Docomomo 12th International Conference, Finland, August 2012

From Coffee Cup to Plan:  Theme 3: Open Plan

 The Alan Vaughan Richards Project – A Conservation Challenge

Ola Uduku and Hannah Le Roux  – Edinburgh & Wits University Johannesburg

This paper describes the Alan Vaughan Richards, (AVR) Archive and Conservation Project. It seeks to highlight the unique challenges of the project, which relate to its Lagos location, and the non-Western conservation and adaptation context, within which it operates and must respond. The first section of the paper sets the context to the architect and his work and his residence. The second discusses the conservation work being undertaken and proposed, whilst the final discusses the project challenges.

Alan Vaughan-Richards (b.1925-d.1989)[i], came to Nigeria to work for the Architects’ Co-Partnership in 1955. On the ACP ‘s withdrawal from Nigeria he established his own practice, in 1961, and in 1970 formed the Ibru Vaughan Richards Partnership with, the Nigerian architect Felix Ibru, with whom he worked for the rest of his career. He also became a Nigerian citizen. His work, particularly in the 1960‘s, was exceptionally experimental in its search to hybridize climatic modernism, innovative design methods, and indigenous knowledge. As a resident ‘Lagosian’, and aside from his architectural work, was involved in architectural education debates, and the artistic and cultural life of Lagos, notably he was the co-author author of the publication; Building Lagos.[ii]

The Site

On his arrival in Lagos, Alan Richards met and married Ayo Vaughan, (b.1928 – d.93) a member of a prominent Lagos family, the new couple becoming the Vaughan-Richards. As a wedding present, the Vaughan family gifted Alan and Ayo a piece of virgin land, close to the Lagos lagoon at Alagbon in Ikoyi Lagos. This was the site on which Alan Vaughan Richards designed the family residence, was built, re-developed and extended over a thirty-year period.

The initial ‘cottage’ was designed in the early 1960s[iii], (fig 1)  Set to one side of the plot, the cottage was set lateral to the water, facing a tree-filled landscape to the East and culminated in a screened verandah overlooking the water to the north. The design featured five interlocking circular spaces, comprising an office, two bedrooms, a w.c., bath and shower area, a kitchen, and a living room area. The living room area was then extended to have its floor plate cantilever out and overlook the lagoon.

The site plan shows the outline of the proposed future house occupying the middle of the plot, but this was never built.  (fig 2) Instead, in 1966, he built an extension to the cottage in the form of a timber structure above the carport, roughly 8x10m in plan, housing further bedrooms and a study.


The cottage combines experimentation with pragmatic concerns of domestic life. Its innovative elements include the use of artwork and crafts, its climatic response, services and construction materials. The planning, on the other hand, is finely tuned to the dynamics of the site and a growing family of four children, and a potentially large social circle. In this respect the house seems to reflect the dialogic vision of both Alan and Ayo, his wife, to frame a way of life that merged their respective identities.

The artwork includes wire screens that may be by Ayo Bello, with whom he worked earlier, as well as traditionally carved timber panels including the door set into the front door and an elaborate panel next to the stairwell. The house was also dotted with Nigerian masks and figures. The living room seating was upholstered using ‘Aladire’ textiles[iv], and a circular grass mat was used as an inset to the ceiling. Vaughan-Richards also cast a number of concrete blocks with expressive, abstract or animalistic relief mouldings, and these line the driveway and form bases for a number of concrete and steel sculptures in the garden. Along with clusters of earthenware pots, these elements engage with the site as a world replete with visible and spiritual life forms.

Vaughan-Richards consistently applied curvilinear geometries in the house, but set them against a grid that permitted a modular way of building, initially from blocks and roof sheeting, and then timber framing. The timber section is closer in material to traditional buildings, especially the lagoon-side houses of fishermen and lumber handlers. In the most geometrically elaborate space, the living room interior, he used timber as a veneer, along with fabric, to line the curved sitting areas, and to form niches and shelves for objects.

Climatic Design

If the artwork reflects the Vaughan-Richards’ respect for Yoruba and indigenous culture, the climatic elements mediate between the physical site and a scientific insight into the mechanics of passive cooling. Using his Tropical Architecture  training at the AA, Vaughan-Richards had considered the orientation of the cottage in relation to sun, breezes, trees and the lagoon, but adapted the rules to deal with his intention to leave space for a further building that, more orthodoxly, would run East-West. The ground floor building is positioned on the North-South axis with wooden louvered windows positioned to take advantage of airflow from the Lagos Lagoon, across the room to the louvered windows on the adjacent wall.[v] (fig 3)

The ground floor building was constructed of interlocking breeze blocks, which were left natural on the outside but painted white on the inside. The large window openings, including overhead clerestory ventilation areas and the plenums built for the air conditioning have ensured the ground floor interiors are well ventilated and cool.  The effective airflow across the envelope, and the overhang from the upper level, has had two purposes. Firstly it has ensured that the blockwork is effectively cooled preventing thermal heat gain and the shading from the overhang and vegetation has ensured there is little direct radiation that would also have increased heat absorption.  The living room extension and upper floor is constructed on a timber frame, has timber infill panels, wooden louvered openings, and wind traps at high level.[vi]


Similarly technical innovation was applied to the cottage’s sanitation design. The system is gravity fed, and with the upper extension is all located within a central unit, which was designed with carefully chosen, modern fixtures. The downstairs bath is sunken adjacent to the passage, and the upstairs shower is set deep within the building and lit through a skylight.

The Geodesic Dome

When the lagoon was lost to the 1970s Lagos State land reclamation, and a subsequent housing scheme, the cottage was further altered, orienting internally and to the east, and its social space augmented with a geodesic dome with service rooms set in the garden to the east (fig 4). The dome was one of the architectural forms marketed by the Ibru + Vaughan Richards Practice It was planned as a covered but unenclosed outdoor space, with half-walls.[vii]

Conserving the Property

Since Alan Vaughan Richards’ death, in 1989, the residence has not been in continuous occupation.  After his death, Ayo Vaughan Richards became terminally ill and died five years later. For the next fifteen years, the property was in temporary occupation over short periods, as the four children were, and remained, resident outside of Nigeria.  Ms R. Vaughan Richards, his daughter, moved back to the property in 2005. Currently she is intensely involved in the property, living in the geodesic dome, and maintaining the main residence and the flora and fauna in the grounds.

The Vision

The proposal to shift the use of the house from a private residence to a space for cultural activities came from the Vaughan-Richards’ oldest daughter. Her longer term intentions are to find an economically sustainable way of managing the property that respects the legacy of her parents. Some immediate needs include security, services and formal recognition of the property’s heritage value. The erratic governance in Nigeria makes all of these elements unreliable. With these elements in place, she envisages the site becoming an arts residency. In addition, the site and its proposed use lends itself to be used as an experimental space to design and test the application of alternative technologies. This might include designing an off-grid solution to power supply, over and above the petrol generators on site, to augment the effective passive cooling system, or developing methods for waste water treatment.

Conceptualizing the Vaughan-Richards property as a living house museum would involve reflection on the lives and work of the couple who created it in the first place. The couple were innovators in many ways: their lifestyle, its architecture, its engagement with place, and their written work on African architecture and beauty are inspirational texts today. Without due respect for the fragile content of their experimental way of thinking, and due acknowledgement of their creative rights, this memory risks being erased.

At the heart of Alan Vaughan-Richards’ conversion from a colonial architect to a champion of African potentials is his affective relationship with the whole of his adopted environment in all its dimensions. His co-authorship of, Building Lagos, reflects this broad vision in the way that is narrates the intersection between the natural, historical and physical context of a society in transition.[viii] What would a contemporary manifestation of this attitude be? In which media do contemporary creative thinkers document and re-propose Lagos and its neighboring areas? What elements of the existing property and archive hold potential to support such experimentation?

The initial proposal (fig 5) for the property’s restoration is to return the original cottage to its function as a private work-live space, to be used by the daughter as a base for managing the property as well as giving support for film-making projects. The second stage, upstairs extension, would offer two bedrooms for arts residencies, and retain the study as a room for reference to the Vaughan-Richards archive. The parents’ room could be restored to create additional sleeping space for students. An additional bathroom, possibly in the form of a raised and self-sufficient element that could be relevant to lagoon-side settlements such as Makoko, could be built by architecture students as a contribution to the city’s needs.

The dome could function as a communal studio, meeting and exhibition space, with the latter function expanding into the garden as a whole. The larger space off the dome, which is currently used as a bedroom, could be returned to its function as a kitchen serving the residency and meeting functions. The servants’ quarters to the east would remain in use. The landscape elements, including the trees and artworks, need to be cared for and documented. A new set of landscape elements, including functional artworks, could be developed through the residency process, within temporal and spatial limits. In restoring the property through both archival and performative work, additional knowledge of the Vaughan-Richards’ innovative thinking will be unearthed and this should be brought to public attention through media-based documentation.

The Challenges

In the case of the Alan Vaughan Richards house there is the immediate challenge legal ownership, related to the land on which the AVR Residence is built. The land was gifted the Vaughan Richards family, however the legal issues related to the change or transfer of title are yet to be resolved. This has a direct effect on future investment and development opportunities related to the future restoration and transformation of the property.

The public interest and audience for contemporary architectural appreciation is also limited in Lagos, this means that the proposed transformation of the AVR residence into a destination to visit will be of limited interest to the general public, and really focused on those with a specialist knowledge in the area. The design focus for the renovation will thus be more related to the house being a temporary residence for visiting artists and those involved in the arts. There would also be the installation of the physical AVR archive in the first floor building study, which would be visitable by appointment with Ms.Vaughan Richards.

From a design viewpoint there are particular challenges with the transformation of use of the residence. Planned as a family residence the reconfiguration of the residence to become a set of self-contained temporary residences, but to also have an accessible archive, without substantially changing the flow of the original design, presents a challenge. Similarly, the renovation of the interiors, so that, where possible, original materials are replaced, and where not, there is a decision about what would be the most appropriate replacement for them, has proved equally challenging.

With the archiving and digitising of material for the AVR archive there has also been the need to find where best to digitize drawings and the conservation and storage requirements for a non-specialist archive in the tropics. The lack of infrastructure for archiving in Nigeria has meant much of this will be done abroad and sent back on completion to Lagos. The final project will inevitably require collaboration between African, British and other Western partners, reflecting the hybrid heritage of the property and the ultimate local-international ambition for its long-term preservation.


Select Bibliography

H. Le Roux,. “The post-colonial architecture of Ghana and Nigeria” Architectural History Vol 47 (2004): 361-392

H. Le Roux and O. Uduku, (curators) The AA in Africa, Exhibition, The Architectural Association, London, 17 Jan – 14th Feb, 2003 + AA Seminar: AA Networks and Personalities 18/1/03.

H. Le Roux and O. Uduku “The Media and the Modern Movement in Nigeria and the Gold Coast”  Nka: Journal of Contemporary African ArtNumber 19, Summer (2004): 46-49

O. Uduku, “Modernist architecture and ‘the tropical’ in West Africa: The tropical architecture movement in West Africa, 1948–1970”, Habitat International, 30 (2006): 396–411.

O. Uduku and  H. Le Roux “Alan Vaughan Richard Archive Project”, (2012)British Academy Small Grant 2012-2014

Alan Vaughan-Richards. The Concise Grove Dictionary of Art, Oxford Univ. Press, Inc.2002., acc. April 08, 2012.

K. Akinsemoyin and A. Vaughan Richards, Building Lagos, (1977) Lagos:Pengrail.

Ayo Vaughan Richards, “Black and Beautiful”, (1986) London: Longman International.

West Africa Builder and Architect (WABA) vol 8 no. 2 (1968), “Education for Environment and design development conference, held at University of Lagos”

[i] Educated at London Polytechnic (Dip. Arch.1950) , and at the AA ,(Tropical Architecture Course, 1954-55).

[ii] Akinsemoyin and Vaughan-Richards Building Lagos, Lagos (1976) was written in connection with the World African Festival of Arts and Culture, 1977, with original line drawings by Alan Vaughan Richards and an historical commentary written with the historian Kunle Akinsemoyin. It was seminal in its presentation, format and accessibility to a wide Nigerian public. A new version has recently been republished, without the permission of either deceased author’s Estate.

[iii] This initial design was featured in the West African Builder and Architect

[iv] A Lagos-based textile firm that still manufactures West-African themed fabrics

[v] Clerestory, high level ventilation was also designed to allow for increased airflow across the room, especially at night times in the dry season when temperature differentials would mean that stack effect ventilation could help cool the room. Also when air conditioners were later incorporated, a plenum was built to direct the air-conditioned air across the room for maximum effectiveness. The extended main living room area also has had its orientation rotated to take full advantage of air movement from the lagoon across the living area to the adjacent windows . On the upper floor the same attention to air movement is achieved by the timber frame construction and insertion of wooden louvered windows throughout the floor. The main landing area has clerestory operable louvers, and louvered windows at adjacent walls ensuring the space is well ventilated. Furthermore the open tread wooden staircase ensures airflow moves unrestricted across the main areas of the house.

[vi] Despite having well-shaded interiors, by both the trees and the overall building design, the daylighting with the AVR residence is good. This is due to the proportionally large window openings and also the use of clerestory lighting to windows on the ground floor and in the main living-dining area on the first floor.

[vii] The dome’s carbonfibre roofing material is lightweight, has low thermal capacity, and therefore helps dissipate heat gain from the structure. With the later modifications, the air flow across the main covered area and the ancillary bedroom space remains good, due to the positioning of the windows placed at adjacent walls in the circular spaces, and the high ceilings encouraging air spread and flow across the interior spaces.

[viii] See endnote 2.


All photographs courtesy O. Uduku, drawings AVR Archive,                                             and future Plan, (fig 5) Hannah Le Roux