A Project of Passion
Aerial view of the Freedom Park
Adewole Ajao discovers the symbolic Freedom Park on Lagos Island, a former prison turned recreational centre that crackles with more stories than a book
One hectare of land would have been better suited for a block of lease-ready spaces in an area which is the toast of space-hungry businesses. This was one of the arguments against the state government's decision to turn the former Broad Street Prison to a recreational facility. But my host, Theo Lawson, is happy for such an opportunity to create a symbolic oasis of calm from an establishment that previously gave many a cause for apprehension. Lawson who is also the design principal and builder of the Freedom park on Broad Street would make an ideal park guide due to his vast knowledge of the parkâ€™s history, a trait that developed over the years it took for his idea to become a reality.
I am an architect with Total Consult and the idea came up 12-years ago when a group of architects came together to develop millennium ideas for Lagos State, recalls the soft-spoken fellow. â€œDifferent architectural firms took up different aspects that included transportation and beautification but my firm took up open spaces because Lagos Island had become congested and had no heart as it were.
Freedom Park represents just one piece in the recent push for urban renewal that has become synonymous with the Fashola administration. This recreation and regeneration has also swept through other notable structures in the area, but Freedom Park packs more symbolism due to the whole idea of dismantling what used to be a popular prison and turning it to a testament of freedom.
â€œWe were looking at creating an open space within the island where people could come and breathe. I had known about this space and it was the best, if not the only available space in Lagos currently. So I bought my team here to explore and take measurements,â€ he said.
The initial structure on the land was an 1872 mud and thatch structure which could contain just 20 prisoners. Her Majestyâ€™s Prison as it was then called was later rebuilt in 1885 and renamed Broad Street Prison after its predecessor kept catching fire. The new prison was erected with materials imported from England and cost the colonial government 16,000 Pounds. Around that time, the administration spent a paltry sum of 700 Pounds on education, a show of the importance it attached to suppressing rather than developing the indigenes.
The prison was one such tool in the whole diary of suppressing voices and famous prisoners to this establishment where Herbert Macaulay, Adeyemo Alakija and Pa Micheal Imuodu who were held at the facility during the colonial era. Obafemi Awolowo, Lateef Jakande and Anthony Enahoro are other names that have had some experience within the prison walls. But there were also women like femme fatale Mrs. Esther Johnson (nee Ada Ocha Ntu) who committed a crime of passion by killing her white partner, Mark Hall after he used a loan from her to set up a new business for his UK-based lover. His refusal to repay ended in dire consequences for him and Esther.
Her husband or boyfriend was a white man she killed after he could not repay a loan so she was sentenced to death and brought here. It was later changed to life imprisonment after independence when Azikiwe pardoned her, added Lawson. Fortunately we met somebody who had worked here during the time of the prison and after its closure. He told us the stories and actually brought us into the place.
Another tale synonymous with the piece of land is the Awolowo curse that the former prison grounds would never be developed. After series of abandoned attempts to develop it by previous firms, the land became a squatter camp and rubbish dump before its new lease of life. Lawson admits that work was hitch free once the state government bought into the idea of the Freedom Park.
Incidentally, there wasnâ€™t as much red tape even though it took ten years for it to be considered as a project. By the time it got to the governorâ€™s attention he bought into the idea immediately and six months saw it passed by the executive committee. One of the main issues we had was the fact that it had been converted to a dump site before we commenced work. Two months were spent clearing piles of rubbish and debris piled here over the years and also at the same time doing some archaeological search.
The park gives a double view by retaining an imprint of the old structure alongside the new one with three major prison blocks represented in pre-abstract manner on their original footprints. Cell A was rebuilt hallway so people could see what the original shoe-box cells looked like while there are other signifiers of what used to obtain within.
The cells were 4 by 8 feet which was a length of plywood and there was bed which was 1 foot by 6 feet wide and the only other thing in the room was a bucket so prisoners had to pass the faeces, urinate and pass it out in the morning, explains Lawson as we stroll through it. Block B is now a parabola with the impression of the cells on the lawn while Block C is the skeleton of a cell block being exhumed from the ground. The new function of this ramp is to accommodate models for the millennium projects of the state government and act as a link to the museum which stands where the prison records office used to be.
The current food court adjacent the cubicles is where the prison kitchen used to be while the chief warder and assistant warder's quarters are now administrative and staff offices. The gallows and condemned prisoners section have given way to a stage akin to the Speakers Corner in London. This setting for an expression of the self is not the only new structure within as there is a reflection pool and walkway of fame. A gradual art injection that has also seen the former female quarters replaced by an Amphi theatre, giving a blend of neo-colonial architecture alongside art that is being sourced from various avenues.
â€œThere will definitely be another exhibition with a prison, independence or struggle theme which will last for a year. The works will be sold while the artist and park make money before another set of art will be brought in, Lawson says.
A well trimmed lawn and other softer elements complete the ambience of escape in an area that has gradually surrendered to commercialism over the years. The geese are having a swell time in the reflection pool but they are not alone as some chickens peck at the grass alongside an in built sprinkler system.
â€œThe chickens were resident here before the project started and some of them just remained here. They are very loyal and we call them the ghosts of this place because theyâ€™ve been breeding since we were here and have generations which we don't know how far back they go.
Although the project met its completion date and opening on October 1, 2010, a new structure is gradually taking shape within its lush interior to accommodate more art. This storey building will house the art gallery and works that will be donated by Prof Wole Soyinka.
â€œWe are open to the public but it is still a construction site because we cannot fully operate the part even though we are working at keeping everything in place. The art gallery is a new project with a roof terrace strategically situated to overlook the stage since Soyinka has been a playwright, he said.
It is not the only building with an expansive view of the whole park as there is a bar which can cater for seminars and a pristine museum with maps and photographs of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Lagos. These images which tell the story of Lagos and colonial notions of compartmentalisation graced the opening which coincided with the celebration of Nigeriaâ€™s golden jubilee.
â€œThe museum was originally planned as that for the prison but we found there would not be enough material to fill the space we had so it is now the Lagos museum to cater for the history of Lagos. We are working at getting a consultant curator. There is a Professor Charles Gore who we are in talks with. He is in a school of African and oriental studies and has done a lot on West Africa and Benin. He has some affinity to Nigeria but it is because he is a renowned scholar over there. He has access to the materials and information that is lost to us right now.
Relics discovered during the reconstruction of the site are available for public view at the museum but some like the old prison gate, trees and thick wall remain in their original places.
Unlike the former prison, the new one is made from locally sourced materials and some imported lighting tools. That left the expenses at roughly N250 million, an amount Lawson considers immaterial when compared to what has been delivered.
It is a project of passion and a lot of people have come here to say the kind of budget we used for this is crazy but I think we have done so much for so little, and the joy is in the fact that it has been realised.
Lawson sees the name of the park creating a bit of a dilemma when it comes to recouping the amount spent by the government to renovate it, but with a management team in the offing, the idea of a nominal charge for visitors should be settled soon.
â€œEven though it should be accessible to residents of Lagos, there is a need for the state government to redeem its investment,â€ argued the architect. â€œSince it is a prison, there might be a fee for going out and not coming in and we hope people will see it as a maintenance fee.