Alero Olympio was an architect and builder of radical ecologies. Born in Ghana and working extensively between Scotland and her homeland, Olympio theorized and exercised a rigorous dedication to social and environmental sustainability at all scales. She envisioned building methods and materials as emergent sites of potential, rejecting industrialized products in favor of inherited, place-specific knowledge systems. Locally sourced Laterite clay and African hardwood were essential materials in her new architectural language, as she championed the ongoing protection of West African timber resources and delicate forest ecosystems. Olympio’s work codified an intimately ecological approach to architecture, one embedded within the specific material and social conditions of its place, and an innovative and distinctly African mode of practice.
Dynamic and inspired, Olympio challenged the conventional architect archetype. She pursued entrepreneurial endeavors that pushed far beyond the building realm, from furniture to care products to a children’s book. Her built projects in Ghana and Scotland–including the Kokrobitey Institute, the visitor trail at Kakum National Park, and many private residential homes–stand as a testament to the coherence of her methods and the persistence, integrity, and longevity of her vision. These projects, many of which she constructed of local materials, proposed an affordable, sustainable, and site-specific infrastructure that acknowledged Ghanaian social mobility within a post-independence context. Flourishing and developing their own networks of care and mutuality, the cross-continental communities living within her designs embody Olympio’s enduring legacy.
The 2023-24 conference proceedings will call on the discipline with timely topics and inquiries, such as the wide-reaching sustainable potential of local building materials and place-specific methods, the role of the architect in forging cross-cultural exchange, and the impact of architecture as a site for community-building and cultural transformation. Olympio’s work exists at a nexus that continues to be central to contemporary architectural discourse: intertwining biogenic materiality and social resiliency.
Conference participants include Nana Biamah-Ofosu, Erandi de Silva, Prof. Lesley Lokko OBE, Baerbel Mueller, Renée C. Neblett, DK Osseo-Asare, among others.
Concurrent with the conference will be a pop-up exhibition celebrating the Ghanaian craft and culture from which Alero Olympio drew much of her inspiration and design methodology. Housed in a building designed by Olympio and informed by her legacy, the Kokrobitey Institute in Accra, Ghana, is an artist residency and community education center. With deep regional roots and cross-global connections, the Kokrobitey Institute is a site of sustainable making, providing space for slow craftsmanship and active experimentation. The exhibition features archival images of Olympio’s projects and process, along with one-of-a-kind garments handmade by Accra-based designers at the Kokrobitey Institute with recycled materials from local fast-fashion landfills.
Organized by Womxn in Design and Architecture (WDA), a graduate student group formed in 2014 at Princeton University School of Architecture, this annual conference celebrates the work and legacy of a pivotal architect or designer with contributions from international historians and scholars, in addition to artists, curators, and practitioners. Read more about the conference series here.
WDA conferences are made possible by the Jean Labatut Memorial Lectures in Architecture and Urban Planning Fund at Princeton University.