Monday, 24 September 2018

Elsie Owusu, the architect building a more equal future

Elsie Owusu, the architect building a more equal future
29 Aug

Elsie Owusu arrives at the Supreme Court Café, which she designed, hardly able to contain her excitement. “I’ve got some really good news,” she says, grinning broadly and sitting down. 

The 64-year-old Ghanian-born architect, who has been involved in a series of increasingly bloody battles with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) — accusing the august body of institutionalised racism, overpaying its chief executive and misappropriating funds, among other things, claims they have denied — tells me she has a new plan up her sleeve. She can’t really talk about it yet, as “it’s still being lawyered up” but, she insists, it’s going to shake things up even more. 

This is the latest in a round of spats after RIBA sent her a “cease and desist” letter earlier this year for going public with some of her gripes and, just this month, failing to be elected as its new president, which went to insider favourite Alan Jones. 

Of RIBA’s 44,000 members, only 18 per cent bothered to vote, with Jones winning by 2,704 to Owusu’s 1,673 votes. Still, she says, there are no sour grapes: “I was disappointed, but Alan ran a good campaign.” Nor will the result deter her from trying again, even though the full-time, unpaid position is, she says, “designed for somebosdy who has a private income, is in a practice that can afford to shelter them for the four years, and has no other responsibilities”. 

Technically, that counts her out. “If you’re a woman with a child or have an elderly relative, which I have, I don’t know how I’d have managed with taking my mother to church on Sundays.” So why did she run? “That’s like being asked what you were going to do when you had a baby,” she retorts. 

The Progress 1000, in partnership with the global bank Citi, is the Evening Standard’s celebration of the people who make a difference to London life and will be announced on October 10. #Progress1000

The truth is that being elected is probably the most effective way to help change a profession that appears to be badly lagging behind when it comes to diversity and equal gender pay, and while Owusu clearly has plenty of enemies, her powerful supporters include Sir David Adjaye and Lord Rogers. 

She’s single — “life’s too short for a partner” — and has a daughter, Kesewa Hennessy, who works at the Financial Times, while her niece is Afua Hirsch, author of the race memoir, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. She runs a solo architecture practice in Baker Street and her projects include the refurbishment of the UK Supreme Court and the new entrance to Green Park Tube station, as well as buildings in Accra, Ghana, and a house under construction in Lagos for the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. 

The daughter of a diplomat, she came to the UK when she was eight and studied architecture in the mid-1970s. While opportunities for women architects have improved “from being absolutely bloody abysmal to just awful” (because of the gender pay gap), Owusu has come up against hostility from some of the older women at RIBA, who,  she says, behave like  “grand memsahibs”, pulling the ladder up behind them. “They’re like: ‘Elsie, shouldn’t you be in the kitchen cooking something?’” There was even a campaign during the RIBA election campaign, she adds, snickering, led by a group called ABE: Anybody But Elsie. 

The late Zaha Hadid however was not a memsahib. “Even with her stature, she still felt as if she’d walk into a room and people would look for the man in charge,” Owusu says. Among her peers she admires Amanda Levete and “there are lots of young women coming through the system now who probably don’t even remember a time when it was difficult”. 

Yet if opportunities for women are improving, the same can’t be said for black and minority ethnic architects. “Twenty-five years ago the numbers for BAME architects was two per cent; now it’s 0.9 per cent — and the rate of attrition is terrible. For every 10 BAME students who go in at one end [of architecture training] only one comes out at the end.” 

Elsie Owusu is part of our #Progress1000 campaign (Matt Writtle)

While income rather than skin colour is the obvious barrier — an architecture degree will set a student back £50,000 or more — Owusu says that the continuing culture of unpaid internships and large practices run by “mostly older upper-middle-class men” contribute to why “architecture as a profession is a very unwelcoming place for young black people. In London especially you should be looking at an architectural profession that reflects London.” She works closely with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which offers bursaries to help disadvantaged young people qualify as architects (as Stephen Lawrence himself had hoped to). 

She tells me a story about a rather different kind of black student. “I had this guy called Prince working for me. He hadn’t been able to get a job so I was being nice to him. We were working on Yinka Shonibare’s house [in Lagos]. It was a difficult relationship between me and the team leader so I thought: ‘Prince is from Nigeria. He’s got aunties. He knows about these things. So I said he could work with us. At the first meeting the Lagos architect said: ‘And where are you prince of?’ in this snooty way, and he said: ‘Funny you should ask because my grandfather is king of Benue State [in Nigeria] and my father was supposed to inherit but he’s now High Commissioner to South Africa. I’m called Prince because that’s what I am.’ I said: ‘Prince, you never told me that. I thought you were named after the artist formerly known as…’,” she laughs. 

“The wonderful thing is that there are all these young people in London with the most extraordinary amount of influence in their own countries. There’s Brexit on the horizon and once we’re out of the EU we’re going to be cut out of a chunk of work that people have taken for granted. The connection with the Commonwealth is a huge opportunity. This is what we need.”

The Progress 1000, in partnership with the global bank Citi, is the Evening Standard’s celebration of the people who make a difference to London life and will be announced on October 10. #Progress1000



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