Monday, August 20, 2007

Okay, let’s sell National Theatre to a church

(As published in The GuardianLIFE magazine August 19. 2007)

APART from a few Lagosians who still reminisce about those days when they watched cowboy films at the National Theatre and a younger generation of a different class who still throng the cinema halls there on Sundays to watch Yoruba films, who else in the country knows this monster building and who cares whether it’s pulled down to its foundations to make way for an office tower?
Why have the Bureau for Public Enterprises and the community of artistes been squabbling over this decrepit, abandoned building that looks like an alien space ship for so long?
Well, for one, the Pritzker award winning architect and author Rem Koolhas who did extensive research on emerging mega cities with his team of graduate students from Harvard University at the turn of the millennium (and was perhaps the first to take a concentrated look at the possibilities in the chaos called Lagos) anchored a lot of his research on the National Theatre — quite literally, scouring through the mass of archival material in the belly of the beast and analysing its role in the development of the city, in tandem with FESTAC town, which was built at about the same time.

ESSENTIALLY, the National Theatre was not devised by the Federal Government as just a one-off event venue and cultural center, but was designed to be a bulwark against which a whole urban planning initiative for Lagos could ride.
In fact, it will not be wrong to state that the National Theatre, in combination with FESTAC Town and other developments that came up at the same time served a major role in opening up and connecting mainland Lagos. Unfortunately, the initiative has not been sustained, hence the current imbroglio, which warrants us asking certain questions:
• Has the Lagos State Government capitulated in its claim that the theatre is on land that is vested in the state government and therefore cannot be ‘sold’ by the Federal Government?
• Is the Bureau for Public Enterprises taking into consideration the tangible and intangible assets that make up the National Theatre, which include the expansive land on which it is built, the history behind the edifice; the value of the material it houses; its value as a national monument; and more importantly, its prominent role in the urban design matrix of a mega city like Lagos?
• Surely the theatre cannot be expected to function effectively without the cooperation and integration of the Lagos State Government’s urban planning initiatives as regards transportation and other social infrastructure?
• Are the parcels of land adjoining the National Theatre not meant to be developed into a proper cultural precinct that will include a five star hotel, impressive landscaping, an expansive shopping mall, more cinema halls, and other ancillary services that will support the National Theatre in drawing a constant crowd to Iganmu and will appropriate the adjoining Surulere community the same way the combination of MUSON Centre, City Mall and (to a lesser extent) National Museum in Onikan have appropriated the neighbouring Ikoyi community into a cultural precinct?
• Do people really expect the National Theatre to fare any better for as long as it is located in a largely decrepit and desolate part of town that is hardly seen unless while being conveyed across any of the network of bridges that’s about it?
• Can’t the Lagos State Government see a brilliant opportunity for a massive urban renewal effort with equal and perhaps better prospects than their efforts in the Lekki zone … albeit an effort driven on a cultural platform, but one which for once can attempt to connect the mainland and the Islands in one big developmental effort with all the accruable revenue?

HERE is an attempt at lateral thinking… how about selling it to a mega church? Churches make money, churches appreciate the value of big buildings that can sit lots of people, churches are fantastic crowd pullers and some churches have blamed all the nation’s woes on all the ‘juju’ that was invoked during the FESTAC ’77 at the National Theatre in the name of cultural rejuvenation; so they should be interested in forming a consortium to bid for the theatre so that they can embark on some spiritual fumigation, which will sort out all our problems by chasing the aliens away once and for all.
Imagine a mega church with the National Theatre as its headquarters building! And let nobody scream that it would be a subversion of the nation’s diverse cultural heritage; after all church going is now a valid national culture. It’s a fantastic thought… why aren’t churches falling over themselves trying to buy this building…?

QUITE frankly, if a church will buy into this idea and put us all out of our miseries by turning the National Theatre into a Mecca of sorts (forgive the pun), it will be a relief. If it’s so difficult working out a cultural precinct, then let’s make Iganmu a religious precinct… as a nation we seem to have fared better in that regard, what with the number of religious camp sites on the Lagos Ibadan expressway and the number of churches that have developed whole towns around their mega auditoria — case in point — Oyedepo’s Canaan Land in Ota and Adeboye’s Redeemed Camp off the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway.
You see, long after FESTAC, some people have successfully tapped into the idea of how large event venues with mass appeal can thrive with effective urban planning and development that incorporates all necessary ancillary services including housing and transportation, albeit at a macro scale.
The BPE and the artists should go to the churches for tutorials and spare us all this macabre dance. That is the design sleuth’s final submission on the matter.

-Ayodele Arigbabu

No comments: