The Twentieth Century Society

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Building of the month

June 2022 - Elder Dempster Shipping Lines, Lagos, Nigeria 

Elder Dempster Shipping Lines office, in the 1960’s and today.

Images: Ola Uduku (L) and the West Africa Builder and Architect (R)

Throughout 2022, the ‘Building of the Month’ feature is in partnership with the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s Equality Diversity & Inclusion (ED&I) networks: the LGBTQIA+ Network, the Women Architectural Historians’ Network, the Race + Ethnicity Network, and the Disability Network. C20 supports their overall aim to actively ensure that diverse voices in histories of the built environment are heard; with each ‘Building of the Month’ relating to under-represented groups across geographies and building types.


Elder Dempster Shipping Lines, Lagos, Nigeria.
James Cubitt and Partners 1964

With an existing presence in West Africa, having had several high-profile commissions in Ghana in the early 1950s, James Cubitt and Partners set up a subsidiary office in Lagos in 1956. The Lagos Branch HQ of the Elder Dempster Shipping Lines was built in 1964 on what was originally the Lagos foreshore. At the time of its construction, the building represented the epoch of Modern architecture in West Africa. An earlier, smaller building had been commissioned and built in Freetown, Sierra Leone, by the firm, but this was the major oeuvre. Reputed to be the first piled foundation office structure in Lagos, it was also the first to have underground parking, a major feat as Lagos island is c. 10m below sea level. Furthermore, it was designed to be fully cross-ventilated, with only the senior staff canteen and boardroom equipped to have air conditioning. The funnel-shaped moulding, obscuring the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HAVAC) plant has a “Corbusian” feel, and in its day, it dominated the Lagos foreshore skyline, as mailboats and ships arrived at the Lagos harbour or went across to the emerging Apapa docks. The brises soleil covering the fenestration spells the moniker “E D”, Elder Dempster.

One could book sea passages to anywhere in the world from the Elder Dempster shipping offices. This was highlighted in its rotunda-formed booking office with a diorama atlas of the word. For a time with the demise of passenger mailboats such as the much remembered “MV Aureol”, it also acted as a physical ticket office for airlines flying into Nigeria. A model of an early mail packet ship also originally adorned the mosaic tiled entrance up until the 1980s.

Today it can be viewed as a dated low rise modern structure on the Lagos Island skyline with passenger shipping, like the Lagos foreshore, a distant memory of the past. Nigeria’s oil boom era resulted in the reclamation of the foreshore and now the Elder Dempster building is nearly a mile from Lagos lagoon, with the highway that extends to the third mainland bridge in its place. One can just about glimpse at the building on the elevated highway ramp, or walk past it in the jostle and chaos of Lagos Island’s Broad Street. It is now stranded from its past in an island of commerce and increasingly solely anonymous digital access to travel.

Ola Uduku is a British African architect who is Head of the Architecture School at the University of Liverpool. She is a member of the Nigerian Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The Building of the Month feature is edited by Dr. Joshua Mardell.

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