Beyond Accommodation for Oculus

Beyond Accommodation: Architects Are Learning that Physical Design Solutions Are Only Part of the Answer, Oculus, Winter 2023

The ideal of inclusive architecture implies an accessible, welcoming space for all. We imagine the architect acting as a mediator, deliberately eliminating barriers to entry, appealing to a myriad of potential users, and transforming narrow programs into coherent forms and encompassing visions. Yet we experience countless examples of the opposite: Designers hired by private clients to flaunt amenities that by definition most of us cannot access, armed with deterrences to exclude those who potential buyers may consider undesirable. Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners created a 440-page encyclopedia of such details, practices, and policies in its 2017 The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, now in its second edition, which remains a salient expression of design at the threshold of belonging.
In David Gissen’s The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access, published this winter by University of Minnesota Press, he dreams of another way of designing. Instead of an approach that identifies specific groups, needs, and hindrances, ensuring inclusion or non-exclusion by complying with guidelines layered onto forms conceived without disability in mind, Gissen imagines an architecture that transcends an additive approach. Up to now, design in the modern tradition has emerged from metaphors and symbols shot through with notions of deformity. What if disability itself became a motif, a generative starting point?
Gissen offers as an example the Salón de Pinos in Madrid RIO—a park designed by Burgos & Garrido, Porras La Casta, Rubio & A-Sala, and West 8, along a recovered river in Madrid—in which a section of plantings is composed entirely of pine trees that had been damaged, repaired, and reshaped into beautiful, resonant forms. As an amputee with a prosthetic leg, he can think of almost no other examples. In his essay “Disabling Form” (e-flux Architecture, May 2022), Gissen argues that the modern discourse of form itself relies on terms such as aberration, disfiguration, deformity, and imbalance to aggrandize “an expressive overcoming of gravity and physical force, optical and mobile perception, and the kinesthetic production of architectural ideas and spaces.”
“One theme of the book is that the reason why buildings, nature, and history are inaccessible in the first place is not because people don’t care about disabled people or ignore their needs,” says Gissen. “It’s because the very idea of history, nature, and form actively positions impairment as a negative. There are ideas of incapacity within the very ideas that understructure what history, form, environments, and construction are and what they do.”
In this sense, the seemingly neutral framing of inclusivity may position the already-included as a tacit “norm” and the excluded as an “other” to be paternalistically allowed in, but only if we comply with a mandate of conformity to an existing order. “I wrote The Architecture of Disability with younger practitioners or students in mind who may have impairments and may doubt they can find a place in architecture,” Gissen says. “It’s a book for my younger self that I wish I had starting out in the field, written as a way for people with disabilities to find a place for themselves in this discipline—a place that is forceful and shows them how they can change it as well.”
In lieu of notions of inclusivity, it may be more precise—if rather clumsy and unpoetic—to talk about “those who have historically been discriminated against” to emphasize that individual projects, small or large, do not in themselves portend a larger change to structural and institutional norms that tend to make the society as a whole extremely unequal. For example, New York City has a 0.5149 “Gini coefficient”—a standard measure of income inequality, which can range between 0 and 1. (A coefficient of 0 indicates a perfectly equal distribution of income, while a coefficient of 1 represents a perfect inequality.) New York’s value is the worst in the U.S., alongside the District of Columbia, making it the 15th highest in the world, comparable only to that of developing nations.

Investigation into the Future of Offices in L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui

Investigation into the Future of Offices, L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui, Jan. 2023.

In an era when people are placing a renewed emphasis on enjoyment of life, community, meaning, and connection, the office has unexpectedly survived.

Two years ago, as offices shut down and lockdowns spread across the globe, we were left to wonder: what is the future of the office? Tasks could seemingly be completed perfectly well without the encumbrance of moving ourselves across cities in buses, trains, and automobiles. Meanwhile, reality set in: home became a place too packed with everything. The home office had become both too full of and too absent of other people. Parks became a refuge for wanderers, but the social world of the city was all but lost. Eventually, maybe rather quickly in some cases, a feeling coalesced: coming together in real life outside of the home had a purpose.

The transition to what has been called the “new normal,” in the ongoing vernacular of doubtfulness about what, in reality, constitutes the present moment, has extremely divergent characteristics. In Silicon Valley, it’s not unheard of for companies that had invested in innovative new headquarters just before the pandemic to continue to be 100 percent remote. That is the case, for instance, at the interactive graphics hardware manufacturer NVIDIA. The company opened a second 250,000-square-foot building this year as a part of its spaceship-like Santa Clara, California headquarters designed by Gensler, yet it has been functioning as an all-remote workplace since early 2020.

The NVIDIA office had sought to locate each employee within a two-minute walk of every other employee, enhancing face-to-face connectivity. It aimed for maximum versatility, allowing team members to choose their ideal spaces within the complex. Abundant outdoor areas, roof decks, terraces, and four acres of gardens designed by landscape architect Walter Hood were meant to enhance creatively and offer relaxation. Inside, a living wall by Habitat Horticulture and planters springing up with grasses, vines, and shrubs find themselves in isolation in people-less constructed environments. Perhaps fitting for a company that is at the forefront of technology for artificial intelligence and quantum computing, the in-real-life headquarters buildings of Nvidia are currently just for display. Nevertheless, the company has a market capitalization and stock value three times greater than before the pandemic.

Undoubtedly, offices continue to be important “third places” where people can meet, learn, share ideas, and create together. Massive new ones have not stopped construction in major cosmopolitan centers like Singapore, where KPF completed the 20-story 18 Robinson tower in 2019 on a triangular lot overlooking the marina. Its features were meant to be state-of-the-art at the time, and they continue to animate certain tendencies supposed to moderate the potential drudgery of office work. As at NVIDIA, the 18 Robinson office contains extensive green plantings within the volume. Above the retail podium, a three-story outdoor atrium is embedded with trees, and a rooftop above the tower holds a voluminous greenhouse open to the sky. Since 2009, Singapore planning regulations have mandated green landscape features within buildings replacing 100 percent of the square footage of greenery lost on the site due to development, even if the site previously had only been occupied by a building. 

“The office building is not dead,” says Bruce Fisher, design principal at KPF and lead designer of 18 Robinson. “There do need to be these places where people meet. Then the office becomes more and more important in terms of what you are going to—in terms of well-being and real flexibility of how you can work—both in the office and amenities within the building and places to get away. The idea of integrating green space, balconies, spaces for fresh air and for getting outside is critical in everything we’re doing now.”

Surveys of small offices on how they’ve been adapting to life in the current epoch tend to produce much clearer answers regarding how a separate workplace enhances their everyday experience. These workers characterize the office as a personable place away from home that offers sociability and spatial variability compared to their personal life and private rooms. It’s a place where younger associates gain skills that enable growing expertise in their craft, without which they would likely stagnate. As for the bosses, they express serious doubts whether creative work can be sustained over the long term without the unifying “culture” of the office and its ability to bring people together for informal conversations. 

It may be, in this sense, that the future of the office is already here, in these values of well-being, sociability, flexibility, enjoyment of life, and access to nature—not to speak of biodiversity and the need to protect of places for other species in our environments—which should be spread universally through regulatory requirements of the workplace, labor law, and city planning codes rather than depending on the kindness of uniquely altruistic bosses and an exceptionally permissive office culture. 

Eagle + West: OMA's New Zigzagging Towers in Brooklyn in Abitare


Eagle + West: OMA's New Zigzagging Towers in Brooklyn, Abitare, Jan. 2023. 

Two zigzagging towers at the northwesternmost corner of Brooklyn give occupants sweeping panoramic views down the East River, taking in the entirely of Hunters Point South and midtown Manhattan down to the Financial District from the mouth of Newtown Creek. The mirroring of the two shapes, one composed of trapezoidal prisms that step back to reveal outdoor terraces, the other stacked cuboids blocks that cantilever over the gap, effects a parallax as you move along the Greenpoint waterfront. The stacked forms merge and separate like puzzle pieces shaping the horizon, changing the landscape in time with the movement of your body.

Designed by the OMA-NY’s co-director and less-well-known partner Jason Long, the towers belong to an extensive 5,500-unit housing development that wraps around the neighborhood’s northern edge. Long’s reputation is about to grow. “We settled on a strategy of making siblings that would be clearly related but also, in a way, opposites,” Long says. “In the end, that works well to make a singular complex that also is varied, both in the different parts, but also as you move around it.”
The name of the development, Eagle + West, refers to two streets that hitherto dead-ended where Greenpoint pivots around the Newtown Creek and the East River. The two towers replaced the nearby sewage treatment plant’s demolished sludge tank, which stored solid matter to be loaded onto tankers and hauled to the desert in the southwest United States. Once impassible streets now cross in front of the towers, accentuating the sense of flow and movement.

On the Cosmological Implications of Early Galaxies for Architecture for Domus

On the Cosmological Implications of Early Galaxies for Architecture, Domus, Jan. 2023. 


Renderings of the universe’s early galaxies produced by the James Webb Space Telescope communicate an uncanny perspective on time and space that should be as eventful in the history of humanity as images of the earth seen from space generations ago. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant took Newtonian physics as an inspiration for thinking systematically about the nature of consciousness, examining its underlying rational principles, which became a founding inspiration for the European Enlightenment. The disruptiveness of the theory of heliocentrism and extraplanetary worlds to the prevailing social and political order led to the persecution of people like Galileo and Giordano Bruno as heretics during the Italian Renaissance, imprisoned, the latter tortured and burned at the stake. 

The method of observation, theorization, prediction, and testing they employed would usher in a revolutionary modern epoch of science, technology, political organization, and social life. We should regard the Webb images with a similar impetus: to take in as a civilization, spiritually and cognitively, the unfathomable dimensions of space-time grasped by a physics that can render as full color images light reaching us in the present from 13.5 billion years ago, 350 million years after the Big Bang. It should influence how we design and build.


Eco-cosmological design may re-center humanity on planet earth as a primal experience of the environment and a spiritual gift of being in the universe. Reminiscent of ancient pyramids, mosques, temples, pilgrimage sites, and stepwells, architecture can return us to the concept of the godhead as an agent of renewal of the universe each day, conscious of the gracious return of sunlight as a life-giving force, where we engage in seasonal celebrations common to every culture and revere the plants and animals we live among, which feed us and spare us from destruction.  

As the population of humanity surpasses eight million, we can see signs of the terror a poorly organized infrastructure may bring: mass starvations in drought stricken territories, millions of refugees fleeing inhospitable habitats, drowning at sea and expiring in the desert, mass shootings, which are like preparations for a dimming of moral feeling, people packed in alleyways and concert halls suffocated by a sudden fear of being trapped, islands erased by tropical storms, arctic villages disappeared in the melting permafrost, entire ecological systems collapsing. In the vast movement of particle, accelerated indefinitely by industrial production, we need to pay attention to bodies of all kinds. 

Full text in January 2023 Domus magazine

Montreal Ecological Corridor in Landscape Architecture Magazine


Montreal’s Darlington Corridor Grows, Gradually, Landscape Architecture Magazine, Dec. 2022.

The Ecological Corridor Darlington project in Montreal, Canada belongs to an emerging school of thought—often coming under the banner of “rewilding” in Europe—that argues, for the sake of biodiversity and prevention of mass extinction, that urban spaces should be densely repopulated by greenery and wildlife, merging human and animal habitats. If its full vision is realized, the Darlington project will eventually trace a continuous pathway between three large parks in central Montreal¬—Mount Royal, Parc Jarry, and Parc Pierre Trudeau—and intersect with an active railway, expanding biodiversity within the urban environment and gradually allowing red foxes and other wildlife from the nearby Mount Royal hills to make their way into the city. The plan stages its ecological comeback in the manner of Japanese steps, garden by garden, engaging communities along the way and involving local residents. The far-off dream: to daylight an underground stream buried below Darlington Avenue, which extends northwest from Mount Royal and between the other two parks.

Begun in 2012 by Alexandre Beaudoin, a biodiversity consultant for the Mount Royal nature area, in collaboration with landscape architect Marie Le Mélédo, the project envisioned a dual approach: Small garden projects and fruit trees, installed quickly, would benefit the diverse Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood around Darlington Avenue, testing people’s desire to get their hands dirty in the soil and preventing the pushback that can happen when green space replaces pavement. Meanwhile, the team would work to get city officials to enhance ecosystem services, using bioswales to collect stormwater and trees and understory plantings to mediate the heat island effect, support pollinators, and promote biodiversity. 

“It’s not that easy to get a linear corridor in the city, so we are focusing on [small] steps,” says Beaudoin, whose PhD work at the University of Montreal focuses on how well the greening of urban spaces is accepted by local populations. “We focus on green spaces that will enhance the habitat for biodiversity.”

In 2014, Beaudoin and Le Mélédo began planting fruit trees and edible and medicinal plants on the campus of the University of Montreal, situated within Mount Royal. With help from the president of the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce residential borough, they secured funding to install 44 giant flowerpots on Darlington Avenue, which members of local communities then planted. Since then, the borough has supported annual projects to expand the corridor, working with masters’ students in the landscape architecture program at the university. 

For the larger project, the parks’ initial discontinuity will be an advantage, Beaudoin says. It will help prevent invasive species from spreading. “You can have the poetic approach, which is to connect the green spaces, and it will definitely help [biodiversity] because we’re attacking the fragmentation of the habitats,” he says. “At the same time, we make a link for invasive species too. So, we have to be alert for this reality.”

Apart from funding, design implementation, and adoption by society, the expansion of multispecies ecologies in human built environments faces substantial policy obstacles. Montreal has a municipal office of ecological transition and resilience to help transform the city in the face of climate crisis and loss of biodiversity. It is exploring, for instance, how to modify current regulations restricting grasses from growing higher than eight inches, which prevents wild plants from flowering. Clément Badra, a coordinator for the Darlingon project from 2017 to 2020, now serves as a political attaché in the mayor’s office for Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. In August, the organizers walked the district with the mayor, who expressed enthusiasm for expanding the forest into the city. 

As much potential as the project has to mobilize the population, “we need public institutions to help out a lot more than they’re doing right now,” Badra says. “There’s a ton of regulations in place that put constraints on the project, so there’s a need to be looking at that.”

Li Hu of OPEN Architecture for the Architect's Newspaper


OPEN Architecture’s Li Hu speaks about the office’s recent cultural projects in China, Architect's Newspaper, Dec. 21, 2022.

Stephen Zacks: Can you tell me about your approach to design and place?

Li Hu: I find myself working more and more intuitively. Intuition is fundamentally important in design. Often there’s something invisible you need to capture, some kind of energy. Maybe energy is also not quite the right word. In Chinese philosophy, there is the word chi. Chi is invisible energy.

In physics, the world is made of energy instead of matter. There’s energy behind everything. In every place, in every work, particularly public cultural work, the question is how to discover those invisible energies and synthesize them in a piece of architecture. Architecture not as object but as a kind of magnetism or device that synthesizes and expresses these energies, and in turn starts to give its own energy and influence—that’s something we’re trying to achieve. Buildings that can touch you, move people in a deeper way, touch the soul, touch your feelings.

Shipping Container Homes in Delhi Region for Dwell+


A Pair of Shipping Container Homes Trace the Edges of a Nature Preserve in India, Dwell, Oct. 31, 2022.

As the couple lived on the land, they got to know their neighbors—shepherds, gardeners, and dairy farmers with whom they shared the jungle village. "For people who come from the city, the jungle is an unknown—it was really cool that we could spend the pandemic getting to know the place," Mary says. 

Kumar paid Mary and Kundan a visit to familiarize himself with the place and develop a site plan. "We spent a lot of time planning the location of the containers, down to the last angle," Kumar says. "It was beautiful to stand on the site and see what you’re going to see when you wake up—all of the angles of the ridge behind you. That’s when the entire project took shape." 


 The completed project strikes a balance between contemporary and vernacular design and immerses the family in the landscape without being too obtrusive. "We don’t have paintings on the wall, because how can you beat the view," Mary says. "It’s just so green—you open those huge doors, and it’s like living in a treehouse."

Marsha P. Johnson Park by Starr Whitehouse for Landscape Architecture Magazine

A Park in Progress: Marsha P. Johnson was a hero in the Black trans community. Will the park designed in her honor earn the same admiration? Landscape Architecture Magazine, Oct. 28, 2022.

A subtle shift has taken place in the park at the end of North 7th Street in Brooklyn, New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Recently renamed for the late Black trans LGBTQ+ civil rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, the redesigned park has retained the relatively ad hoc feeling of its previous iteration as East River State Park. It still has swaths of concrete embankments scattered around the site, remnants of the place’s industrial history as a rail and marine terminal. The main entrance has been repaved with cobblestones, mirroring the crumbling remains of the original entry. New seating is fabricated from rough-cut logs.

Beyond, a winding path of porous concrete passes through gardens of perennial flowers, bioswales to retain stormwater, and a hill that will eventually grow into a lush landscape. Didactic panels along the path recount the formation of trans identity and the history of that community’s civil rights struggle. The sandy shoreline is bordered with granite blocks and a pebbly intertidal zone. A large sign at the entrance dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson is not yet installed, nor is a planned monument to Johnson.

For some, namely the trans constituents meant to be most honored by the park, it hasn’t been a dramatic enough turnaround. As the visibility of trans people has increased, the community is demanding more cultural ownership and agency over the spaces that define their legacy and role in the public discourse. And this demand is complicating what New York civic officials viewed as an acknowledgment of trans people’s role in securing a more just, egalitarian, and humane world.

New York Philharmonic for Metropolis

David Geffen Hall Fixes Decades of Architectural Missteps, Metropolis, Oct. 11, 2022. 

A visually arresting space originally designed by Max Abramovitz, the home of the New York Philharmonic has always been impressive. In her New York Times review, Ada Louise Huxtable celebrated how its tapered travertine-faced columns and delicate curves express the structural forces of their concrete loads to form elegant arcades. With the caveat that it needed to perform acoustically—and the jury was still out—Huxtable appreciated how the interior came to life during intermissions, with audiences visible through the glass-walled foyer and tiered promenades, bringing a “stream of animation and color” to the city.

It was a civic monument, for sure. In 1962, the philharmonic was the first building to open to the public at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, comprising the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and Juilliard School of Music. But Huxtable’s caveat about the acoustics was either a premonition or an already whispered rumor. Its sound quality was poor, and it remained infamously troubled through a series of renovations, including a reconfiguration of the balconies and dampers in 1970, a reconstruction of the entire hall in 1976, and another minor effort in 1992.

This time the demolition went even further, carving back the walls within the former Avery Fisher Hall and practically building a new structure inside its footprint. Judging by the orchestra’s exquisite preview rehearsals and its opening day performance, they finally got it right. Principally designed by Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt—responsible, most notably, for a center for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 2006, the Maison Symphonique de Montréal in 2011, and the Mariinsky II opera house in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2013—with Tod Williams Billie Tsien as public space subconsultants, and ultimately, close collaborators, the philharmonic now named for record-and-film magnate David Geffen was extensively tested in advance by acoustic engineer Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks using the latest sound modeling technology.

Public Rec Centers Reimagined for Metropolis


The Rec Center Reimagined: How Cities are Designing for Wellness, Metropolis, Oct. 10, 2022. 


We’ve come to think of fitness and wellness as luxuries to be enjoyed only by members of private clubs or participants in yoga retreats. But two new public recreation centers shift this assumption, updating stale municipal models for a new era and a much wider audience.

The decision for cities to invest in new facilities that nurture public health and well-being should be intuitive: The benefits of physical activity for educational outcomes and the prevention of illness have been well established by the scientific community for more than a century. But local spending on such resources has been steadily falling, while private fitness has become a $30 billion industry in the United States, essentially filling this void. Luxury fitness clubs like Equinox and pricey training classes like SoulCycle have exploded, while corporate offices have begun to push fitness amenities and the rhetoric of well-being to attract workers back to the office.

But some public facilities are smartly incorporating attributes of the wellness world. By paying close attention to the desires of their neighborhoods and leveraging municipal funding, Baltimore’s Cahill Fitness and Wellness Center and El Paso’s Eastside Regional Recreation Center—both begun before the pandemic made public health a primary concern—deliver something equally tied to the health benefits of fitness: a sense of community belonging.


This shift toward the language of wellness shouldn’t be such a surprise in a public recreational facility. Many rec centers originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social reformers advocated for public bathhouses and playgrounds as ways of improving the hygiene and development of poor children and the population in general. Hundreds of parks and recreation departments established during that time continue to operate, along with school sports facilities. But the defunding of the public sector in the past half century has tended to leave these facilities feeling outdated and a little depressing. 

DS+R Prior Performing Arts Center for Wallpaper


DS+R Prior Performing Arts Center is designed as a public commons, Wallpaper, Oct. 5, 2022.

The interaction of concrete and steel, mirroring the brick and limestone of Holy Cross’ historic campus, plays with ideas of backstage and public presentation, merging expressiveness and function, one of the hallmarks of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro office. The designers analysed the college’s needs and the building’s anticipated uses and devised a site plan that inadvertently, they claim, happens to form a cross. ‘We love doing academic work,’ says Charles Renfro, the lead principal designer. ‘We know that they want a pedagogical tool that also demonstrates the pedagogy.’

Last year, Vincent D Rougeau became the school’s first non-ordained president. He says liberal arts education is a natural extension of the Jesuit order, which since its origins has been known for intellectual inquiry and embrace of the arts. ‘Since our earliest days, we’ve been focused on humanities, arts, and science, and we see all of those coming together as a path to wisdom,’ he says. ‘This centre is going to help us elevate all of those pieces in a stunning new space and communicate to the world all of the aspects of what makes a liberal arts education great.’

Lesley Lokko in L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui


Lesley Lokko and the African Futures Institute, L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui, Sep. 2022.

A Laboratory for Contemporary Spatial Identity: Lesley Lokko and the African Futures Institute 

Scottish-Ghanaian author and educator Lesley Lokko founded the African Futures Institute last year in Accra, Ghana as a way to position Africa and the diaspora at the center of a transformative vision of the relationships between identity, the environment, social justice, and architecture. A widely published novelist and architectural educator, Lokko founded the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg in 2014. In 2019, she became dean at the City College of New York’s Spitzer School of Architecture but left the following year in what she described as a profound act of self-preservation and returned to Ghana. This year, the Venice Architecture Biennale selected her to curate its 2023 edition, The Laboratory of the Future.
AA: What is the project of the African Futures Institute? 

The best way I can describe it is to say that in 2014, I started a school of architecture in Johannesburg, the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA). The GSA was a really interesting experiment. It came on the back of student protests about decolonization and access to tertiary education. Taking a curriculum that had originally been developed at the Architectural Association in London and transplanting it to South Africa was actually fairly revolutionary, and the students responded to the curriculum in really interesting ways. 

The plan was to try and do something similar in New York, which didn’t work out. When I left Spitzer, I thought, if I don’t go back to home now—back to Ghana, to West Africa—I probably will never do it. The idea was to set up an institute very much like the GSA. The mandate is really simple: it’s to provide world-class architectural education here on the continent, but also to take the more experimental, radical space that Africa offers to think about architectural education differently, not just for Africa, but globally as well. 

AA: Do you have some intuitions about the role of architecture in imagining identity on the African continent and what the process might yield? 

For me architecture has always been very narrative driven. The physical artifact, the building, is always trying to tell some kind of story. Particularly in—let’s call it the Global North, it’s assumed that story is a universal one. But actually it’s quite culturally specific. If you come from locations outside of that canon, you don’t see yourself, your cultural values, your beliefs reflected in the environment. You don’t see the school as a space where you can explore how to translate different narratives into form. 

The school really ought to be the protected space where you can grapple with these really difficult questions of identity, of language, of history, of occupation, of settlement. Africa is the youngest continent; the average age is 20. There’s an incredible energy here at the moment, with very little infrastructure to be a platform or a catalyst for that energy. What I’m seeing in the creative industries—music, fashion, film, photography, art—is almost an explosion of a pent up desire to say something, and architecture has been very lax in taking up that challenge. Those of us who are in our late 50s/ early 60s have the possibility to put those structures in place, which is what the AFI is. 

AA: In Issa Diabaté’s lecture last year at AFI, he talks about passive techniques for mediating climate at a domestic and institution scale. It’s an incredibly hopeful vision from a purely technical point of view to moderate climate on a human scale through architecture.

The power of the imagination to suggest ways of thinking, working, seeing, for me, is the real draw in education. The university’s draw is a place where you construct new knowledge. There’s a tendency in architectural education to think of it as training. You perfect something that’s already there. On this continent, students understand that somehow architecture has failed them. They’re not afraid to go beyond it. There’s a curiosity about other disciplines and a willingness to work across fields that I don’t encounter in the Global North. 

The relationship between climate and landscape, for example, or between landscape and narrative, or between narrative and emotion, those distinctions here are quite blurred, and it produces really interesting, thought-provoking work. And it’s too early to say what the translation into architectural form will look like—we’re still in the process of figuring that out—but if you think of architecture as being about the building of knowledge almost as much as the building of buildings, there’s an appetite here to build new knowledge that for me is unparalleled. 

AA: Olalekum Jeyifous, who lectured at AFI recently, also does work along these lines, in which he’s scripting an alternative set of conditions through which a space is created. 

Absolutely. Jeyifous is a good example. I think, if there were 100 more like him, we would have 100 times the power of that imaginative courage. Lek would describe himself as somewhere between a filmmaker, an artist, an architect, and an activist. That boldness in slipping in between categories is really compelling right now. A school like the AFI should be a place that incubates that confidence. 

AA: Can you talk about the AFI’s ambition to engage architecture in rethinking the relationships among African governments and between them and international powers?

I remember distinctly as a student that my culture—Africa, blackness—had very little to offer architecture. I felt like a supplicant coming to this very well-established discipline with a few concerns and ideas of my own, almost begging for an audience. Architecture had no use for anything African, anything black, anything other. It was seen as an affront to architecture. Those of us with those sorts of concerns were always agitating at its edges. The feeling that I got then was that we were lacking—by we, I mean the diaspora, otherness—and that we were too chaotic, too disorganized, too corrupt, too inferior, and that we had nothing to give architecture. 

After 30 years, I swear I have come full circle and I understand now that it’s actually architecture that’s lacking. It’s not able to deal with the complexity and the contradictions that a context like Africa throws up. If you think about hybrid or diasporic identities that are multiple, made in more than one location, people who speak more than one language or have more than one home, fundamentally architecture is about the opposite of that. It’s about grounding something, making something solid and in place, and here we’re talking about cultures that are very much out of place. 

The next five or ten years are going to be very exciting ones for architecture as a discipline because climate change has suddenly forced the issues of climate and climate justice onto the table. In the same way that Black Lives Matter put questions of race and identity back on the table, architecture, finally, after so long, has an opportunity to respond. These questions of decolonization are a gift to the canon. They enrich it. They don’t destabilize it or diminish it. 

AA: As you were saying, you can see it in these Afrofuturist fashion gestures and in art and visual culture. We’re already living in a future that hasn’t quite appreciated the changes already in place. Our selves are partly merged with machines in many ways, and we’re multiple in terms of cultural exposure in ways that people have probably never been, ever. 

One hundred percent. Even though the AFI curriculum focuses especially on Africa, we are all African. The conditions that operate here, conditions of translation, of movement, the African diaspora, the fact that the official languages are English, French, and Portuguese, but everyone speaks another language behind closed doors. All of those questions many people around the world resonate with, it’s not just Africans. If you think about what we’re trying to do with architecture as an analogy for what’s happening to many, many people—in terms of sexuality, identity, location—it’s all here. My hope is that by focusing very specifically on a place, you’re able to tell a story that resonates far beyond these borders and gives some kind of—maybe hope is too strong a word—it gives a push, an impetus to students and practitioners and activists who have the same questions. 

One of the reasons why it was possible to implement something so different in South Africa was precisely because the level of anger that was brewing in the student population anyway. I thought after George Floyd and after the pandemic that there would be similar levels of anger in the Global North, but that anger has been translated into a kind of fear, and fear for me is often not a productive place to start from. It’s defensive. It’s insular. It’s often quite reactionary. Anger, by definition, is outward facing. It’s about change. I’m not saying that students have to be angry, but in a climate where anger is palpable, you can get an incredible amount done. In a climate where people are fearful, my experience is that you get almost nothing done. The amazing thing about educational projects is that you plant a seed and suddenly it sprouts somewhere. The group of young students in Johannesburg who became tutors and young practitioners did things you could not possibly have predicted. 

AA: Is there a resonance between the African Futures Institute and plans for the Venice Architecture Biennale?

It’s an unusual curatorial position because on one level, I am the African Futures Institute: the separation between it and myself is very blurred. It’s unusual that something so young and fresh—the AFI is a year old—would have such an opportunity for such a global presence. On the other hand, I’m a fiction writer as well as an educator, and it very much is the same story that I’ve been talking about for the last 30 years. It feels almost surreal to have thought about my work as very marginal, and suddenly, after the pandemic, George Floyd, and all of the upheavals of the last two years, to find that it’s of interest to a wider audience. The college project of the Biennale could be very interesting, because for the first time we will have an educational project that runs alongside the Biennale. 

AA: I love the fact that you’re emphasizing a humanities and social science education. 

I inherited those terms like humanities, social sciences, sciences, and physical sciences, and for a long time I thought of them as sacrosanct. But when you come here to the African continent and you’re confronted with a knowledge system that’s very different, it makes me question all of those assumptions about the separation of knowledge. For me life—as far as I understand it—is narrative driven, it’s about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

Detroit's Marquette Building Office Design for Metropolis

BDG Redesigns a Detroit Power Plant for the World’s Largest Ad Agency, Metropolis, Aug. 15, 2022.

British advertising agency WPP, the largest firm of its kind in the world, has been on a mission to refresh its image and consolidate its offices across the globe. The latest of these projects gathers an assortment of WPP-owned agencies and companies in Detroit and its suburbs under one roof in the downtown Detroit neighborhood of Greektown. For a new home WPP selected the ten-story Marquette Building, which was designed in 1905 by Rogers & MacFarlane in what was then Detroit’s Financial District as a steam-heat-generating plant. To modernize the looming brick building, WPP tapped the New York office of London-based architecture firm BDG architecture + design, which developed a plan to revamp the building’s interior and transform it into an office that could accommodate all 1,200 of WPP’s employees in the Detroit area. 

WPP took on its sprawling multinational form through the acquisition of dozens of smaller companies, including ad agencies J. Walter Thompson and the Ogilvy Group in the late 1980s. It now employs 130,000 creatives in more than 100 countries. In recent years, it accumulated so many marketing, branding, PR, tech, and commercial entities spread among countless offices that it had begun to identify itself more as a holding company than a unified brand. As part of an ongoing mission to streamline operations and clean up its own image—partially a response to questions about the ethics of working for oil corporations and lawsuits against some of their fossil fuel clients like Chevron for misrepresenting themselves as sustainable—WPP has been purchasing older buildings and adapting them for use as energy-efficient, “on-brand” headquarters. 


The move is another step in a moment of extraordinary change for downtown Detroit. A flood of 1,000 new office workers will utterly transform the environment of that corner of the city, yet the public transportation infrastructure lags far behind, bringing a daily onrush of automobiles and customers for local businesses that have survived. If the city can keep up, adapt, and spread the wealth, WPP’s new headquarters may turn out to be much more than a simple rebranding exercise. 

Accessory Dwelling Unit in LA's Hancock Park for Dwell


This Azure ADU Is an L.A. Teen’s Home (Slightly) Away From Home, Dwell, July 25, 2022. 

David Thompson, a founding principal of Assembledge+, had recently participated in a Los Angeles Magazine project to imagine solutions for those who lack housing in the city. Their notion was for public agencies to subsidize building ADUs in backyards along alleyways, dovetailing with existing alley revitalization initiatives. 

That concept, titled Rear Projections, became a jumping-off point for other types of ADUs, and it ultimately informed the design of the Vernetti’s Hancock Park project, which replaced a detached backyard garage and extended the rear of the old house to create a new main bedroom, with French doors that lead out to a new deck. 

Brotherhood Sister Sol in Oculus


Brotherhood Sister Sol: In West Harlem, Urban Architectural Initiatives makes architecture for social change, Oculus, Summer 2022.

The young, fashionably dressed Black and brown teens hanging out on the front benches of Brotherhood Sister Sol (BroSis) in West Harlem give its new headquarters a particular power and resonance. Designed by Urban Architectural Initiatives, a minority-owned office co-founded by Tony Shitemi in 1996, the five-story structure is built for Black and Latinx youth. That alone is extremely telling, and it shows. The members of the youth mentoring, organizing, and training organization radiate a sense of ease and belonging.

“Their mission is to provide a space that fosters good health, good mental health, and good sense of well-being,” Shitemi says. “We took that up as the building being a tool to promote well-being and positive selfhood.”

The headquarters, which opened in May on 143th Street near Hamilton Place, replaced a three-story brownstone that had served the organization for roughly 20 years. As it grew, BroSis acquired the neighboring lot with plans to expand. With help from city and state funds along with foundations and private donors, it combined the lots into a single structure. The front façade’s formalistic skin syncopates opaque and translucent glass and tan limestone-colored panels to reference the fingers of a hand—reaching out to the community, giving a hand—offering a mixture of privacy and public visibility in daylit rooms.