Memories of a French Architect

By Oji Onoko, This Day (Lagos), 18 March 2001

Lagos—It is his first time visiting any African country and the experience in Nigeria would linger for a long time for him. “It's so huge, so big. Very many people. For me it's quite incredible;” he says sitting at THISDAY Press Club lagoon front this Monday evening.

The French architect, Xavier Esselinck is accompanied by the director of the French cultural Centre. “I find something very close to New York in this sense,” he gushes. “It's very spectacular for me because I belong to the old country.”

The country in this instance is France. Like many foreigners, he had been fed with tales of the absurd about Nigeria. They are stories that would make anyone cringe and bury the thought of travelling to Nigeria. The French Cultural Centre had, however, made all the arrangements for him to come and deliver a lecture on his cherished field—architecture. Nothing would stop him from sharing his experiences with others and a chance to see Nigeria. The trip paid off. “I was very surprised because people told me many stupid things about Lagos.”

Esselinck is a mathematician who turned to architecture to assuage his inner feelings of solving some intricate problems of humanity in a more practical manner. He elected to concentrate on restoration of old buildings, palaces and museums. Nothing gives him better thrill than being in a building hundreds of years old and trying to bring back the memory of the old time.

“The problem is always to transform some of these palaces, these old buildings,” he says. “In each case, architecture has to work as a memory because I believe that without any memory, the society will die very quickly.”

He sees working in old palaces and museums as the best project for any architect. “Because nothing can be gained in a country if you lose your memory,” he explains. “When you work in old palaces of 100, 200 or 500 years old, when you have a new activity in these old houses, you have to take care to be very close to the authenticity of the memory.”

But the museum is the most important place to work for him. “You have inside the museum, objects of memory, objects of knowledge, objects of art, objects of religion and all these are part of the new society.” He has thus done extensive architectural work in museums. One of these dates back 1000 years with the most recent parts 100 years old.

Together with his Italian friend also an architect and three others, he had to bring out the exhibition room initially tucked inside the building. This had its own constraint as the new museum could no longer accommodate the 80,000 art objects now streamlined to 60,000.

The project was begun in 1992 with a great part of the chapel dug between 1993 and 1994. In 1995 they had to change the structure. “We wanted to save everything that is possible to save. To save space for preservation.”

“Then we tried to be faithful to the original creation.” In this wise, they used old materials, where they were used and new materials where applied.

“That to us is to respect the story of the museum, respect the background of the museum.”

Architecture to Esselinck is also a question of the imagination, of intuition. “It is not a question of beautiful houses, beautiful structures but the sense of the image in it. I want to make people see the images in architecture.”

He is enamoured of architecture and feels deeply that it is the best in solving the contradiction, and problems of the society. “Architecture shows the way you live. The way you work,” he emphasises. According to him, architecture was not recognised 200-300 years ago. “People simply built houses by themselves with the help of the neighbour.” As the society became more complex architecture came in ha ndy. “In the past when you had to build castle, it was very simple. It’s only stones on stones. You had no electricity, no staircase to go from one room to another. Things are more complex now. In houses, in factories, you need to have people to take care of such complexities.”

Esselinck Likens the architecture in Lagos to that of Europe. “You have very modem architecture, very clever. Sometimes it is not so clever because you make the same mistakes that we made in Europe.” These have to do with the economy of construction, the problem of money etc. He admits, however, that some parts of Lagos have retained their architectural identity. “You have the old buildings, old houses.”

The problem of the architect he says is to try and make no mistakes. “That is really the more difficult part.” So how does he feel as an architect of many years standing? Esselinck who delivered his lecture at the FCC on Tuesday replies smiling, “I feel good.”

From Mon Mar 19 17:09:53 2001
Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2001 17:09:53 -0500
From: <> To:
Subject: memory

In yesterday's This Day (Lagos) appeared an interview with the French architect, Xavier Esselinck, during his visit to Lagos. Esselink restores old buildings, palaces and museums in France.

In the interview he said, “The problem is always to transform some of these palaces, these old buildings,” he says. “In each case, architecture has to work as a memory because I believe that without any memory, the society will die very quickly.”

I wonder if subscribers are inclined to remark on his observation.

An old building, of course, is not a “memory,” but an artifact that at best only dimly conveys the sensibilities or ideas of a specific individuality, culture, and class.

Then, why would society “die” without a memory of the past? Just what does social death mean?

Obviously the past is not a font of wisdom, and arguably knowledge of it does not cast much light on our probable future. Exactly how, then, does knowledge of the past help us make wise decisions today?

And what kind of knowledge would Esselinck have us acquire? I suspect an understanding of the historical process would be far more important than just appreciating the genius manifested in some artifact of the past.

People in positions of power in today's world often have limited awareness of the past, but in a democracy it should be mass culture that really counts. But the mass of people generally seems to have a very shallow conception of history, and if social life depended on historical knowledge or understanding, our funeral would already have taken place.

Haines Brown