Friday, July 10, 2020 / by Erik Bjorklund
The architectural storyteller finds inspiration in sci-fi.
The future Olalekan Jeyifous is imagining for New York City probably won’t happen in his lifetime, and he’s okay with that. The “implausible architecture,” as the Brooklyn-based visual artist calls his work, is about the creative excitement of an alternative story line.
“Architecture is my medium, but I’m really a storyteller,” Jeyifous says.
Jeyifous was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States when he was 6. After going to architecture school at Cornell and working at a firm in Chicago, he ditched the corporate world and began working more as a visual artist creating public murals and sculptures. A few years ago, Jeyifous made headlines for his improvised “Shanty Megastructures” series, a speculative, and somewhat dystopian, vision of Lagos.
Now, he’s turned his attention to Crown Heights, where he’s lived for about 20 years, and is conjuring up a version of the neighborhood inspired by Afrofuturism, eco-Futurism, and agro-Futurism. It’s lush and Edenic, filled with technologies like rainwater harvesting, biofuels, aeroponics, aquaponics, cooperative farms. In Jeyifous’s Crown Heights, Franklin Avenue is a permaculture corridor, public transit gets you where you need to go (and fast), and rooftops have freshwater marshes.
As with most people in 2020, the coronavirus threw a wrench in Jeyifous’s plans for the year. He was supposed to exhibit his work at the Venice Biennale and MoMA’s Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, both of which have been postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic. The Shirley Chisholm monument for Prospect Park that he co-designed with Amanda Williams — the first commission from the city’s She Built NYC program to honor more notable women through public art — has also paused for now.
Meanwhile, he’s working on self-initiated projects, listening to Carole King and Freddie Gibbs on long walks around his neighborhood, and taking time to answer ten questions from Curbed.
How’s it been for you during quarantine?
I’m kind of a quasi-loner introvert. I’ve worked from home since 2004, so I was pretty much custom built for a quarantine scenario. Nothing’s really slowed down, but I’ve made more time for self-initiated projects.
One of your self-initiated projects is this Afro-, agro-, eco-futuristic vision of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. What’s the story behind this fantastical, surreal utopia?
Lately, we’ve become a kind of weird midsize European city in a way, but not intentionally. It’s like we’ve been forced into picnicking and sitting in the park and riding bikes. So this seemed like the perfect time to walk around my neighborhood. I go stir-crazy and get cabin fever every single day at some point, so I just started going around and taking pictures of empty rooftops, vacant lots, and different interstitial spaces like alleyways, corridors, and doorways. I sift through the images and create these little worlds.
To a certain extent, quarantine created a collapse of infrastructure — or just made us realize we were already in one and used to it. It was a perfect segue into looking at community practices and sustainable practices, like growing your own food or creating these farming communities based on aquaponics or vertical farms.
Has doing this project changed the way that you see your neighborhood?
I’ve always been aware of how the neighborhood has been transformed, but I’m just seeing more of the details. The idea behind this was a kind of implausible architecture. I’m doing all this weird stuff with technology that doesn’t exist, that isn’t thought out. It has made me think about what kind of possibilities might occur.
Is there a label for this kind of work?
While architecture is my medium, I really am a storyteller. If you look at the images that I’ve been making and putting on Instagram, there are suggestions as to what this future might be, but it’s not like I haven’t worked out the tech or said what it was. It’s more about this vision of a place.
I haven’t put many characters into the Brooklyn agrofutures, but it is very much about long-standing communities here — the Caribbean community and the Latinx community — prevailing, in a sense, from displacement and gentrification. There’s a postcapitalist reclaiming of these communities that very much drives the idea of these little visions and interventions.
You mentioned you’ve gotten some pushback on these visions. What do critics have to say?
With the “Shanty Megastructures,” it’s a cultural pushback of, Why are you building large slums? Why are you saying slums are all we have to offer? Then it’s, This just isn’t feasible. It’s not going to work.
What do you say back to them?
Architects have this perception in the public imagination that we have to solve a problem. There’s no shortage of architects building schools or hospitals. That’s just simply not what I do. I’m interested in imaginative visions.
On the one hand, there’s this altruistic, paternalistic kind of tiny-home HUD architecture. Or it’s super high, capitalist-driven design. There’s less ridiculous or inventive approaches to design.
Like I said, I’m a storyteller. If you’ve ever read Octavia Butler’s stories — not to compare myself to her in any way — but they’re violent and dystopian and insane. They’re misanthropic, disenchanted visions of the future. They’re cautionary allegories. And that’s important as well.
How else has science fiction influenced your world-building?
I’m very influenced by what I read. One of my favorite authors is China Miéville. I’ve read almost all of his works of fiction. What really inspired my conceptual thinking is The City & the City, which is a very subtle kind of sci-fi. It’s basically two cities that occupy the exact same space, and like the occupants of each city, they walk by each other and they pass each other, but they are in completely different cities. They dress slightly differently, they move slightly differently, and it’s illegal for them to acknowledge the person in the other city without going through a rigorous Customs border-crossing.
The book has always been a perfect allegory for me for the kind of interaction between a lot of the sort of gentrifying folks in my neighborhood and folks who live here for a very long time. Walking up and down the street every day, I see such a complete disconnect between the two communities of the Black folks sitting on the steps chilling and then newer gentrifying folks spilling out of bars. They may walk into the same bodega, but there’s like zero acknowledgment, you know? So it’s an interesting thing.
So how did you get into architecture in the first place?
Since I was 5 years old, there wasn’t a moment like at any point in my life as a kid that I wasn’t like, Oh, I’m going to architecture school, you know? And it’s interesting because there’s that stereotype that architects are good at math and good at drawing, and I was horrible at math. When I do drawings, they aren’t conceptual drawings. It’s more technical. I really can’t freehand any — I can’t freehand draw. I’m kind of envious of those who can bang out those beautiful little, like, napkin sketches that look amazing. That’s absolutely not me whatsoever.
The “Shanty Megastructures” you made were part of a recent exhibition about “hip-hop architecture.” Do you think of your work in those terms?
I personally would not say I’m doing “hip-hop architecture.” That’s more of the thesis of Sekou Cooke, the theorist and curator, which is very strong.
I mean, I am doing more mixing and sampling than I think people understand. In the “Shanty Megastructures” and the Brooklyn projects, I don’t model anything that I personally don’t have to. I use SketchUp because I can just download from a library and chop up other models that other users have made. So many levels I’m chopping, sampling, and remixing. I collage the images in a technique called photobashing [which is a concept art style of merging and blending images and renderings into something that looks realistic].
While a lot of your work is image based, you were also commissioned to create a public sculpture of Shirley Chisholm for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Have the recent removals of racist monuments impacted the way you think about the project?
Not quite, because it was very much part of our proposal to challenge that kind of Confederate white-male, lone-wolf, marble-figurine monument, which is why Amanda Williams and I designed it the way we did. Our strength and our strategy was to completely differentiate our work from anything that has looked like what a monument or a memorial is supposed to look like. We said this approach is either going to be ridiculous or we’re going to win. That was our strategy and gamble.
Critiques of Confederate monuments were already happening when we submitted our design. I mean, critiques of everything that’s happening now was already occurring back then. This moment just really puts a serious you-can’t-look-away focus on it.
This interview has been edited and condensed