, demolition, reconstruction. Lagos is vibrant, informal, it is always vague in terms of urban rigidity. The terrain vague in Lagos cannot last long, the space is always being contested.
Jumping back to the motorbike ride, I remember how I would be fascinated by the fluidity of Lagos, by how one street was connected to the other and how the terrain would change in a gradual yet fast manner. In some parts of the city, like Barriga (where Popoola street is located), the ground is wavy. I dare to say that the fascination of
Lagos doesn’t lay in the vagueness of a territory but rather on its perseverance. The fascination of the Ebute-Metta railway compound to visitors is not only that of the potentiality of a space but of how it, surprisingly, has resisted being a participant in the ongoing Lagosian urban transformation. The fact that most of its buildings have been standing for longer than 100 years is becoming close to incredible. The temporality of this city is vertiginous as well. The surprise is hidden in the perseverance of the space’s character – that is the enigma. How to remain a foreigner to the overflowing urban dialogue? Maybe the element of surprise of the Ebute-Metta railway company is that it became a subject of photography in which the space is never narrated in photographic terms. This railway compound functions as a terrain vague if, as Solá-Morales read sit, “these strange places exist outside the city’s effective circuits and productive structures.”2 Even when Lagos challenges the idea of the “photographic” city, the railway compound, on the other hand, opens the door for new urban and architecture possibilities. As Solá-Morales puts its, every architectonical gesture is an imposing one, a gesture of limits. So then, how can we think the space of the railway compound at Ebute-Metta without it being an imposing or colonizing act? How to play with its unexpected character of functioning both as a “photograph” from the past and as terrain vague?
At the end of the text, Solá-Morales suggests that a fluid architecture, one that could react to the beauty and mystery of terrain vagues would be one that follows the logic of the space, that continues the dynamics of these particular spaces that already contradict the hegemonic and productive urban spaces. “Undoubtedly, through attention to continuity: not the continuity of the planned, efficient and legitimated city but of the flows, the energies, the rhythms established by the passing of time and the loss of limits.”3
If we were to seriously partake in this idea then we would need to think about the symbiotic relationship that is always present between the city and its buildings, the city and its inhabitants; to think the city as an organic entity which functions on different, parallel scales. To follow the vagueness of the Ebute-Metta railway compound would be to follow its greenery, to allow for rustiness, to re-think heritage, to question colonial structures, to allow for emptiness, and to play with temporality.
1 Ignasi de Solá-Morales, Terrain Vague, p.119
2 Solá-Morales, Terrain Vague, p. 120
3 Ignasi de Solá-Morales, Terrain Vague, p.123