• Credit: Douglas Robertson

February 29, 2024-March 1, 2024

Alero Olympio: Activated Matter

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 eighth Womxn in Design and Architecture Conference at the Princeton School of Architecture honors the life and work of Alero Olympio. 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. 

PANEL DESCRIPTIONS

Uncommon Constructions

Considering herself both “architect + builder,” Alero Olympio expanded conventional notions of architectural practice to center on the human act of construction. With environmental and social sustainability as her guiding ethos, Olympio embedded her practice in existing material cultures and systems of local knowledge while envisioning emergent structural and technical possibilities. Harmonizing an array of influences and deepening her connection to her homeland, Olympio’s distinct yet inclusive Ghanaian architectural language instrumentalized traditional methods and common materials like laterite clay to embolden local, social and ecological activism, and resist Western globalized constructional ideals. 

How might the physical act of building relate to or transcend the role of the architect? What is the role and agency of material in contemporary architectural practice, and how might it be employed to resist globalizing pressures? How are questions of local sustainability linked to broader social ecologies?

Social Transformations

Working between architecture, fashion, music, and writing, Alero Olympio resisted categorization and embraced the productive friction between creative practices. Employing critical fabulation, she disrupted omissions in disciplinary histories and allowed those who used her spaces to reimagine their relationships with the built environment. Centering production systems that tended to be obscured into focus, she expanded these into fruitful networks of makers and craftspeople, ushering in an era of rebuilding and decolonial worldforming. Olympio’s inclusive, polyvalent practice countered normative modes of architectural production, resulting in a redefined form of social entrepreneurship that built connections across disciplines and borders.

How are creative productivity, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and co-authorship used as tools in decolonial worldforming?  What is the role of the architect in decentralizing systems of production and making visible the invisible? How might this challenge the single authorship model in architecture?  How might archival processes be reconceived within the postcolonial context, and how might that enable historians, theorists, and practitioners to imagine new futures?  

Closing Conversation: Restructuring Practices

Energizing systems of knowledge exchange that spanned from Ghana through Asia, Western Europe, and the United Kingdom, Alero Olympio modeled a multi-scalar approach to design that centered on interpersonal relationships. As a mentor and collaborator to many, Olympio deconstructed hierarchical paradigms within her practice, promoting liberatory working structures and solidarity among disparate working groups. By remaining steadfast to the local conditions of her homeland while working internationally in Ghana and Scotland, Olympio’s practice disrupted boundaries around race, gender, class, and sexuality to cultivate cross-global networks.  

How does an individual operate between cultures, and what are the strengths and difficulties of a cross-national practice? What is Alero’s legacy and lasting influence within the relationship networks she fostered? What other systems of exchange are fostered in a practice based on interpersonal connections and generosity instead of profit and productivity?


EXHIBITION

Activated Matter: Groundwork through Alero Olympio

“Activated Matter: Groundwork through Alero Olympio” features a selection of photographs documenting architect Alero Olympio’s design projects and process, showcasing her slow craftsmanship and active experimentation. Following her life and work in Accra, Ghana, the exhibition traces Olympio’s buildings through recent documentation from late-2023, providing the early foundational work for a future archive.

Housed in a building designed by Olympio and informed by her legacy, the Kokrobitey Institute in Accra, is an artist residency, community education center, and a site of sustainable making. Named in her honor, the Alero Olympio Design Center is located at the Institute. Selected pieces on display in this exhibition have been handmade by Accra-based designers at the Kokrobitey Institute with recycled materials from local fast fashion landfills. These objects celebrate the Ghanaian craft and culture from which Olympio drew much of her inspiration and design.

Exhibition Open: Monday, February 26th through Friday, March 1st, 2024

Location: East Review Space

Exhibition Walkthrough: Thursday, February 29th at 7:20pm


Participants

Prof. Lesley Lokko OBE

Professor Lesley Lokko OBE is the founder and director of the African Futures Institute (AFI) in Accra, Ghana. She holds a BSc(Arch), MArch and PhD in Architecture from the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. She was the founder and director of the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg (2014—2019) and the Dean of Architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture (2019—2020). She is the editor of White Papers, Black Marks: Race, Culture, Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2000) and the editor-in-chief of FOLIO: Journal of Contemporary African Architecture.

In 2004, she made the successful transition from academic to novelist with the publication of her first novel, Sundowners (Orion 2004) and has since followed with twelve further bestsellers, which have been translated into fifteen languages. She is a founding member of the UN-Habitat Council on Urban Initiatives; was a member of the 17th International Jury of the Venice Architecture Biennale; is a trustee of the London-based Architecture Foundation, The Clean Air Fund and the London Centre for Humanities. She has lectured and published widely on the subject of ‘race’ and its relationship to architecture, particularly architectural education. In 2021, she was awarded the RIBA Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Education and in 2021, the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize for Contributions to Architecture. She is a Guest Editor of the UCL Design Research in Architecture publication series and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. She was recently awarded France’s Grande Médaille de l’Académie d’Architecture.

She is currently a Visiting Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College Dublin and has held visiting professorships at The Cooper Union, NYC and University of Virginia. She was appointed Curator of the 18th International Architecture Biennale at La Biennale di Venezia, which opened on 20 May 2023. In January 2023, she was awarded an OBE ‘for services to architecture and education’ in King Charles’ New Year’s Honours List. In January 2024, she was awarded the UK’s highest architecture award, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Royal Gold Medal. Given in recognition of a lifetime’s work and presented on behalf of His Majesty the King, it is awarded to a person or group of people ‘who have had a significant influence on the advancement of architecture.’

Renée Neblett

Renée C. Neblett is the Founding Director of the Kokrobitey Institute in Ghana. A former Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe College, and a Visiting Scholar at the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; she holds a BFA from the Künst Akademie, Düsseldorf, and an M.Ed from Goddard College. After years of practice as a visual, and performing artist, teaching in both public and private secondary and tertiary institutions in the U.S., Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa, she has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to establishing the Kokrobitey Institute.
The Institute is a dynamic inter-cultural learning space in Ghana dedicated to exploring traditional Ghanaian knowledge systems as they relate to education, environmental sustainability, resourceful design, and social entrepreneurship.

The recently constructed Alero Olympio Design Center is a hub of creative enterprise where local people work with the Institute’s inter-cultural community of artists, artisans, environmentalists, designers, and researchers – recording traditional practices, collaborating within design practices, gardening organically, developing educational materials and managing social entrepreneurship models, such as ‘Wote K.I Design’, a sustainable fashion label featured in the December 2021 issue of Vogue. The Institute’s goal is to explore development as ‘ways of being’ that respect the environment and those who inhabit it. Ms. Neblett has presented on national and international platforms covering a range of topics from resourceful design, fashion, sustainability, and development, to health and well-being.

Baerbel Mueller

Baerbel Mueller is an architect and researcher based in Austria and Ghana, whose spatial practice is strongly informed by contextual approaches, shaped by an interest in translating these into new typologies and contemporary responses. She is the dean of and an associate professor at the Institute of Architecture (I oA) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna (Die Angewandte), and founder and head of [Applied] Foreign Affairs ([A]FA), a lab, which investigates spatial, environmental and cultural phenomena in rural and urban Sub‐Saharan Africa. She is founder of nav_s baerbel mueller [navigations in the field of architecture and urban research within diverse cultural contexts], focusing on projects located on the African continent since 2000.

Her work comprises architecture, urban research, installations, scenography, and curatorial projects, and has been shown at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2006), Chicago Architecture Biennial (2023), Marrakesh Biennial (2016), Vienna Biennale (2021), Architekturmuseum Munich (2013), Az W (2005, 2014), and Kunsthalle Exnergasse (2007) et al. She received the Austrian Ars Docendi State Award for excellence in teaching in 2015, edited applied] Foreign Affairs ‐ investigating spatial phenomena in rural and urban
Sub‐Saharan Africa (Birkhäuser, 2017) and Structures of Displacement (Birkhäuser, 2020) et al, designed Nubuke Extended, an arts campus and gallery in Accra (with Juergen Strohmayer, 2019), and co‐curated the 2021 Vienna Biennale exhibition, Ecologies & Politics of the Living (with Ibrahim Mahama and Elisabeth Falkensteiner). She is co‐editor of forA on the Urban (2021‐).

Nana Biamah-Ofosu

Nana Biamah-Ofosu is an architect, writer and director of YAA Projects, an architecture, design and research practice dedicated to exploring counter-histories, material and diasporic culture, through making, speaking and writing architecture.

YAA Projects engages in intelligent and contextually rich projects, centering peripheral identities to create a more inclusive, holistic understanding of the built environment. Recent projects include Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa at the 18th Venice Biennale which was selected as part of ArchDaily’s ‘Top 2023 Pavilions and Installations Interrogating Architecture of the Global South’, the ArchiAfrika Pavilion and Althea McNish: Colour is Mine, which was included in The Guardian’s ‘Best Designs and Designers of 2023’.

As part of the Curator’s research team at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Nana contributed to the articulation of the main exhibition and Pinpoint, an archive of African and African Diaspora practitioners focused on decarbonization and decolonization.

Nana has lectured widely in the U.K. and internationally, including at the inaugural Venice Biennale College Architettura, Kingston University, and currently at the Architectural Association. She has been a critic at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her practice explores identity, geography, commonality and diasporic culture through the lens of building, dwelling, and material cultures. She has been researching African compound housing as a building, spatial and material typology which can inform the development of future housing and urbanisms with a book due for publication later this year. Her practice, YAA Projects recently presented Common, Communal, Community an exhibition in Vienna showcasing evolving this research.

As a writer, she is interested in the social, political, and cultural impact of design and architecture and engages with leading practitioners in contemporary practice, defining a critical, expansive, and open discourse on the built environment.

DK Osseo Asare

DK Osseo-Asare is a Ghanaian-American polymath who collaborates with communities to craft material assemblies tuned for ecosocial resilience. Osseo-Asare is co-founding Principal of Low Design Office (LowDO) based in Austin and Tema, Ghana. He is a registered civil engineer with the Ghanaian Institution of Engineering. LowDO have profiled as emerging architects in The Architectural Review (2018), featured in ARCHITECT’s Next Progressives, finalists in the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program (2019), Domus’ 50 Best Architecture Firms (2020), Emerging Voices Award from the Architectural League of New York (2021) and DK named to Architecture and Design cohort of USA Artists Fellows (2024). Osseo-Asare has led participatory architecture, landscape, and urban design–build projects along the Guinea Coast from the Anam City eco-town in Anambra State, Nigeria to Berekuso Hill Station and Koumbi City in Ghana. He served as architect of Ghana’s second pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, which was redeployed as the installation Enviromolecular at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale: The Laboratory of the Future. Osseo-Asare co-initiated the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) project, which won the Rockefeller Foundation’s Centennial Innovation Challenge (2013), the Design Corps’ SEED Award for Public Interest Design (2017), and Le Monde Cities Urban Innovation Award – Citizen Engagement Prize (2020). AMP spacecraft is an open design and manufacturing framework that utilizes quantum design for reassembly and modular prefabricated components to reformat autochthonous kiosk culture as synergetic matrix for material coordination across space-time. Osseo-Asare is Associate Professor of Architecture and Engineering Design at Penn State University, where he directs the Humanitarian Materials Lab. He received MArch and AB in Engineering Design degrees from Harvard University.

Erandi De Silva

Erandi de Silva (AA Dip, ARB) is a Sri Lankan-British Architect and Editor, based in Ghana. With her project Loké, she explores themes of liberation through both building and writing. The in-house publication Loké Journal examines the art of making as an inclusive, cross-cultural, and global pursuit, offering nuanced perspectives on the complex and varied realities of international design production. Written primarily by practicing architects, it draws connections between distinct and intersecting spaces of making while challenging dominant narratives in architecture and design criticism. Similar themes are reflected in her building projects in Ghana and Rwanda. Previously, Erandi was a founding editor of BI, an early online experimental architectural writing project and was the Project Editor of the Phaidon title: 20th Century World Architecture, a book that expands the Modern and postmodern canon beyond the established Western scope, presenting a global view of the last century’s important architectural works. More recently, her writings on East and West African architecture have appeared in periodicals such as Domus and the Architectural Review. She was a panellist at the Architect’s Newspaper symposium on contemporary architecture criticism last year in Venice. Her architectural proposals are discussed in Bidoun’s With/Without and Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft. She has lectured on her work at several institutions, including the University of Rwanda and the Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a graduate of London’s Architectural Association.

Dr. Ola Uduku

Ola Uduku has research specialisms in modern architecture, the history of educational architecture in West Africa, and contemporary issues related to social infrastructure provision for minority communities in the ‘West’ and ‘South’. She is an advocate of equity in all its forms in the workplace, particularly in the Architectural profession. She promotes the Documentation and recording of Modernist Buildings and Landscapes, (Docomomo) Africa, and was President of the African Studies Association UK (2020-2022). She is currently working on a project titled “Aid By Design” examining Aid and its relationship to Architecture in the 21st Century, and also the history of health Architecture in Africa.

Dr. Kuukuwa Manful

Kuukuwa Manful is a trained architect and researcher who creates, studies and documents architecture in Africa.

She is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan. Her current projects include a book about ‘The Architecture of Education in Ghana’ and a study of the ‘Formalisation and Unformalisation of Architecture in West Africa’ using a collection of endangered archives that she has recently digitised.

She was previously a visiting post-doctoral scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a post-doctoral researcher on the African State Architecture Project at SOAS, University of London. She holds a PhD from SOAS, University of London, an MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford, and Masters and BSc Architecture degrees from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

Her academic publications, creative writing, and public scholarship have appeared in African Affairs, Al Jazeera, Aperture, Curator: The Museum Journal, and Tampered Press. She has exhibited at and curated several art and architecture exhibitions around the world including recently in Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana and the United Kingdom. Her most recent publication include the co-edited book ‘Building African Futures: 10 Manifestos for Transformative Architecture and Urbanism’, published by Iwalewa books; and ‘Building Classes: Secondary Schools and Sociopolitical Stratification in Ghana’ which was awarded the 2023 ASA Graduate Student Paper Prize.

Through her Accra Archive project, funded by an award from British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, she has digitised a collection of endangered historical architectural material pertaining to architecture, construction, and urban regulation in Ghana. She curates adansisɛm – an architecture collective that documents Ghanaian architecture theory, research and practice; co-founded and runs sociarchi – a social architectural enterprise that advocates for and provides architectural services to people who ordinarily cannot afford architects; and serves as president of the Docomomo Accra Chapter.

Juliet Sakyi-Ansah

Juliet Sakyi-Ansah experiments with architecture as a tool for driving social and environmental change using collaborative and participatory approaches. She has dedicated her academic endeavours and socially engaged practice to social impact for over twenty years. Invested in the potential of collective action, her explorations centre people and place identity and how these manifest in the practice, process and production of architecture and the built environment.

Juliet founded The Architects’ Project in Accra (2013), an autonomous initiative amplifying and empowering its international community of multidisciplinary changemakers and forward-thinkers toward equitable, resilient and sustainable futures. She activated its most potent platform /tap Exchange for dialogue on pressing social and environmental issues and the practice of architecture. Topics included Remaking Agbogbloshie with Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (2014), Tapping Local Resources for Sustainable Development with the Architects Registration Council of Ghana (2014), Transcultural Praxis with London Metropolitan University (2015) and From Memory Comes Place with The Africa Centre in London (2017). Juliet launched Narratives publication in London (2019). She founded the change initiative Black in Architecture (2020), collaborating with Oxford Brookes University’s Place, Culture and Identity research group on Race in Architectural Education: Decolonising the Curriculum (2021). Juliet is building /tap Collective for collaborative place-based research, design and development, and to enable initiatives such as Learn/Play (CoLab Dudley, 2021). Juliet recently co-facilitated social art practice Workshop 24’s Radio Public Library project in Brierley Hill (2023).

Juliet earned her BA and MArch from the University of Sheffield School of Architecture. She completed her professional studies at the AA School London, and is an architect at her Birmingham-based practice Studio OASA. She teaches design at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture. Juliet is a PhD candidate at Oxford Brookes University. Her thesis is on BIM-based capacity building for participation in settlement upgrading, Accra.

Dr. John Ennis

Dr. John Ennis is a curator and activist with a base in Edinburgh who travels within Scotland and beyond to promote well-being and sustainability, with cultural initiatives reaching across art, design and industry. John trained at Edinburgh University Medical School, graduating in 1990 with a subsequent 20-year career in family medicine, health services research and medical teaching. John stepped aside from medicine in 2012 to found Journeys in Design, linking wellbeing and design through exhibitions and events, motivated by the evidence of health benefit for those coming together in all forms of creative fellowship. His current work seeks to develop regenerative design projects – those with nature systems, diversity and locality at heart – working with key allies around Scotland and beyond, making new contributions to our shared material culture and strengthening international links.

John’s work with Alero was as a business partner in Ghana, founding a small design and build enterprise in Accra, called Ennis Olympio plc. By securing brick-making machinery from Auroville in India, land upon which to build in Accra and local teams trained to make laterite-based bricks on site, Ennis Olympio became a nest for Alero’s design and architectural skills, with local, holistic, nature systems in mind. John’s current programme called Concrete Designs to Thrive looks at the intimate link between urban design and the health of individual, community and planet, inspired very much by his early work with Alero.

Program Schedule

Thursday

February 29th

Free and open to the public!
Happening at Betts Auditorium in the School of Architecture.
6:00pm EST
Welcome and Introduction
Dean Mónica Ponce de León
WDA Introduction and Land Acknowledgement
WDA member Janeen Zheng
Keynote Presentation
Prof. Lesley Lokko OBE, African Futures Institute
Discussion, Q&A
Exhibition Opening
WDA member Marie Antoinette Chapa
7:20pm EST
Reception + Exhibition Walk Through

Friday

March 1st

10:00am EST
Introduction
Dean Mónica Ponce de León
WDA Introduction and Land Acknowledgement
WDA member Mariam Arwa Al-Hachami
10:15am EST
Opening Statement
Renée Neblett, Founding Director of the Kokrobitey Institute
Discussion, Q&A
11:00am EST
Uncommon Constructions
Introduction and Moderation WDA member Julia Chou, Hermine Demael, & Janeen Zheng
Panelists
Baerbel Mueller, Dean of the Institute of Architecture (I oA) University of Applied Arts Vienna; Associate Professor at the I oA; Head of [A]FA, Mag.arch (Master)
DK Osseo Asare, Associate Professor of Architecture and Engineering Design at Penn State University
Juliet Sakyi-Ansah, Founder, The Architects' Project; PhD Candidate, Oxford Brookes University; Visiting Tutor, University of Liverpool School of Architecture
Conversation, Q&A
12:15pm EST
Lunch
1:15pm EST
Social Transformations
Introduction and Moderation WDA Members Lealla Solomon & Julia Chou
Panelists
Nana Biamah-Ofosu, YAA Projects, Architectural Association, London & Kingston University London
Erandi de Silva, Architect and Editor; Founder, Loké
Introduction and Moderation WDA Members Sophia Rose-Diodati & Vanessa Gonzalez
2:00pm EST
Virtual Presentations
Dr. Ola Uduku, Head of School and Roscoe Chair in Architecture, Liverpool School of Architecture, University of Liverpool, England UK
Dr. Kuukuwa Manful, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan
2:30pm EST
Closing Conversation
Dr. John Ennis, Curator and Producer, Journeys in Design
Introduction and Moderation WDA member Jocelyn Beausire
3:15pm EST
Reception