Culture, Design and Two Yoruba Landscapes

Culture, Design and Two Yoruba Landscapes

Résumé en français

Que peut enseigner le paysage africain à l'architecture du paysage dans le reste du monde? Le lancement de cette nouvelle revue offre l'occasion de réfléchir à cette question et de spéculer sur la manière dont les architectes paysagistes peuvent travailler dans un contexte africain sans être les agents, même involontairement, de l'extension du colonialisme qui a eu un impact si dévastateur sur le continent. Les architectes paysagistes africains et leurs pratiques particulières peuvent contribuer à la discipline de l'architecture de paysage et l'enrichir, plutôt qu'en copiant de manière aveugle les approches occidentales sans adaptation critique. Mais lorsque nous parlons de paysages autochtones qui ne sont pas conçus au sens formel, ils sont souvent décrits comme, ou relégués à, le "culturel''. Je voudrais mettre en garde contre de telles interprétations problématiques de la "culture'' et plaider pour une compréhension plus profonde de tels paysages en tant que paysages conçus de manière délibérée.

What can African landscape teach landscape architecture in the rest of the world? The launch of this new journal offers an opportunity to consider this question and, to speculate on how landscape architects can work in an African context without being agents, however unwittingly, for the extension of colonialism which has had such a devastating impact on the continent. African landscape architects and their particular practices can contribute to the discipline of landscape architecture and enrich it, rather than by myopically applying western-centric landscape architecture without a critical translation. But when we talk about indigenous landscapes that are undesigned in a formal sense, they are often described as, or relegated to, the ‘cultural.’ I would like to caution against such problematic understandings of ‘culture,’ and argue for a deeper understanding of such landscapes as designed landscapes.

A map of professional landscape architecture associations worldwide shows that most of the globe does not have landscape architects in a formal sense. Africa represents the most significant gap, with just six out of fifty-four countries having professional associations. Despite a few notable exceptions, the literature on African landscapes is sparse. Yet, Africa has landscape practices and an abundance of spectacular landscapes, old and new, large and small, some designed by landscape architects, and most not. This new journal devoted to African landscape architecture will hopefully help bring some balance to the rest of the world’s understanding of African landscape architecture and help fill significant gaps in the literature and the map.

The city of Osogbo relative to Lagos
Map of Osogbo showing the Osun Sacred Grove and the Nelson Mandela Freedom Park

Two landscapes in Osogbo, Nigeria, located about 250 kilometers north of Lagos, offer very different approaches to the architecture of landscape. Neither the Osun Sacred Grove nor the Nelson Mandela Freedom Park were designed by a landscape architect. One is undesigned in a formal sense, while the other is formally designed, albeit by architects. The Osun Sacred Grove is regarded as a cultural landscape (UNESCO, 2021), but I would like to suggest it is a designed landscape too. The anthropologist, Lila Abu-Lughod, in her influential text, “Writing Against Culture,” urges a rethinking of the word ‘culture’ because of an unfortunate preponderance for the exclusion of differences within a particular idea of ‘culture’ (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Building on this, I advocate gaining deeper understandings of the design intentions behind such ‘cultural’ landscapes. Are not all landscapes ‘cultural’ in any case?

The Osun Sacred Grove is one of the last remaining sacred groves in Yorubaland. Formerly, every settlement in the region had a sacred grove, but most were lost in the face of urban development. At around seventy-five hectares, the Osun Sacred Grove lies on the periphery of this city of half a million people. Sacred groves provide a home to the orishas. Orishas are deities or energies of nature in West African traditional religion. The amber-colored Osun River that winds its way through the grove is the representation of the goddess, Osun, the deity of procreation and beauty in the Yoruba pantheon. Indeed, the city owes its location to Osun, who twice spoke to the villagers and asked them to move until she could no longer hear their banter from the busy marketplace.

The Osun Grove survived against the odds when so many other did not, in part due to its fantastical sculptures by Susanne Wenger and the New Sacred Art Movement. Wenger would meditate in the grove for days on end, becoming one with the plants and wildlife in the woods. Through this embodied engagement, Wenger communed with nature’s elements as the orishas are understood and was inspired to create the art works that depict various aspects of the orishas. Wenger’s forms were foreign to the grove and controversial in their day. Today, the Osun Sacred Grove is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in no small part due to the sculptures introduced by Wenger to the grove, a collaboration described as “a fertile exchange of ideas that revived the sacred Osun Grove” (UNESCO, 2021). The woods, rich with over eighty species of trees, and over four hundred species of plants, half of which have medicinal values, are a remnant of the ancient forest that covered that part of Yorubaland. Every July and August, the forest becomes the locus of the Osun festival that culminates in a procession from the city to the grove. The grove is filled with shrines and sacred spaces each located in a deeply considered relationship to the other. The grove might well be described as a cultural landscape, indeed a landscape of Yoruba culture.

Osun Sacred Grove, Arch of the Flying Tortoise: Photograph by Adolphus Opara
Osun Sacred Grove, World Market: Photography by Adolphus Opara

The nearby Nelson Mandela Freedom Park, situated in the center of Osogbo, represents a more recent approach to the architecture of landscape. The park is green during the rainy season and stands in stark contrast to the surrounding city. Rather than being separated from the city like the grove, the Freedom Park absorbs the hustle and bustle of daily life. Through the chain-link fencing, and from the footbridges that span the train lines, the visitor can watch and listen to the world going by. The integration of a large green space with the city was welcomed by many who saw it as an economic driver for the region. The park is sparse in trees and, consequently, visited more infrequently than it otherwise might. The park, interspersed with symbols and features, such as the Atewogbeja water fountain, and various monuments and sculptures, is described by the Osun State Government’s website as a symbol of development. They say the park is “giving the sleepy town a new look expected of a city” (Website of the State of Osun, 2021). This makes sense, especially if the image of a city is a western-centric one. One might immediately think of New York’s Central Park or Hyde Park in London. The naming of the park for Nelson Mandela places the park on a Pan-African footing. The Osun State Government describes the site as formerly abandoned land adjacent to the railway track. The state government further describes the park as “…an exceptional tourist haven for residents of the capital territory, Osogbo and visitors from near and far” (Osun State Government, n.d.). This is the key point, because designers, including landscape architects, should understand who we are designing for. Government? Residents? Tourists? Visitors?

Nelson Mandela Freedom Park: Photograph by Adolphus Opara
Nelson Mandela Freedom Park: Photograph by Adolphus Opara

Osogbo is just fifty miles from Ilé-Ifè, the first city in the world according to Yoruba oral history and the point from which all creation continues to radiate. Home to 201 deities (Olupona, 2011), Ilé-Ifè, does not feature in the canons of landscape architecture and urban design. “The force of retrogression has recessed indigenous architecture and urbanism to mindscapes,” declares Tunji Adejumo (Adejumo, 2019, 36). Such histories need to be reclaimed for the design fields, rather than relegated to the realms of culture or imagination.

The Osun Sacred Grove and Nelson Mandela Freedom Park in Osogbo stand in stark contrast to one another. But designers don’t have to face a binary choice between traditional and modern, or the past versus the future, locals versus tourists, culture and design. We must avoid established hierarchies and recognize the indigenous design agency behind landscapes in Africa and other regions where there is not a consolidated landscape architecture profession. In doing so, we can draw from diverse sources and rich forms of knowledge that can help to nourish the profession globally.

It is time to let go of the ways we colonize landscapes outside our own societies and learn to understand and incorporate the design languages and logics of the other. Susanne Wenger did this when she lived in the Osun Sacred Grove. Sited amidst the timeless forest, the fantastical sculptures of the groves were foreign, radical, and controversial when they were first built. The sculptures were designed through a deep interaction between the artists and the grove. In looking to the future, landscape architects need to recognize that a tree may have an energy, a river can embody a deity, and that plants, materials, and sites can have properties that go far beyond what the eye sees. Such rich and radical forms of knowledge can best be learned from the field, through the direct, sustained, and embodied engagement of landscape fieldwork.


Abu-Lughod, L., 1991. “Writing Against Culture”. In: R. Fox, ed., Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Sana Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, pp.137–162.

Adejumo, T., 2019. Landscapes: Canvas of Civilization. Lagos: University of Lagos Press, p.2.

Olupona, J., 2011. City of 201 Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2021. The Official Website of the State of Osun. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15 April 2021].

Osun State Government, n.d. Expression of Interest to Manage Facilities of the Nelson Mandela Freedom Park at Orita, Olaiya Axis, Osogbo, State of Osun [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15 April 2021].

UNESCO, 2021. Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15 April 2021].


Photographic Credits

Nelson Mandela Freedom Park: Adolphus Opara

Osun Sacred Grove: Adolphus Opara