“Architecture hasn’t done a great job by telling all our stories equally.” -Liz Ogbu.
It’s appalling for people with an architectural backdrop to hear this. What makes it interesting is that the architect herself has quoted this!
Liz Ogbu is recognized as an urbanist, designer, and social innovator who has said this herself in a Ted-talk she delivered. Being the founder and principal architect of Studio-O, her work orbits around empathy, cross-disciplinary design thinking, design focused on encompassing humans. Her research methodologies reflect the same principles. Studio-O works with non-profit organizations, municipalities, companies and has linked up with various firms and clients. She is well known as an expert in sustainable architecture and resolves social issues with creative transformation.
Ogbu, a proud African-American architect (though she never introduces herself as one, work speaks on her behalf) is a role model for many with color. Her work is an exceptional result of all the biases and challenges she faced to reach the peak. In an article, she has talked about being a black woman whose existence is the exact opposite of dominant white patriarchy in architecture. Building her path, Nike Foundation, Jacaranda Health, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Oakland Museum of California are few of her clients to name.
She was a kid who was engaged in modifying her room into a gallery and carried immense inclination towards drawing. Although as a teenager, Ogbu never thought of pursuing design as a professional degree. She had even designed a house for her family in her father’s village as a sophomore. Despite her keen interest in design and drawing, she opted to engineer (it must’ve taken a lot of courage). But as the universe has its way of connecting the dots, somehow by luck, she attended Wellesley College, a liberal arts school. MIT and Wellesley had a tie-up, allowing students to take up a program through which they could pursue engineering.
This opportunity was a fortune in disguise. Young Liz despised the engineering course, taking her back into the time where she loved designing and had sketched plans for her house! Attending a class of architecture, she continued and opted for the same for her majors. She completed her B.A. in architecture from Wellesley College and M. Arch from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. In a San-Francisco based firm called ‘SMWM’, Liz worked as an intern in grad-school and joined as an architect a few years later.
Ogbu collaborated with Public Architecture for a project called ‘Day labor station’. This Labor Station is one of its kind as an innovative design and promotion campaign. With day laborers across the country as clients, the design attempted to address crucial issues of space, class, and neighborhood. Adaptability and answering to the ground requirements of day laborers made it responsive.
It provides a covered space for the day laborers to wait for work and community resources such as a meeting space and classroom.
Awarded the 2009 Global Innovation Prize by the Holcim Foundation, this project made a remarkable impression over firms across the globe.
In 2010, commissioning Global Lives in partnership with Deanna Van Buren (FORUM design+build), Matthew Toon, Adrienne Aquinno, she designed ‘a library of human lived experience’. The custom-designed scaffold and panel system was used as a room to showcase the film of the chosen social class. The concept of this design was engaging the viewer to sync with the subject and his life. Every aspect such as furniture, interior, ceiling, and the landscape was well thought and consulted for the subject-centric environment.
A trail of social issues followed Liz. Rephrasing to, Liz chased them, facilitated all at every step. She is not just another architect on the panel but a Client Manager, Designer, Human Factors Researcher combined. On a project with IDEO.org named ‘Smart life’, she played all those roles profitably.
Working with Unilever, Water, and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), she designed a scalable and sustainable social initiative. By commercializing water beside hygiene and nutrition products in Kenya, the notion was to create a human-centered design solution.
The project that marked importance globally is known as ‘NOW hunters point’, spread out on 30 acres of enormous site vacant for almost a decade. Ogbu and team spend nearly 4 years trying to provide meaning to the site and its neighborhood. It took a couple of narrating and listening sessions to understand the needs of the users. There was diversity amongst historically African-American communities, a still-active industrial workforce, an artist community, and a growing middle-class community among others. The outcome emerged out of all the communications, providing tangible solutions to their callings. The shore-line now has direct access, and about 12,000 people have revisited their lost stories from the site.
Liz has delivered lectures and talks around the globe with a wide range of audience spreading awareness about her work. Her sensitivity to the groundline issues of the users helps her design achieve positive response. She majorly works for the marginalised people. She is seen indulging in daily activities of people, helping them and connecting to empathise her thought process. This sets her apart as an architect with responsive designs. Apart from being an architect, she’s a healer (architect-healer is a thing!). She firmly believes in spatial justice, even distribution of resources, and fundamental human rights to all. She works for providing solutions from the root of the cause to the tip of the pain. Striving to elevate stories of the unheard and their implicit pain, she quotes,
“Healing is not an erasure of pain. It is acknowledging the pain and making peace with it.”