Lost in Abuja magazine (a spin off of Lost in Lagos) interviews Olayinka for their first ever edition; a conversation about origins, philosophies and the future of Studio Contra•
[Interview with Olayinka Dosekun-Adjei, Creative Director of Studio Contra]
Please tell us about who you are and what you do?
My name is Olayinka Dosekun-Adjei. I'm the Creative Director of Studio Contra which is a design practice specializing in architecture, interiors and urban space.
What is the story behind Studio Contra, when and how did it start?
Studio Contra started in 2017 as a partnership between myself and my husband, Jeffrey Adjei. We had both worked at the same architectural firm in London, which is where we met. I am Nigeria and Jeffrey is Ghanaian. We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, our favourite African architects and buildings, our longing for home and the desire to make an impact on our own continent where we felt there might be a greater need. Accepting the risks involved we relocated to Lagos and founded the studio which was originally called 'Studio Contra Mundum', meaning "in defiance or opposition to everyone and everything else". This name turned out to be a bit of a mouthful so, for practical reasons, we abbreviated it to Studio Contra which still maintains the essence of the idea - to disrupt and to challenge the norm.
Nevertheless, our original name still lingers in my mind as a bold statement for a young design practice. We thought of “contra mundum” as a rallying cry for people like us, equally passionate about design and the process of design, because we didn’t expect it to be easy. In fact, we knew that we would have to struggle to demonstrate and advocate for the value of design as a means of affecting change and transforming possibilities.
What are your architectural philosophies as a practice?
Studio Contra is both ARCON (Architects Registration Council of Nigeria) and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) registered. We are committed to the delivery of innovative and thoughtful contemporary architecture for clients with an equal enthusiasm for design.
With every project we take on we strive for three things: Concept, Culture and Craft. The conceptual underpinning of each design must be clear and simple to communicate both visually and verbally, as the core reason for the form or arrangement of spaces. This in turn should, to some extent, be informed by some cultural understanding of the place or persons for whom the design is intended. Finally, we always spend a great deal of time in the detailed design phase, carefully thinking about each element of the design and materiality and also working with artisans and builders to ensure the final product speaks of sensitive craftsmanship in execution.
You have done a number of architectural and interior projects all over Nigeria, what projects have you done in Abuja?
In Abuja we have completed the Atelier Boutique Hotel along with Retro Africa Gallery and Pavilion Cafe/Restaurant in Asokoro. We have also designed a luxury show-villa for a developer in Maitama as well as a group of apartments in Bwari for graduate law school students. We are currently working on a group of houses in Katampe which will be built soon.
Tell us about the Atelier Hotel, what inspired the design?
With Atelier we had a really good starting point which was the existing building which was, essentially in a neo-colonial style. We decided to strip out all the existing finishes, fittings and demolish or reconfigure most of the interior walls in order to make something new out of something old.The design was influenced by tropical colonial British-style hotels like Raffles in Singapore.
We really enjoy the process of working with what we had and transforming it in ways that would not have been foreseen initially. In these sorts of projects there is an opportunity to add to what another architect has done and so the final result is co-authored with them, stitching together old and new.
Is there a distinct architectural language in Abuja?
I don't think so actually, Abuja - like Lagos is a melting pot for the country and there are lots of different sorts of people doing lots of different things. A few themes do emerge though that I haven't observed elsewhere as much - the obsession with the tall pitched roof of the building as a grand gesture and signifier of wealth and status. The roofscape of Abuja is rather unique for this reason. What I have noticed though is that these enormous roofs are usually empty and inaccessible volumes, they are often decorative and serve little practical or spatial function within the house.
One of our early projects, the Bwari Student Housing (which was a collaboration between Studio Contra and friends of ours in Boston, USA Nelson Byun and David Pearson) focussed on this question of how to better activate the rooftop both on the exterior and the interior. The proposal was for 20 one and two-bedroom ground level student apartment units all under one roof. The units are enfolded by a single pleated and undulating pitched roof structure which itself is punctuated by courtyards and serves many functions; offering tall interior pitched ceiling space, shading common areas and protecting from the elements while also collecting rainwater water, channelling it into a central garden pathway.
Lastly, what is next for Studio Contra?
We have some exciting projects currently in development and coming soon. We are beginning to focus more on cultural and civic projects. At the moment we have a Visual Arts Centre under construction in Ilorin as well as a regional museum in the detailed design stage and film studios in concept design. We are also working on several residential projects with one under construction in Lagos (a beach house), another beginning on site in Ghana (a private residence) as well as a group of homes in Abuja and a private residence in Ilorin.
Our approach to work has also evolved a lot in the past year and perhaps the recent Covid 19 pandemic is partly responsible for this. We work much more flexibly now as a team between home and office and, as a practice, we are collaborating more confidently across borders with architects from other parts of the world using digital means of communicating and collaborating . Last year we worked with HLW in New York and this year we are co-authoring projects with Tokitu Studio in Madrid and Robert Dye Architects in London. In this way we continually challenge ourselves to work at an international level and keep our outlook and skillset fresh and diverse. We have also entered design competitions with SO-IL in New York as well as other practices globally. I expect we will continue to expand our physical presence in Nigeria and Ghana while also reaching out of Africa and forming temporary partnerships with our friends around the world.