The Architectural League of New York has selected Austin- and Ghana-based Low Design Office (LOWDO) as one of its 2021 Emerging Voices award winners. The League has been running the award program since 1982, each year recognizing several North American practices that exhibit “distinct design voices and significant bodies of realized work.” Over the years, the award has identified young practitioners who would go on to make defining contributions to the field, including Steven Holl (1982), Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi (1983), and Jeanne Gang (2006). LOWDO is one of only 15 Texas-connected practices to receive the prestigious accolade since the program’s inception.
After meeting while pursuing master’s degrees in architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Ryan Bollom, AIA, who is from Houston, and DK Osseo-Asare, who grew up in Ghana and Pennsylvania, founded LOWDO in 2006. The partnership is dedicated to addressing architecture’s most urgent dilemmas, such as climate change, energy consumption, design inequity, and the lack of affordable housing, with a “low design” philosophy, which is the source of their name.
Low design seeks low-cost and participatory solutions to issues of injustice and environmental degradation, which is especially necessary in places with extensive histories of colonial and imperial exploitation, such as West Africa. But the philosophy is also relevant in places like Texas, where the high cost of design and construction typically puts architectural services only in the hands of the wealthy. According to Osseo-Asare, “It’s trying to have an alternative approach to the attitude that planetary abundance is unlimited — not trying to build up giant fortresses of architecture, but trying to think about it in ways which can be more open and inclusive.”
Low design aims to dismantle the systems that serve the interests of the elite, but Bollom and Osseo-Asare admit they do not have all the answers. “We’re not saying that our process is the perfect or the only process,” says Bollom. “We think it’s working toward doing something that’s important to us and needed.”
LOWDO has put their philosophy into praxis in projects recognized by the League, such as River House in New Braunfels; the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform in Accra, Ghana; and the Dakota Mountain Residence in Dripping Springs. All three projects have appeared in Texas Architect (see the Open House in the May/June 2020 issue, and Osseo-Asare’s profile in September/October 2020).
Up next for the firm is finalizing a typology of adaptive housing that meets a variety of commercial and social needs for urban residents and surrounding unhoused populations. With a flexible workshop, a retail space for local vendors, and a hub for existing city mobile services, the Adaptive House plan offers experiences open to the public while also providing housing that can transform to accommodate growing families. While the proposal was submitted to the Los Angeles Low-Rise design challenge, it also speaks to the housing concerns of fast-growing Texas cities like Austin experiencing shrinking markets, higher densities, and increased homelessness.
Recent Emerging Voices winners with Texas ties include SCHAUM/SHIEH (2019), AGENCY (2018), Bercy Chen Studio (2006), and David Heymann (2000). The honor has also been bestowed on Francois de Menil (1998), Carlos Jiménez and Gary Cunningham (1994), Lake|Flato Architects (1992), Lars Lerup (1989), Peter C. Papademetriou (1986), Lawrence W. Speck (1985), Robert James Coote (1984), Peter D. Waldman (1983), and Taft Architects (1982).
Kamryn Brownlee is studying journalism and architecture at The University of Texas at Austin.