Opinion: How can architects make a difference?

Yasmin Shariff is director of Dennis Sharp Architects and one of this year's WAN awards judging panel. Here she reflects on the politics of architecture and how design professionals can empower others.

by Yasmin Shariff 28 September 2023

Raised as a Muslim in Nairobi, the colonial capital of Kenya, I grew up in an environment that was designed to control, segregate and incarcerate. My family were branded as Indian even though none of us had ever been to India. Our brown skin determined where we could live and how we lived. This life experience makes me very conscious that politics is at the centre of everything we do as architects. 

Hilton Judin’s opening address at the 2014 UIA Congress in Durban still rings in my ears- architecture is politicsThis is nowhere more obvious than apartheid South Africa. His speech emphasised how architecture is social- connecting and activating. The culture, history and aspirations of our clients are not divorced from gender, politics, capital and the design of the built environment.

This summer I was invited to attend another UIA Congress as a speaker in a session on resource consumption, exploring ways of building with nothing. The theme of the Copenhagen 2023 Congress was Sustainable Futures- Leave No One Behind. I felt that at last there was a seismic shift- an acknowledgement by UN keynote speakers that architects are needed to make the step change to eject us out of our resource hungry, carbon fuelled lifestyles.

The collaborative work presented at the congress inspired me greatly and gave me hope. Yasmeen Lari’s keynote speech demonstrated how a single architect could help thousands out of poverty through small scale architectural interventions. 

While showcasing this community work taking place in poorer parts of the world is inspiring it may deflect from the main protagonists- G20 countries who generate an estimated 76% of global greenhouse emissions. These countries have a large number of well-trained architects more than capable of designing a lifestyle change to enable responsible living.

 As a woman of colour from the colonies I am acutely aware of fact that most G20 countries have economies that reward the wealthy and inhabit a male dominated culture that hardly see or hear women or people of colour. Going counter-culture and trying to get heard is not easy. Raising your head above the parapet can end up with you getting your head kicked in. I still have the bruises but it has not stopped me trying to make a significant difference.

The project I presented at the 2023 UIA congress was Strawdance – a strawbale community dance studio I designed 23 years ago. It demonstrates how even on a tiny budget it is possible to empower people to change their lifestyles and live in harmony with the environment around them.

On the day of my departure from Copenhagen I had time to visit an installation by two Kenyan architects, Stela Mutegi and Kabage Karanja at the famous Louisiana Art Gallery. Their practice, Cave_Bureau designed a magical exhibition that creatively engages in the difficult legacies of slavery and colonialism.  I am greatly inspired by this exhibition and the UIA Congress. It has given me a new lease of hope that architects have the ingenuity and ability to work collaboratively and empower those around us.


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