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In Profile: Liz Ogbu

The Droga Architect in Residence describes herself as a designer, urbanist and social innovator, but perhaps game changer is a better title.

In Profile: Liz Ogbu


September 9th, 2016

Based in America but working internationally, Ogbu is an architect who has collaborated with some of the world’s leading public interest design non-profits, including IDEO.org and Public Architecture, before setting up her own multidisciplinary consulting practice Studio O. Using design and innovation to tackle systemic problems within socially challenged communities, she has worked with non-profits, local councils, and independent companies to do some pretty incredible work for a great deal of people and communities in need, making it her mission to make a difference where it is most required, one step at a time.

Ogbu was “the weird kid in the family that drew”, and with both parents as social scientists, found herself studying at a liberal arts college where she had the opportunity to take architecture majors alongside classes like urban economics and urban sociology. Her interest in the field led to a masters of architecture, and a well-rounded education that gave her the unique approach to architecture that drives her work today. But it was a fellowship that took her through Sub-Saharan Africa that set her on a path towards architecture for social change. “A lot of what was getting done in the architecture offices was not relevant to the conditions I was seeing the vast majority of people live in,” she says. “I was looking for other ways to understand that condition, and then understand what it meant for me to be a designer in that space.”

What Ogbu describes as an “architecture identity crisis” has become the catalyst for a career delivering powerful projects to create significant social impact. One of the first projects that defined the direction she took was the design of ‘Day Labour Stations’, created as an adaptable space to service the huge numbers of American day labourers occupying street corners and car parks in the hope of a day’s work, providing them with shelter, water, restrooms and meeting spaces while they wait.

Ogbu’s multidisciplinary approach to projects has encompassed design, strategy, community engagement, research, teaching and consulting, taking a more generalist approach to her work than pure architecture. “Part of what keeps me in this generalist space is that with the challenges that we are facing, we’ve been trying the same way of dealing with that for decades and haven’t been making much of a dent. So maybe it’s time to try something different – looking at the problems we are facing, asking if we’ve been here before, and if we have, figuring out what can we do to try it differently.”

And do it differently she does. Ogbu describes what she is doing as ‘placekeeping’ – a beautifully meaningful alternative to the over-used term placemaking. Defining this expression, she talks about the synonymous relationship between placemaking and gentrification, and the resulting displacement of the original community. “If you ask these people about their reaction to placemaking, their response is ‘this is already a place’… it wasn’t a great place, but it was a place, with a lot of strong ties and memories and a community fabric.” For Ogbu, this led to a placekeeping approach, which for her is about honouring and acknowledging what is already there, but also about setting a mandate for responsible development. “We need to ensure that the existing community has the capacity to shape the change for the place, even as new people are coming in”, she says.

Deep community engagement, and a systems-thinking approach underpins every project Ogbu undertakes, with an awareness that truly knowing and having empathy with people and their community, and inherently understanding the procedures, processes and players that make up a community’s ecosystem, will result in a far more valuable and meaningful result. “Sometimes we can go through the motions [of social engagement] and it’s all coming from a good place, but unless we unpack and actually get to the heart of the issues, we may not be creating the good thing that we think we are creating”, she explains.”

Liz is currently located in Sydney as the Droga Architect in Residence, and education and skills-transfers will play a major part of her work while she is here. The Droga Residency is an initiative run by the Australian Institute of Architects Foundation that enables architects from across the world to be immersed in the Australian architectural community, learning from and contributing to the advancement of our sector. The goal of the program is to ‘promote, support and communicate the value of architecture as design which benefits the Australian community, culture, economy and environment, now and into the future’. While here, Liz is exploring the Australian condition, our marginalised populations, and the opportunities for impact in this space, as well as presenting lectures, running workshops to impart skills, and engaging with the local industry, communities, councils, government, business, universities and academics.

Her particular focus is on tactical urbanism, but she has concerns over the way this strategy often fails to represent the socially challenged communities it is intended for. Asking, “Can we really be happy about tactical urbanism if it isn’t impacting the highest need population?” she wants to impart an understanding of how tactical urbanism can be used as a community development tool, challenging architects to question how we can seed long term change.

Just a few weeks into her residency, Liz talks about trying to understand the environment she has found herself in: “When I first arrive in a new place, it’s always about trying to decode how the city operates, and seek out where the urban conditions are located. It’s about wrapping my head around how race, privilege and power play a role, which requires peeling back the layers of society and finding where the issues play out.”

So what are Australia’s issues? “I’ve only just arrived, and I’m still trying to get a grasp of the landscape”, she diplomatically admits, but the conversation quickly turns to gentrification, displacement of communities and the loss of history and value of a place, including Sydney’s Sirius building in The Rocks. “Once upon a time, the reason these communities were there was because it wasn’t a valuable place”, she says. “You can’t just say ‘you were able to keep it while it was shitty, but now that it’s better, sorry you have to go’. You need to find a way to give these people a foothold to stay.”

Liz is weaving conversations around accountability and recognition of social issues into her work, and acknowledges this is a major hurdle in getting governments, councils and developers to genuinely change things: “To deal with the stuff in your own back yard requires a degree of personal ownership and acknowledgment that you are a part of that situation, which is very hard to do. But we’re not trying to make people feel guilt or shame. All we need is recognition.”

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