Architecture has always been a field that is full of cultural variation and countless factors of context. This understanding lies at the core of Tosin Oshinowo’s professional identity. Oshinowo’s design work is described as embodying a contemporary perspective on the next generation of African design and Afro-minimalism. She is also well-known for her intentionally residential and commercial spaces which are expansive in nature as well as insights into socially-responsive approaches to urbanism. Further exhibiting her heritage as a Yoruba woman and West African, Tosin also functions as a product designer specializing in chair design, and in 2017, she built Ilé-Ilà, a luxury brand whose title is a Yoruba compound word which translates to ‘House of Lines’. Ilé-Ilà chairs are designed and handcrafted in Lagos, Nigeria, and have been featured and heralded as a significant facet of modern African furniture design in global publications like Harper's Bazaar Interiors and Elle Decor.
Oshinowo’s reputation continues to expand as she was announced the curator of the ongoing 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial in March 2022. The Triennial features new commissions and site-specific projects and its theme is ‘The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability’. A theme that inexorably explores Oshinowo’s proclivity towards understanding how architectural work can vary under the reasons of different social, cultural, and environmental contexts. The Triennial features 29 architects, designers, and studios from 25 countries, exploring innovative and original solutions for design coming from a place of scarcity in the Global South.
This interview focuses on the work Tosin has done so far, how her career began, and what inspires her passion for Architecture, what this Triennial means to her personally, and what the Triennial is purposed to achieve. Here, Tosin speaks to us about adaptive architecture and the future of African and Nigerian architecture and design.
Your résumé and track record epitomize much more than professionalism and efficiency, they also show that you possess a passion for architecture and design. Share with us how you arrived at this passion, and how it factors into your work, even up to the Triennial.
It’s always been architecture, really. If I've learnt anything about practice, it’s that what you do, you have to enjoy. And I feel fortunate that the profession I picked is one that can almost feel more lifestyle-like, as opposed to maybe, other professions. I can’t imagine that some occupations are done out of passion, I live and breathe space and creativity, so it’s very much in balance with my being. I knew from a very young age - about 12, that I wanted to become an architect. I knew because my father was having a home in Ikorodu built, and of my two other siblings, I was the only person who took any particular interest in the design when he brought the floor plans home. The irony is that I realized later on in life that he actually used a draftsman and not an architect.This all started from an early understanding that I was creative. I took fine arts in school and I also had some exposure to technical drawing. So I realized that I was quite spatially inclined. But that experience of the house being built really was an opportunity for me to see a process from start to finish. Seeing and understanding the drawings when they came home, I appeared to be quite literate in them from early on. Also, being able to experience space as it was, and understanding selecting and finishing and the processes involved in that. It was all quite exciting to me, and because I had excelled in fine arts in school, it was more like a natural progression. I don’t think I ever wanted to do visual arts, I was good at it, but I could see that there was a strong relationship between space and creativity. I was also fortunate that also, in the process of Academia, i was able to continue because there's often an interesting connotation that tends to occur when we all start off with an idea of who we want to be as children, but so many things happen in the process of becoming an adult can change your trajectory, but I stayed pretty consistent, and I feel very proud that that consistency married with actually excelling has allowed me to become the multifaceted architect that I am today.
Your career cuts across residential and commercial spaces, as well as furniture design. Do these different facets of your work complement each other? If yes, how do they? And how do you see them contributing to a holistic vision of contemporary African design?
I’ll take your question further and take it away from just the residential and commercial spaces. My current practice cuts across architecture, product design, and curation. And what I’ve realized in these different entities is the fact that you use different parts of your brain to respond to them. But what’s really great about that is that I’m constantly zooming in and out of different spheres. But the exercise of stepping into another realm has given me balance and an opportunity to look back and reflect on the other side, and as so, I have this constant hybrid of interconnection that allows me to be able to further develop from the interior and exterior. So for example, as a curator, I’m very much dealing with the conceptual, being able to create a strong narrative built off practice. The narratives that I create within that also go back to influence practice. It’s the same way that as a product designer designing furniture, the gratification of doing a design from beginning to end as a finished product is realized much quicker than that of a building which on average, takes 36 months to complete. But the narrative of the product being in the space is also using a slightly different part of your mind. In the sense that, my buildings tend to be quite minimal, strong, monolithic beings whereas, my furniture pieces tend to be more of a celebration. I’m actually developing very different design skills. Going back to the point of the trajectory of designing a building which is a much longer process, is very different from designing in product design. The gratification of the finished product comes a lot quicker than the building itself. These different elements are all using creativity as a starting point, but are very much exercising different elements of my being, and they all start to improve at the same time. So, if I concentrate on one sector, it then eventually influences the other, I take it up a notch, and we keep going. I think it’s important to have that opportunity to pull away from any particular realm and look back in retrospect because it's only in the process of retrospection that you can be able to grow from the experiences. Curation is so intertwined with architecture and design, but with it, I really understood the importance of this opportunity to pull back from one realm to another and I think moving forward, it’s something I definitely want to continue in my practice.
Having built a significant reputation over the years, how do you view your role as a trailblazer in the context of promoting modern African furniture design on the global stage?
What’s really interesting is that I actually didn’t start my career consciously wanting to be a ‘trailblazer’. I think there is something very important about approaching it for the right reasons and I guess the ‘trailblazing’ is almost a by-product. I went to school at a time when we were just beginning to get to a point where it was exciting and proud to be African, and I spent a lot of my academic years - looking for myself in the work that I was being trained for, or the school I was being trained in. And so, my quest for identity has always been at the backbone of my practice. This idea of ‘What does it mean to have an African building?’, and ‘What is a visual or contemporary representation of that?’ These really have been at the foreground. But it was all a very personal journey to be able to find something that was celebratory of where I was from, something to be proud of. But not only to be proud of it, to create something of international standards. Something that people would be excited to emulate or imbibe from our culture. As opposed to the African, or Nigerian trying to absorb someone else’s culture. Because we have been sold the notion that what we have isn’t great and we have to try to attain someone else’s standard. And like I said, it was a personal journey, and on that journey, I realized that there is so much to celebrate about what we have and a lot of what the Triennial has brought out is the celebration of these traditions that haven’t been recognized by the canon as sophisticated, or superior. But they are very sophisticated in themselves, and I think it’s really about a different filter or lens with which we perceive the world. I think that when we start to understand and value what we have, we realize how rich it is and how much we should actually imbibe from it and develop it further. We’re getting to a place where it is becoming exciting in this narrative. It also helps that Nigeria has had a creative renaissance in the last 20-30 years. So much has come out of the continent, so much has come out of Nigeria, and Lagos. There are so many people across different people from music to film, art, fashion, design, and literature that are really pushing the boundaries and helping a generation of young practitioners to realize that they need to now build off this amazing platform that has been created and ask where else they can go with this and how many people they can encourage to join the journey. I really want my children’s children to be proud of where they are from. It has value, and it has to be acknowledged. And not just for Africans or Nigerians, but for the global audience.
Tosin Oshinowo with SAT02 participants Papaomotayo and Eve Nnaji at their installation We Rest at the Bird's Nest. Photo by Talie Eigelang. Courtesy of Sharjah Architecture Triennial.
As the curator for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, could you share some specific examples of how the theme ‘The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability’ has inspired innovative architectural solutions that address the challenges that the diverse social, cultural, and environmental contexts can pose?
So the exhibition really was setting up a conversation that the under-celebrated building technologies that exist within the global south that haven’t been celebrated by the canon could really be the potential of possibly forming the sustainable solutions that the world requires today. And, in a world where we are now dealing with various concerns due to climate change. I think a very important point of the Triennial, and the exhibition context was understanding the value of conditions of scarcity because a lot of these building technologies and solutions exist in locations that deal with constraints. But the reality is that constraints were actually, or should have been, or are - conditions for the reality of existence. What modernity has done is remove the need for these constraints and given the illusion of a surplus of resource. And it is that illusion of a surplus of resource that causes the challenges that we have today, specifically with our climate. If we think about 300-400 years ago, man has existed in harmony and balance with ecology on the planet. What’s happened is ‘industrialization’, which has taken us off into a different trajectory and put us on an unbalanced relationship with our resources which are in direct conflict with our ecology. If we look back more to tradition and see how we were better in balance, we must ask - How can we take these innovations that exist into a modern context, and that is really what the Triennial is about. The Triennial has been broken into three strands that emerged from conversations with participants and seeing how the participants’ responses were beginning to manifest into exhibition forms.
The first is ‘Renewed Contextual’ which showcases participants whose work tend to work as gentler versions of modernity but also with practitioners who work specifically in balance, or contextually with materials of ‘place’. And this is actually what should not be unique about tradition, but still is so unique. When we built more traditional style buildings, they were always from the grounds of place, materials available close to the location, and that brought out a visual identity but also an understanding of material and ensuring that we built comfortably for that environment. What modernity gave us was the opportunity to completely pull away from that, and to build almost in conflict with concrete and glass. So we didn’t have to consider location. If you’re in Nigeria, you could put an air conditioner in, and in Europe you could install a heating system, completely enveloping yourself away from the environment. But that in itself has created so much challenge, as we have scaled the amount and intensity of these interventions. So, the first chapter was people who understand this as part of their practice, and they were able to showcase solutions that are very much about place and gentler versions of modernity.
The second strand is ‘Extraction Politics' and these are practitioners that very much address the tensions that exist between our urbanism, our economic development, and how we have become out of balance with our ecology. So these are practitioners looking specifically at consumerism and the amount of waste production that happens. Africa has become the dumping ground of all the secondhand clothes. Clothes that come from Europe end up in our landfills and waterways because most times, the fabrics don’t have great secondhand use so even when people buy them, they just get thrown away and the cycles that are supposed to happen elsewhere, happen here in Africa. Also looking at the amount of deforestation we have just to produce beautiful objects. One of the biggest challenges with aesthetics today is the need for perfection. Because how much waste is needed to make the perfect object?
The final strand we had is called ‘Intangible Bodies’ which deals with the ephemeral nature of tradition and culture, also bringing about an understanding of spirituality and empathy, what it means to be human. Here, practitioners built poetic narratives around some of the simpler versions of civilization and existence. Sandra Poulson, one of the participants from Angola has a project where she picked a market in Luanda, celebrating the economies that exist within the changing ground conditions in different parts of the city, drawing attention to the interesting relationship with what we consider to be progress and colonialism.
How did you come across the opportunity to serve as curator for the Triennial and what does it mean to you personally, to be in such a position for an event this elaborate and lengthy?
The first thing to note is that you don’t bid to be a curator. You tend to need to be invited. But very important to note, is that I had already started as a curator when I co-curated the Lagos Biennial in 2019. It was more diverse I guess, being an art biennial. It was an interesting experience that put me out into the world as an architect who also has the capacity to curate. Then, I got the opportunity via an email to come up with a proposal for a closed call for the Triennial in Sharjah, which I did. Then I got an interview, and had to present later. I got a phone call about two weeks later telling me that I had been selected as curator. It didn’t fall into my lap. There was a backstory and an experience that I had prior that put me in a good position to present a good proposal. And not just a good proposal based on my experiences or my contextual narratives but also from my experiences of curating an exhibition prior.
To be honest, because I had curated Lagos, and Lagos had a different, less global audience, I think I was ill-prepared for the impact of this. When I was announced as a curator in March 2022, was when I truly understood the impact of this opportunity. It was quite overwhelming, but I was very proud, realizing that even though there was a restriction to the UAE for Nigerians, I still got a pass to do my work. It made me see how many people do not have access to resources by the lottery of birth but by sheer virtue of timing, I was just very lucky to have been selected and had already started work. I do feel that the Nigerian story, and the narrative of growing up in this environment does give you something of value to share with the world.
The 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial showcases designs from 25 countries, with an emphasis on innovation in the face of scarcity. How do you foresee this collaborative platform influencing the discourse around architectural practices in the Global South?
I think what the Triennial has done is to function as a conversation-starter. A lot of the exhibits are experimental. I really hope that the exhibition platform itself, and this exhibition in particular can be an opportunity for people to have a starting point. The reality is that the technological advancements that have afforded the global north to approach sustainability in a certain way are very far from the realities of what exists in the global south. We don’t have a lot of these amenities and we spend a lot of time trying to emulate structures that are so foreign to our environment and reality. What I really feel is that the exhibition should really be about showcasing and celebration of what we do have, as well as an opportunity for us to continue those conversations, and develop those narratives that work for us. A really great example of an exhibition that is quite focused on that is Nifemi Marcus-Bello’s ‘Context in Design, Design in Context’. Nifemi has been cataloging the indigenous design products that tend to originate from self-organizing structures. So you don’t have a specific designer creating these narratives. From the mammy wagon to the mobile kiosks where you have the mallam selling cigarettes and chewing gum and other things represented on styrofoam or cardboard. What’s really beautiful about these kinds of design innovations that he has been documenting and cataloging is that you tend to see them in strange socioeconomic conditions, particularly in the global south, sub-Saharan cities where we live this hybrid of traditional and modern, and it’s great to see this idea of design objects that exist within that kind of reality. The global north would say that these are not objects of value. But they are, because people use them every day, and whether we like it or not, they start to form formalized narratives by virtue of how they eventually tend to now manifest. But it’s not of the notion of a global north narrative of design where a single design has created an object. These are collective design solutions that come about by many iterations by many different people but eventually start to form a particular aesthetic language or prototype, and that very much is the reality of what happens in the global south, and these need to be celebrated and acknowledged. It’s not about the individual, but the collective. And I think that shedding light on these special moments is so powerful, and this is what the Triennial is trying to, and will continue to do.
Tosin Oshinowo with SAT02 participants Papaomotayo and Eve Nnaji at their installation We Rest at the Bird's Nest. Photo by Talie Eigelang. Courtesy of Sharjah Architecture Triennial.
Focusing on adaptive architecture, what do you envision the future of African and Nigerian architecture to look like? With consideration for the ever-changing socio-cultural and environmental landscapes?
I think that this is the biggest question that the Triennial raises. How do we move forward from this point? The reality is that we’ve all been catapulted into industrialization and modernity, with a lot of heirs within the global south never being fully the beneficiaries of industrialization. We’re at a time when our resources are extracted to develop other locations so our understanding of modernity is markedly different from that of the global north. The reality is that we’re here, and we can’t go back. How do we now consciously use what we have from tradition and from 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. But 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 the reality of modernity and industrialization, which is speed and skill. How are we able to take these traditional technologies and solutions that exist and get them to a point where they can work with the reality of the requirements of life within modernity? But then also to help us question if we consider our value system and our expectations of lifestyle. What would have been considered as what we now consider as a convenience today that would never have been a reality in previous times. If we remove it from our context, it’s almost seen as an inconvenience. But maybe it's because we have been trained to believe that it would be an inconvenience if it’s not there. I really think that we need to reflect on what we value. There are many things that have to happen here. Practitioners need to think more responsibly about the environment. What’s really interesting on the continent is that the turn of independence, when we had a lot of influence from tropical modernism, that was very much about creating an architecture that works within the context of the environment, with cross ventilation systems, shade, and other things, which is different from what we had in tradition because traditional buildings were different and culturally, the way we used space was very different. We cannot go back to that system of building because the way of life has now changed. So we have to pick what we can - but consciously. Very sadly, a lot of modern buildings on the continent today are not thinking about the environment or thinking about how we use space. They are building off a northern narrative of this surplus of resource that just doesn’t exist. So as practitioners, we need to now consciously reflect on what is really important and start to pull from where we can, these narratives of regeneration that we can consider for the reality of modernity, look at more traditional styles of building and see how we can create some kind of hybrid.