DK Osseo-Asare is co-founder of Low Design Office (LOWDO), which is based in Austin and Tema, Ghana, and an assistant professor of architecture and engineering at Penn State, where he directs the Humanitarian Materials Lab. The following conversation between Osseo-Asare and his LOWDO partner, Ryan Bollom, AIA, has been edited for clarity and length.
Ryan Bollom, AIA: We are in the midst of a historic moment where architectural practice is forced to dramatically change. First the pandemic and now the social upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movement. I know you are interested in the system that perpetuates these issues. Can you explain the systematic problems the upheaval points to as it relates to architecture?
DK Osseo-Asare: While architecture situates itself as a social enterprise, the profession is wedded to capitalism and the currency of wealth and power it seeks to serve. Architects first designed for kings, followed by the church (or equivalent), state, and, currently, corporations and elite private wealth. Today we are well aware both that neoliberal ordering drives wealth disparity, and that asset wealth and income correlate with access to quality of life. The current structure of society — whether by accident or by design — concentrates wealth and power. Who does the architecture profession [seek to] serve? What would architecture look like if it did not mirror wealth and power? Only if we work to place ever greater value on human life and the environment can we start to rectify this disequilibrium.
RB: A more holistic approach to life that places some form of currency toward social, cultural, and environmental issues. We need to refocus our culture and economy to respect the things that support quality of life.
DK: Yes. Throughout the pandemic, our government has shown that it values money over human life. It is also about individuality versus collective life and health, and the extreme polarization of political, social, and cultural views in this country. People of privilege don’t have to acknowledge injustice because they typically don’t witness it first-hand and don’t want to see it because it will ruin their comfortable repose or expose their selfish attitudes.
RB: They are properly “socially distanced.”
DK: However, if people of privilege experience injustice themselves, they demand justice immediately and for the rest of their lives. In order to survive in the world, we instinctively fear otherness. But as humans evolve, we come to recognize our common humanity. Just as elites and more privileged classes deliberately and systematically segregate themselves from the rest of society, so does the architectural profession: It sees itself as a specialized class situated above if not everyone else, at least the rest of the people involved in manifesting the built environment. Architects are oftentimes apt to claim sole authorship, responsibility, vision, authority and it is folly!
Architects are obsessed with the idea that it must be our signature on the building, our vision that the builders execute. It’s unidirectional. In theory we have a fiduciary responsibility to the client, but oftentimes the architect tries to impose their will on the client. This is massive arrogance. Many architects don’t think they will learn from the builder. In order to preserve this mentality, architects must see themselves as better than builders (and, by extension, the rest of society) — more educated, more professional, more civilized — and as custodians of a specialized knowledge that allows them to be the interface between the client, builder, jobsite, and the administration (regulations, standards, codes, etc). This preserves a professional class of architects.
Becoming an architect is an education-intensive, expensive experience that self-selects by class and perpetuates itself because its exorbitant cost and aesthetic politics orient the graduates of this educational experience both toward work on behalf of the people who can afford to pay them with the salaries commensurate to the cost of their education, and toward career opportunities most likely to guarantee them the lifestyle expected upon entry into this professional class. What happens if we challenge or destabilize this self-interested notion of a professional class which sees itself as special and separates the architect from the builder, the client, and society at large?
Today as we respond to movements like Black Lives Matter, let us first ask how much of the contemporary crisis encompassing racial, social, environmental, and climate justice we desire to dismantle, and then let us determine our positions relative to the recognition that architecture mirrors money and power. Is it too much of a leap to suggest that architecture requires alternative approaches to architecting, if we aim to be relevant actors involved in building (growing) future human society that is more equitable and genuinely safe for everyone?
More diversity in the profession is an essential goal, but not enough. Focusing solely on racial or ethnic or gender inclusion within the profession of architecture itself — as it exists today — runs the risk of simply admitting a select group of people of color or more women to join the club serving the same elite segment of society.
The mentality of trying to dominate an ever-larger territory of land or property in order to extract value from it is piracy and is fundamentally about enslaving other landscapes, bodies, and beliefs. If you want to break out of such primitive topologies you need to break out of the idea that architecture — and society — needs to be a pyramid. You need to break down the idea that people need to be stacked vertically according to economic class, social status, academic or vocational training, or professional qualifications — let alone skin color, race, ethnicity, hair type, age, stature, gender, ability, cultural, political or religious affiliation, or whatever else — such that society overall authorizes select groups to exercise unchecked levels of power, wealth, and influence over the people “below” them, just as the design professions largely ignore those people making up the base of the pyramid.
If we neglect to interrogate this reality as the starting point for design, we will invariably reinscribe these self-same systems of inequality and injustice into any downstream designed outcomes. At the same time that architecture excels at visioning and realizing spaces and scenarios, there are myriad externalities that influence the financial cost and accessibility of quality of life but lie outside the strict boundaries of the domain of architecture. Why not empower people to engage directly in the lifelong design, construction, maintenance, and dynamic operation of the spaces and environments in which they live their lives?
There have been numerous calls over the years to make design more democratic. Current events should underscore the urgency of this transformation. In terms of architecture, democratizing design means making not only design processes and practices more accessible, as well as buildings (the things), but also building (the process) more inclusive. Part of this is the architect, builder, and client working together in more fluid and horizontal ways, akin to times, cultures, and parts of the world where people build their own houses, collaborating with many different specialized makers. Prosumer is now a viable market segment (professional grade consumer products, often electronics, built around committed amateur communities that co-create products), and we can expect similarly blurred boundaries between clients, users, builders, finance, vendors, and manufacturers in architecture’s future, especially as automation expands the space of affordable design possibility. Who controls these emerging processes, and what role can architects play in shaping inclusive and equitable systems?
RB: The conventional model is to hire the architect, who operates from the top of a pyramid and brings in design and technical consultants as necessary to execute their vision down to every detail. The construction side might be consulted to determine cost and assist with complex moments, but it is not generally an integrated part of the team from the onset. And, especially for successful architects, the clients are often bent to the architect’s will.
DK: Yes, exactly. Architects need to let go of our egos, as well as our singular view of authorship. The difference between “professional architecture” and what we can call the vernacular is that the vernacular is the status quo, how ordinary people build in society on their own. Often architects view vernacular architecture as a local or traditional “style,” but it is less a style than collective ways of building and living. It is a form of distributed popular knowledge and capability that is not enshrined in the professional class of architects; it is uniquely instantiated not through individual buildings but through speciation of buildings within ecologies of building that are locally situated in place, community, and climate-environment. When architects set themselves apart from vernacular architecture — through branding as modern or contemporary or boutique — they do so in order to position themselves as custodians of specialized knowledge which is separate from the vernacular: to become brokers of “quality design” spatial experience.
Part of the role of the professions is to safeguard society’s interests, or at least in terms of architecture, to advantage human life safety (or, at minimum, not jeopardize it), as well as to preserve and reinvent disciplinary knowledge and expertise. But just as calls to “defund the police” are not calls for anarchy, but rather for alternative models of protecting communities that prioritize human life, we can ask what models alternate to the current profession of architecture may more successfully deliver equitable environments and convivial communities? What would happen if architects recommit to the vernacular and work collectively toward restructuring the actual and diverse ways our world is being built and lived?
What would happen if architects were to adopt anonymity, to lose ourselves in the ecosystem of all the other anonymous (but real and important!) people that work on buildings, and realize that the end result of the built form and landscape is radically improved — not only because everybody’s design expertise has increased by participating to a greater extent in design of the built environment, but also because the design itself benefits from myriad inputs from its real and prospective users. These types of more open and inclusive, “human-centered” or participatory approaches to design are already gaining ground in other fields, from software, product, and industrial design to design-led new business development. Potentially the built environment can be managed in a more responsible way, but you won’t have architectural offices in the same way you do right now because they’ll have grafted themselves onto every other activity that happens in the space.
RB: In some quarters, the idea of community-based or participatory design has acquired a negative connotation over time. Rather than true integration into the design process, architecture studios sometimes gravitate toward using community meetings primarily to garner public support, perhaps more so than public input and shared design decision-making.
DK: This stems from whether or not participants own, control, have the ability to build, or have unrestricted access to the product/outcome, the design/plan and/or the intellectual property, and whether it is a process embedded within a political movement or mechanism. Alternatively, projects can harness the power of participation more stigmergically (i.e. through encoding information into the environment, and then sensing or perceiving it tangibly, in this case also by incorporating the design itself, in the form of a digital architectural model or “blueprint” and iterative series of prototypes).
For example, in the case of Anam City, an ecological new town model that we prototyped in the Niger Delta, the design emerged from a GPS mapping of the project site and multi-year participatory design process that surfaced strategies and preferences from the client-community regarding the development, informed by indigenous Igbo land practices and customary logics of community development. That model was not kept private, but rather shared as an open-source blueprint for “rurban” (rural+urban) development in Africa via a book and digital publication freely available online.
Over a thousand young people from West Africa, Europe, and the United States worked on the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) project. Half are grassroots makers, who learned a trade through apprenticeship, with junior or high school education, and the other half are college students and young professionals in STEAM fields.
They may not all have impacted the design as much as core team members did, but they made invaluable contributions while also learning about the impact design can have. So, we must step outside of this ego-sense that everything is about us, our vision, our experience, or even our responsibility. Sometimes it’s not our responsibility! Sometimes it is other people’s responsibility. We need to try to understand better and be a better participant in systems that can share design value with more people — ideally everyone.
Today we share our work primarily through photographs and drawings, in print and online, and through word of mouth (plus we share technical know-how and files via online forums). Why limit information exchange to such formats? Why do architects not place greater importance on collaborative work, to contribute to modular design families, to generative design toolkits that combine architectural and spatial patterns with technical systems, or to simple libraries of high-performance construction details, digital 3-dimensional models, and materials data — all of which can be pooled toward mutual advantage?
If we are aware of design problems of which there are many instances (such as affordable housing or police brutality), then we need to develop solutions that are simultaneously general and specific. Developing general solutions that can be customized for specific use cases enables scaling of design impacts. In the case of affordable housing, working on a co-owned or co-authored artifact which may or may not be a single building (it could be a building design catalog, component, sub-system, or design tool) — but which many people can use and which could lead to hundreds, thousands, or millions of houses built off of the system — can simultaneously support economies of scale and models of customized building delivery different from current convention because they are digitally networked. As such models scale, they can offer novel opportunities for revenue and alternative forms of value exchange.
RB: This is an idea of the architect as more of a product designer or manufacturer. The premise being that if entrepreneurial architects can find a better way to engage with business models that work, e.g. tract home building, they could serve a much more diverse audience. This is happening with prefab housing and tiny homes, to a certain extent, but hasn’t gone truly mainstream yet, mainly because of the cost and nature of fabrication of these systems, as well as perhaps perception and market awareness. You are also advocating for a design/build/maker model where the architect does not sit on top of the pyramid and direct things, but works more closely with the trades and technical consultants, so that everyone learns from each other, creating a broader depth of knowledge across the building field.
DK: Technology today enables new, potentially more inclusive models of design-building-making-operating such as open-source architecture and open design. The defining characteristic of these models is that data and structured design information (design content, or intellectual property) resides in a “commons.” This content forms libraries that other users can access, use, and contribute to the iterative design process flow. Technology platforms enable this information to be shared in ways that in the past would have required added cost via human labor.
The architecture profession is already moving in this direction through BIM technology. The software platforms supporting the interoperability of CAD/CAM and BIM structures can be considered part of the technology industry that is building up all the systems. By monitoring users’ activities anonymously, indirectly through this feedback, they are forming libraries of knowledge about design which are divorced from any individual person because it’s filtered through data sets and machine learning derived from these computer systems. Open-source and open design frameworks are also typically modular, and hence well-suited to lifecycle management, repurposing and renovation, incremental repair and refurbishment, etc.
RB: The idea of “open source” is difficult to comprehend because, in this society, you are giving away your meal ticket, which goes back to capitalism and making money above making the place better. While there are obvious negative consequences of social media and digital technology (the feedback loop of consumerism and the spread of false information), you have always argued for it as a tool of empowerment that makes knowledge accessible to people when it otherwise might not be. The profession at large is constantly trying to prevent that information from being spread because it reduces our capacity to make money. We are not necessarily embracing the technology.
DK: We are trying to fight it. It makes you wonder if we are preparing for the future properly. There is always the juxtaposition of sustainability versus resilience: Sustainability is about perpetuating an existing system, to extend the duration of a system as it is indefinitely. Whereas resilience is the ability or capacity of a system to recover from and respond to change. The problem is that architects are trying to be sustainable and keep their notion of architecture and architecture practice the same, but this is exceedingly difficult because society is changing, technology is changing, legal frameworks are changing, everything is changing. There can be danger in trying to keep things the same while the world is changing rapidly. There are already aspects of resilience built into the profession: continuing education credits, conferences, developing technology, etc. These are activities that are less about keeping things the same than they are about adaptation. We need to assess where things are now, where are they going, what is changing, and how do we prepare for the future?
Architecture as a profession is not preparing for even the immediate future remotely sufficiently. In the same way that trucking as a human job and livelihood is set to be wiped out by driverless vehicles, what is going to happen when Silicon Valley rolls out successive versions of automated design and designers? (This process has already begun.)
Professional architecture firms should, as a part of their strategic planning and visioning, begin to try and strategize other ways they can generate revenue than they do currently and to experiment with those. Even if they don’t generate a lot of money, we need new models, and the way to develop new models is through large-scale experimentation. Architects have to try lots of things because the solution is not going to be a direct switch from a current model. The whole paradigm is going to be different, so everyone should begin to try and experiment now.
This tracks what has become apparent with the work on houses in the studio, in that it is very clear that the project of housing is no longer building a house that looks nice and secures the owner’s family and investment. We need much more systematic approaches to mobile and off-the-grid co-living that are both climate-responsive and affordable. Collaborating with builders/makers and a range of (types of) clients as design partners in a longer-term project of developing modular and adaptable architectural systems for living and working — as in the past, this holds real promise again today. Especially as economic challenges metastasize in the United States and globally.
RB: This can be very hard for practices that are established and doing very well. Why would they want to experiment when they are profitable, designing things they enjoy and the people they serve enjoy, and are providing an enjoyable work experience and fulfilling career pathways?
DK: We can surmise that automation will render obsolete the business models that the majority of architecture firms employ today. Tasks that humans do now will migrate to hired or unpaid machine work. Which means humans have to do something different, we have to move one level of thinking up, down, and over from what we are doing now. We will need to maximally prioritize the design of inclusive systems — structured around equity — that interface with people of all backgrounds, creative intuitions, and the world of ideas. If near-future markets cease to pay architects as they do now for the same work, how might the profession redeploy its collective building and planning expertise and design capacity?
RB: In terms of automation of the design process, there certainly is an argument that the architect will always be necessary to drive creativity in complex situations. What is the transition that can happen towards a more democratized system of design in a regime of increasing automation? What are specific things practices can do?
DK: If our goal is to advance racial, social, and economic equity, then is the vision that we should have the same number (or proportion) of architects in society as today and they should do projects of the same type, in the same or similar ways, but somehow in advance of a society that is more just? (And maybe a few more architects may be black or brown or “unlike the rest.”) Or is the vision for everyone to be an architect — for everyone to build up their fluency and facility in matters of design and the environment?
Democratizing design means dismantling a professional design class, which separates itself from society — just as decolonizing design means not dominating land, minds, and bodies — to support diversity of life instead. It means working together to foster the complementarity of multiplicity: different versions, different voices, different backgrounds, different stories, different models. Advocates of defunding the police are not saying they don’t want community security, but rather that they don’t want people who have absolute legal protection from other people to have unrestricted power over them. They want to be protected by people who are equivalent to them. Can architecture offer the same?