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Melbourne Design Week 2024 | In Conversation with Tosin Oshinowo

Tosin Oshinowo stands as an architectural icon synonymous with innovation, elegance and socially responsive design in a rapidly urbanising continent. Recently named one of the 50 most powerful women in architecture and design in 2024 by Dezeen, her practice expands to curating and writing, which extensively covers Afro-modernism and identity, including a notable contribution to the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. 

Her architectural language speaks volumes of authenticity, simplicity, and refinement, stripping away the unnecessary to reveal the true essence of design. As curator of the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial, Oshinowo champions innovative solutions for scarcity in the Global South, advocating for a culturally rooted, sustainable design ethos. In recognition of her groundbreaking contributions to the field, Oshinowo has been invited to serve as the keynote speaker at this year’s annual Melbourne Design Week, where she will share her insights and vision for the future of architecture and design. 

Oshinowo’s unwavering commitment to following her intuition carves a path that defies convention and sets new standards in the world of design; shaping the way we perceive and interact with our built environment on a global scale.

Presented by Robin Boyd Foundation and National Gallery Victoria

Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo | Photography by Bashar Belal

When did you first become interested in design? 

Tosin: It was clear early on that I was creative and excelled in the visual arts, and in addition to this, I was a spatially inclined child. The defining factor that introduced me to architecture was when my father had a country home built at twelve. He initially came home with a set of floor plans. I immediately became interested in the project and remained actively involved even down to designing the terrazzo floor, which is still in the building today. The curation of space still plays a critical role in how I approach architecture as I create from the experience of the individual in the space. This is also the reason my architectural interests are in low- to medium-density buildings, which exemplify the experience of the individual.

How has African design and Afro-minimalism influenced your design process?

Tosin: I grew up without a strong cultural sense surrounding me. Growing up, it was seen as progressive to imbibe the cultural narrative of our former colonisers – the British. Studying architecture in Europe was a privileged endeavour; however, I was always mindful that my learning from the Western Canon was far removed and disconnected from the realities or the applicability in my context back in Lagos. That said, I was and still am very drawn to the Tropical Modernist movement, which informed nostalgic narratives from my childhood and my initial aesthetic preferences as a designer. 

My practice now is about reconnecting aesthetically to a precolonial era that exemplifies the rich technical sophistication and the beauty of the Yoruba people through the ancestral works of examples like the Ife sculptures. These sculptures of human heads are considered to be from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The artists of Ife in Nigeria developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass, and copper. They created a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. Their minimalist narrative exemplifies the aesthetic of these works, and it is this that I have taken as a reference and evolved into my minimalist narrative.

The Concrete Tent for Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023 curated by Tosin Oshinowo | Photography by Edmund Sumner

As the curator of the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial, could you delve into the inspiration behind selecting “The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability” as the theme?

Tosin: The theme for the Triennial looked at the under-celebrated design and building innovations from the Global South that tend to occur due to conditions of scarcity, which in turn manifests to be better in balance with the environment. This suggests that building a sustainable future in our precarious present has its roots in traditions of architecture and design that have been with us for generations and continue to evolve.

My interest in this topic stems from my childhood experience, growing up in 1980s Lagos. I wanted to understand the deep-rooted challenges of the self-organising systems surrounding me. By the 1980s, the progressive infrastructure developments of the 1970s had stalled, and like much of Africa, independence’s prosperity had failed to live up to the promise. The lack of regional infrastructure development had continued encouraging rural-to-urban migration without upgrading city infrastructure to sustain this evolving densification. The post-colonial African city – a proposed model of progress – was crippled under the weight of the post-colonial state. Scarcity, once regarded as primarily a pre-industrialisation condition, was now the basis of existence. The 1990s and the 2000s saw self-propagating bottom-up initiatives come to the foreground as a coping mechanism towards an existence in modernity.

Across the Global South, many practitioners, craftspeople, and communities have embraced long-standing traditions that the cannon have systematically ignored. These approaches prioritise an understanding of impermanence, inventive responsiveness to limitations, and the psychology of the collective that is essential for our shared future. I wanted to encourage an alternative way of thinking, like in Lagos, where we can conceive, design and execute our built environment to posit gentler versions of modernity and, in effect, bring about systemic change through the examples and experiences posed by the edition.

Limbo Accra’s Super Limbo installation for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023 curated by Tosin Oshinowo | Photography by Edmund Sumner

Limbo Accra’s Super Limbo installation for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023 curated by Tosin Oshinowo | Photography by Edmund Sumner

Could you share your personal highlights from the Triennial?

Tosin: I am pleased with the diversity of the participants’ responses to the curatorial statement and encouraged by this heterogeneity. All the exhibits deeply moved me, but I will highlight the following:

Natural Fantura’s Productive Floating House reinterpreted the standard exhibition model. They used their allocated exhibition funds to create and document a building project for a family on the Babahoyo River in Ecuador. This project set an example of an alternative to the general triennial/biennial exhibit format.

Wallmakers’ three-minute corridor was a firm favourite during the opening weekend. I invited Wallmakers to participate in the exhibition because I admire their journey as pioneers who created aesthetically striking and intriguing engineering designs using earth as the primary building material. Staying true to their practice, Wallmakers were interested in creating a pavilion from available materials in the region. The result is an incredible labyrinth structure that is intriguing and engaging. The composition is an inviting structure that unexpectedly acoustically insulates the interior. The point of this exhibit is to challenge our existing preconceptions on building materials; after all, it is only through experimentation that we can discover new possibilities.

Lantern House designed by Tosin Oshiwono | Photography by Tolulope Sanusi

Al Borde’s ‘Raw Threshold’ for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023 curated by Tosin Oshiwono | Photography by Danko Stjepanovic 

Sandra Poulson is an artist with whom I was familiar. She was one of the participants in the Lagos Biennial, which I co-curated in 2019. As such, I was initially sceptical about including her to avoid nepotism; however, she sent me such an intriguing proposal in response to the theme, which was an excellent fit. ‘Dust, as an Accidental Gift’ is the gift that keeps giving. lt looks forensically at the ever-present dust in Luanda, as in many Global South cities; it reflects on the city’s socio-economic, political, cultural, and built landscape. She takes us on a journey using the mono-materiality of cardboard mache to highlight the ubiquitous dust, which has become a stable commodity through the many economic activities focused on erasing its traces. This narrative reminds us of the scars and de-associations of progress due to our association with a colonial past’s clean, hard-cemented surfaces.

Al Borde, from Ecuador, has their practice inhabiting the territory of questioning, where certainties about what architecture should or should not be are under constant construction. Through ideas of making and precision to detail on site, they promote local development, social innovation and sustainability in their projects. This approach results in a raw and tactile intervention crafted with natural materials that allow for intimate discourse with a direct context. Their exhibit, Raw Threshold, used wood for the structure, which was sourced from the Sharjah Electricity, Water, and Gas Authority (SEWA), which has commenced the replacement of wooden utility poles with metallic ones. The shades for the structure are composed of palm tree mats, which are widely available regionally and used in various ways. This approach with natural materials allows for intimate discourse with a direct context.

Lantern House designed by Tosin Oshinowo | Photography by Tolulope Sanusi

What key takeaway do you hope people will carry with them after experiencing the 2023 Triennial?

Tosin: The biggest question that the Triennial raises is, ‘How do we move forward from this point?’ We’ve all been catapulted from industrialisation into modernity, with the Global South never fully benefiting from industrialisation. The Global South had its resources extracted to develop other locations, so our understanding of modernity is markedly different from that of the Global North.

The reality is that we are here. How do we now consciously use what we have from tradition and modernity to create a collective and constructive means of existence moving forward? I am very particular in stating that I am not suggesting with this exhibition that we go back to tradition – we can’t. However, we can use tradition and the solutions that exist within tradition that are better balanced with our ecology as conscious solutions for progression into the future.

The big challenge is modernity’s need for speed and skill. How can we take these traditional technologies and solutions and get them to a point where they can work with the reality of the requirements of life within modernity? The exhibition was also about questioning our collective value systems and expectations. The convenience modernity affords us is far from the reality of our collective past. We need to reflect on the implications of this and the effect on our planet and the climate crisis.

Why is it crucial for design practitioners to embrace indigenous knowledge, local materials, and explore the resilience and adaptability of their own communities?

Tosin: The solution is in the problem, particularly the context of the problem. For architects and designers who practice under conditions of scarcity, often without the luxury to incorporate advanced technologies and systems to overpowered problems, scarcity creates a culture of re-use, re-appropriation, innovation, and collaboration that ties to pre-colonial practices of multigenerational community and geopolitical realities. These approaches prioritise an understanding of impermanence, inventive responsiveness to limitations, and the psychology of the collective that is essential for our shared future.

Practitioners and designers can propose a new model of innovation that is born out of scarcity rather than out of abundance. My work as a curator was about creating an illuminating conversation to encourage a shift in how we design away from a culture of waste and individualism.

Referencing information from COP28, the built environment is responsible for over 35 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions. We must develop principles of regeneration localisation, look to traditional building styles, and see how we can create hybrid narratives.

Lantern House designed by Tosin Oshinowo | Photography by Tolulope Sanusi

How do you translate your design philosophy into your everyday life? 

Tosin: I will answer this question by discussing my practice and lifestyle. My practice is informed by the ‘Renewed Contextual’ strand of the exhibition, which showcased work from practitioners and artists who rethink tradition, holistically engage with the concept of upcycling and recycling, champion the reuse of materials, and posit gentler versions of modernity.

My lifestyle also reflects these principles, where I prioritise sophisticated modesty. I like fine things and local designers who prioritise quality, as I don’t believe in discarding things. This exhibition also encouraged me to be conscious of hyperconsumerism and its perils. I am now less inclined to buy things I do not need because I am more aware of the advertising machine that convinces us to consume when we really do not need to.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

Tosin: Firstly, I am excited to share that I have been selected for the Loeb Fellowship class of 2025 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The Loeb fellowship brings exceptional practitioners whose work advances positive social outcomes through shaping the built and natural environment in the US and around the world. I am excited to continue to develop the themes of my curatorial work into actionable responses for the built environment through this fellowship.

Secondly, for my practice, Oshinowo Studio, we will continue to build off the resilience that informed the direction of ‘The Beauty of Impermanence’. I am more convinced now that the restrictions I initially found frustrating when I repatriated back to Lagos after studying and working briefly in Europe were limiting. I have realised they have been my liberation. Thus, the curation of the exhibition has profoundly influenced my thought process, and this will only amplify this ideological approach in my practice moving forward. We are more intentional about being local and exploring the materiality of our context. We will continue to work consciously through material and cultural narratives to produce architecture that manifests as a strong visual matter of culture and identity.

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