Lab Project

Guabuliga – Well by the Thorn Tree

Joe Osae-Addo, Baerbel Mueller

BM: Could you talk a bit about contextual approaches in terms of the African, West African, Ghanaian context?

JOA: Well, I mean that word, “context”, in terms of a postcolonial context in particular, is very tricky. What is our context? It has been redefined in a way by the colonial influence. And so if you talk about a city like Accra, what is it? What kind of construct is it? Is it what you see on Oxford Street with all the Kentucky Fried Chickens? Is that Accra? I think it is. Or is it the old city, which has not been developed for the last hundred years? That is also Accra. Is it the people´s culture that is exemplified by our clothing, which is both people wearing the traditional cloth and people wearing jeans? So I think the context within our geographical boundaries and political arena is a hybrid. And I think, as creative people, we have not been responding to that. If people write about the African context, they talk about the traditional, the historical. But we are a very contemporary continent, a cosmopolitan continent, and we have been influenced by so many things that our context is ever shifting, everchanging. And it is so relevant, more than ever. So I don´t use that word lightly, because it has so many layered meanings—for me!

BM: Nevertheless, your work is based on contextual approaches, and you have always been interested in the cultural contextually. Can you talk a bit about that?

JOA: Yes absolutely! Culture is everchanging, it is dynamic. We are not talking about the drumming and dancing alone. But I think you have to feel culture and live it. It is that intuitive side of understanding what our culture is, that I think is missing. We overintellectualize these notions and explorations of culture. It is you. So you respond to yourself. So what I do is respond to who I am, what I believe. It is my belief system, and it is shaped by many things, especially by the indigenous. That is what I respond to, but clearly, if I look at those things, it needs to be changing; it is not cast in stone. Otherwise it becomes irrelevant as an idea. So you have known me for a long time, starting from my interest in local materials, it is still all there, but now, how do you contextualize all this interest in a more urban setting? The basis is the same, but the results may appear differently. It is that underpinning of culture, economy, which still keeps me going. It may appear different, but it is still the same. It comes from the same place. It is intuitive, deliberately so over the rational: What do we need as a people? Everywhere we go, whether it is the rural or the urban, how can we design to reshape that condition?

BM: Could you briefly talk about the environmentally contextual, or your interest in the environmental approach?

JOA: Good design principles are based on an environmental understanding of place. That´s basic. So, we don t have to reinvent the wheel on this thing. But what I think is missing in our context is our traditional narrative, which says the same things that Western approaches do. But we have not taken over that space; we have not appropriated this dialogue to say, we are sustainable as a people. We have narratives, we have stories and approaches that have captured that for a million years.

We have great examples that have guided us, we have great stories of protecting our environment, be it the ocean, the land, nature. But we seem to have gotten away from that. So it is important that we reconnect to this origin narrative.

BM: Could you talk about scale?

JOA: I think one of the things that makes it very difficult to push the use of local material, for example, is the lack of scale, the scalability of the production and the scalability of the demand. But I think the onus is on us as creative people, as engineers, as manufacturers, to build the scale, the demand that leads to scalability. Otherwise, all these great creative ideas will never take hold. It has to be market competitive. And that goes not only for products, but for our ideas as well. How do we get the people of Ghana, for example, to buy into a new approach. It has to be economically feasible. And economy and scalability are two sides of the same coin.

BM: Taking it from a different angle, I have now been interested for years in this notion of urban acupunctures. This, your project here in Jamestown, is small, but it is radiating, it is extremely local, but it is very global at the same time. So you believe in the small-scale.

JOA: I believe in both, the micro and the macro! But often as designers, we are always looking at the big picture, which is great. So this idea of coming to Jamestown started with my trying to buy a huge building, a warehouse, and converting it into a mixed-used development – and we are still working on it, there is no rush. So I said, why don´t we take fragments of the same idea, and as you said, acupuncture it, fragments of it, and test the idea before we get to the main project. So next will be the guesthouse, Airbnb. This original idea is all about artists´ lofts and creative space, space with retail, with housing, all in one place, and of course with a public square, which is the market. So here you see we have brought the solar kiosk and the market, we have the gallery, which is part of the creative space idea, and we have the cafe, and then the sleeping area. So we are testing these ideas.

BM: And the city is in between everything! I think it is great how it expands with all the in-between spaces.

JOA: That is why it has allowed us to make this wonderful communal garden opposite: before it was a dirt space, all the junk was put there, and now the trees there are growing. So I like your term acupuncture and I would add: it is about engaging with the everyday. What we are doing is not a festival, it is not a one-off thing, it is the everyday. This project may evolve, if you come here in a year it might look very different.

So it is about engaging with the everyday. And it has taught me a great lesson as a creative person, that we have to stop talking like creative people, stop acting like creative people, stop dressing like creative people—all we have to do is engage in a very creative way. That is the best thing, that is where the rubber meets the road. Every day I come here, I have to fight for something. I think architecture has become so relaxed, you can´t have architecture play a big role in development if you don’t push the envelope and if you don´t have angst, you cannot be comfortable and make change, no, it is not possible. So I encourage people. Acupuncture: once the needle hits, it is painful, but change occurs.