ML: I just finished rereading “A Place in the Sun” by the Indian architect Charles Correa. He begins by asking architects in India to take a chance on their imagination by “lifting themselves out of the freezing European weather into a faraway climate, into another state of mind and ambiance where warm and languid breezes blow”. For me, occupying ‘a place in the sun’ has been about growth through internalizing what is of value around us in the present. In conversation with clients and architects here in Ghana, one gets the feeling that their minds are elsewhere, in another climate and context. Does that type of frame of mind resonate with you, especially as you began to build Escape3points1?
AM: 'A place in the sun' has been my preferred circumstance for design since the beginning. Escape3points has been a great opportunity to explore how to create comfortable shelter while facing the harshest conditions from the sun and the wind while opening everything up to welcome nature in. It's a continual experiential study in which you are playing with balancing the raw primal elements of nature in indoor and outdoor spaces.
ML: I find that, in the tropics, our understanding of indoor and outdoor space isn’t so much a harsh delineation of indoor and outdoor boundaries, but a series of spaces that gradually temper the inhabitant in unique ways that allow our bodies to adjust to our harsh climate. In Ghana, the socialization of this can be seen in the way we spend various quantities of time in verandahs and peri-envelope spaces whether they are outdoor cooking or compound spaces. I feel that that sensibility of ‘space-tempering’, which is so tightly woven with our social practices, is often lost in what we are building today and consequently, our new spaces are setting up new types of social dynamics and valuation of our appreciation for our natural environment.
AM: Yes, unfortunately, it seems that those intermediate spaces had been lost for some time when meeting places under trees or compound houses were replaced by English-style houses that were not designed for the tropics. As the reasons for this 'space-tempering' were not understood, reviving ancient knowledge back into modern design without bringing the idea that we are stepping backwards into 'village style' is necessary. In this way, these valuable spaces can be appreciated with a Sankofa2 sentiment.
ML: I guess the ‘freedom’ to build creatively is as much a deeply psychological one as it is an economical one. Do you think that the cultural trappings of what the Ghanaians have been educated to desire have become the major barrier to the emergence of local innovation, or is it really the harsh economic barriers that exist today?
AK: The freedom to build here can in some ways be attributed to economic barriers in terms of the fact that those designing must be able to sustain themselves and therefore, more often than not, they follow conventional design. Clients are not well-informed about alternative methods of construction. So it is also a matter of lack of exposure. Secondly, we face negative stigmas that claim that local materials are not modern but inferior, as they are the same materials our forefathers used.
ML: The issue of stigma around local or low-tech material technologies like bamboo and natural fibers is one I am grappling with in my work that involves upcycling coconut husk. We have spent the past few years developing some high-performance systems made from locally available agricultural waste, but the biggest hurdle is essentially a cultural value system that frowns upon some aspects of it. On the surface, one may say this is a matter of taste and due to a propensity for Ghanaians to want something ‘modern’. But dissecting this further has led us to believe that the historic role of local, natural material systems are deeply entrenched in a culture of maintenance and vulnerability, and that, more importantly, occupants’ expectations of performance have drastically changed. We want to experience comfort instantly, whether it is thermal, acoustic, or olfactory, and we want it delivered spatially. I think there are ways that culturally situated design, a term coined by my mentor Ron Eglash, can usher in a new value system. For instance, due to our largely import-based building economy, the building owner in Ghana is not used to technologies made for him/her as the target consumer. I don’t mean that in a literal sense, that no one is listening to the wants and desires of the Ghanaian building owner client, but rather that we are embedded within a material culture and technology market that did not evolve with the developing context in mind. So what we want and imagine ourselves building, from the materials we use down to the air conditioning systems we operate, are very much rooted elsewhere, we have never truly been the subject and designer of our own contexts.
AK: I agree completely. The use of local materials had many issues in terms of lacking durability and requiring more maintenance, but that's exactly where the design aspect comes in. A synergy must be formed, combining local and imported 'ideas' to solve these issues. Simply importing quick-fix solutions only creates a new, different set of problems to overcome. We should have faith in locally made products.
ML: Does the lack of creativity and innovation we see in the materials market prevent us from realizing economic potential?
AK: I think our creativity is directly limited by requests for materials that are thought to be good because they have built examples. By building well-designed examples with other materials, people can better understand their options for using different materials that could be more economically viable as well as less detrimental to the environment.
ML: I think that with the ability of Ghanaians to travel more freely, the exposure to other places is changing our ideas of how and what to build for better or worse. I found some really inspiring examples from tropical modernism—but not because of the rationalism that was justified by the environmental principles of design, since those are incredibly exemplary in that regard. For me, buildings like the old National Science museum building in Accra, which is lying dormant and being allowed to deteriorate, symbolize a period of experimentation in which someone was looking at us with a keen interest, figuring out what was appropriate and acceptable here. I’m not saying that they didn’t impose modern design principles, but they did not divorce themselves from the context—whether it was social, historical, or environmental. That’s the beauty of what happened with Modernist architecture in West Africa. And when we see young African architects engage with world-renowned architects from Europe in that era, we see their ability to bring a fresh and innovative approach to design, rooted in ideas of beauty and function that are uniquely original. For you, what projects really get to the heart of material experimentation?
AM: Jorg Stamm's bamboo bridges in Colombia, which traverse huge spans for pedestrians and even cars and that would normally be built from steel, ignites something within me. His way of sharing knowledge instead of withholding the tricks of how to work with bamboo allows others to continue to push the limits in order to discover even more ways of using it. Others, including the Ibuku team and Elora Hardy in the Green Village in Bali, show that the limits of bamboo are only those of your own imagination.
ML: Those are great examples. Somewhere closer to home is the work of Koffi and Diabatte in Ivory Coast and Kengo Kuma in Japan, which has always been an inspiration to me. The language with which they deploy materials instills an unparalleled sense of integrity that is both local and universal. What has the ability to work with and experiment with local materials meant for you?
AK: Being able to work with local materials continues to inspire me to learn more about examples that can be found around the world. I am inspired to build more and share my knowledge so that others can realize the potential of what we already have at hand if used wisely.
ML: If we were to characterize the challenges faced today by young architects like us, what would they be?
AK: Young architects here in Ghana are often limited when entering the market as the pressure to follow conventional design is high. There aren’t many projects available that offer the chance to explore design. Financial pressure for a young architect adds to the challenge of simply sustaining themselves. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Lately, I have been learning about various interesting projects throughout the country, many are happening but are still unaware of others doing similar things. If a network is created to share knowledge and experiences, more energy and support will be breathed into the creative vibe here, opening up the potential architectural possibilities.
ML: It really is exciting. I think the challenge is being able to look within ourselves in both an individual and collective sense, in order to self-determine our own standards and capacity to produce responsibly for the contexts that we live in. I think the platform of sharing is a great place to begin. But the harder part of agreeing to develop and share common methods and standards that can cumulatively stimulate local knowledge economies for material innovation, technical expertise, and cultural experimentation, will be the hard part.
1 Escape3Points is an ecolodge located in Cape Three Points, Ghana, championing sustainable design and alternative low-cost building methods, renewable energy, and alternatives to sanitation.
2 Sankofa is a word from the Akan language of Ghana that translates into "reach back and get it" (san - to return; ko - to go; fa - to fetch, to seek and take) and also refers to the Asante Adinkra symbol represented either by a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or as a stylised heart shape.
MAE-LING LOKKO is a Ghanaian-Filipino doctoral student at CASE at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from which she also holds a Masters in Architectural Science. Her work focuses on the upcycling of agricultural waste by-products into high-performance, building-integrated material systems.
AKWASI MCLAREN is a University of Waterloo Architecture graduate and owner of the Escape3points Ecolodge. He has been designing and building in Ghana since 2003 with an eco-friendly approach that utilizes recycled and local materials.