Frank Nwobuora Mbanefo: Exit Of Nigeria’s Pioneer Visionary Architect

MbanefoCROWDS gathered to pay their last respects to Nigeria’s foremost visionary architect, Frank Nwobuora Mbanefo, at a memorial mass held in his honour at the Holy Trinity Church, Enugu, last Thursday.

Mbanefo, who was 87 years old when he died in Montreux, Switzerland, on April 23, this year, was one of Nigeria’s pioneer architects admired for both his visionary commitment to strengthening Nigeria’s architectural profession, mentoring generations of creative minds, fighting for scientific progress, as well as advocating for the rights of foreign nationals married to Nigerians.

Mbanefo was a pioneer trustee of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA), which he founded together with a group of fellow visionaries in 1960. He served as the NIA National President and twice as Vice President of the Africa Region for the world body — the Commonwealth Institute of Architects — from 1963 to 1965 and 1994 to 1997. Mbanefo instituted a number of innovations, including starting the annual trade show, ARCHIBUILT, which today is the most important and most patronised event by allied professionals and related members in the building industry. He also served as President of the Architects’ Registration Council of Nigeria (ARCON).

As a mentor to generations of architects, Mbanefo fought for the development of architectural curricula in the nation’s leading universities, spending time visiting faculties and becoming a favourite guest lecturer. He also instituted annual prizes for outstanding student designs.

“There was a crisis in the premier School of Architecture, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria sometime in 1962,” remembers Waheed Niyi Brimmo, current president of the Nigerian Institute of Architects.

“Mbanefo rose to the occasion, appeased and appealed and so enthralled the young minds that from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. no one left the studio. He spent three months mentoring (the faculty and students) as his contribution to such a critical moment,” he stated in his tribute to the icon.

During the Biafran war (1966-1970), Mbanefo designed the famous underground “Ojukwu Bunker” for Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu using only locally available materials. Together with a team of engineers, he completed the project in a record three months, concealing building works with banana leaves during the day to avoid enemy fire from enemy planes flying overhead. The bunker was very deep, and is still fully functional today, serving as the major attraction of the National War Museum, Umuahia, which was later developed around the site of the bunker.

Mbanefo invented and built artillery to support the Biafran troops. Even though he lost three fingers on his left hand when a grenade he was working on detonated prematurely, he always drew strength from his war experience.

“The Biafran war was a clear example of our ability to be inventive citizens of the world despite incredible challenges,” he enthused during a recent interview.

“We came out of Biafra demonstrating we had the ability to pull together and contribute to the world’s creative knowledge base, and not to just be consumers. Nigerians should remember these lessons and invest more in science education, as well as in research and development.”

It was this inventive pioneer spirit and love for Nigerian progress that singled him out in his generation.

Born in 1927, Mbanefo followed the leadership legacy of both his grandfather and father, Chief Isaac Anieboka Mbanefo, respected red-cap chiefs of Onitsha, as well as his uncle, Sir Louis Mbanefo, Nigeria’s first Igbo lawyer who served as Chief Justice of the Federation (1961-1962), and later as judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands. Mbanefo was inspired by his rich family legacy and studied at the Christ the King College in Onitsha from 1944 to 1948. “His excellent Senior Cambridge Examination results earned him automatic employment in his alma mater, where he taught General Science and Mathematics until 1950 when he left for the United Kingdom to study Architecture,” recalled Chief Charles P.N. Okafor, current President of the CKC of Onitsha Old Boys Association in his official tribute.

Mbanefo graduated from the Municipal College, South-End-On-Sea, England in 1956 and was inspired by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary philosophy of “organic architecture”. He ran a successful architectural practice for 45 years until his retirement in 2009.

His firm Frank Mbanefo & Associates, spearheaded many innovative design projects such as the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Master Plan and the Auditorium for the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nsukka, among others.

Frank completed the design and construction of his private residence and office, Ezelagbo House, in Enugu in 1977, which is one of the most iconic buildings of modern Nigerian architecture in the country today. Ezelagbo House along with his many large design projects bear testimony to his masterly of spatial and material creative compositions, integrating art, architecture and nature with innovation.

Besides his architectural achievements, Mbanefo will be remembered for his exemplary inter-racial marriage of almost 60 years to the love of his life, Alice Mbanefo, nee Brechbuehl, from Bern Switzerland, whom he met during his student days in England. The couple lived in Port Harcourt and in Enugu where Alice became one of the most respected professionals in the travel industry, representing Lufthansa, and later Swissair airlines, before starting her own Navigator World Travel Agency.

The couple had a son, Christopher Mbanefo, who has become one of Nigeria’s pioneers in aerospace and aeronautical engineering, and a daughter, Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago, known for her pioneer work in media for development, documentary film and art.

Mbanefo’s life was a testimony of Bonitas, Disciplina, Scientia (Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge), the school motto of his alma matter, CKC, Onitsha and he will be remembered for his many important contributions to Nigeria.

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