June 7, 2019

10 Questions With… IIDA Award Winner Liz Ogbu

Liz Ogbu. Photography courtesy of Studio O.

Architect and urbanist Liz Ogbu may not have coined the term “spatial justice”—the idea that inequity is embedded, and should be addressed, in the connections between people and the spaces in which they live and work—but she’s put the idea into practice with a rare and innovative rigor. After studying with Alice Freedman at Wellesley and earning a Master’s in Architecture from Harvard, Ogbu began a series of projects around the world, from a water and well-being initiative in Kenya to community centers for day laborers in Los Angeles, that demonstrate good design, good health, and good work must connect. A former design director at Public Architecture, inaugural Innovator-in-Residence at IDEO.org, and faculty member at UC Berkeley and Stanford, Obgu opened her multidisciplinary practice Studio O in 2012. At NeoCon this weekend, IIDA will award Ogbu with the 2019 Titan Award for her service to the interior design profession. We recently spoke to her about the role of design in healing, how to build trust, and what spatial justice might look like.

Interior Design: What was your childhood like? Were you an artistic kid?

Liz Ogbu: I grew up in Oakland. I’ve seen all manner of changes in this town. I don’t really know when I thought design could be a thing, but my bedroom was my art gallery. I constantly papered the walls with the things I created. I made my own dolls. And I maintained a curiosity about the world. Both of my parents are immigrants born and raised in Nigeria, and much of my family still lives there. So, I was keenly aware of opportunities I had that my cousins didn’t—this understanding of where you live impacting what you get to do. The seed was planted when I was young.

ID: And was harvested in projects like SmartLife, in which you and IDEO.org developed a sustainable and scalable enterprise to sell clean water and nutrition and hygiene products in Kenya. What was the idea behind that?

LO: Reliable and affordable access to clean water is a huge trigger point for various diseases that negatively impact low-income people in many countries and being able to access healthy food and nutritional products isn’t happening. We wanted to create a social enterprise that could create a meaningful impact on the ground. So, my team went to Nairobi and started talking to people across a variety of neighborhoods to find out what their pain points are, and what their aspirations are. For projects that require any amount of behavior change, it’s really important that we understand what people desire. I believe desire should be a basic human right, it shouldn’t be a luxury. Sometimes when we talk about poor people it’s just about meeting their needs, and never the idea that they have aspirations, too, and that it’s harder for them to achieve their aspirations because of the systems that surround their lives.

> See the winners of IIDA’s annual design competition

A prototype for the water and nutritional products enterprise in Kenya, developed by Liz Ogbu with IDEO.org in partnership with Unilever, Water and Sanitation for the Poor, and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Photography courtesy of IDEO.org.

ID: You did a series of interviews, which is a hallmark of your process. What did people tell you, in terms of what kind of design would serve them best? 

LO: In the end, we found that the key need was clean water. So, we created a business for that first. But trust is a huge issue, because there is a problem with counterfeit brands. So that led to the need for a kiosk, so that if people needed a place to complain or felt like they got ripped off, there was a place they could come to. To me as an architect it was particularly interesting, when it came time to design the kiosk, to think about the fact that trust is so important. So, we gave instructions for the building design to make sure those facilities that would normally be back-of-the-house were actually super visible. Anyone coming into the shop can see that you are cleaning the water, cleaning the jerry cans, so that they think I can trust you now.

ID: The idea of building trust by building structures also came into play with your proposed Day Laborer Station, right?

LO: That was really an exercise in problem identification. The vast majority of informal hiring sites for day laborers are gas stations, street corners, and parking lots. These are sites that were never actually designed for them, so there’s no shelter or bathroom or access to clean water, which are things as designers we can address. But beyond serving those needs, there was a huge issue with reshaping what the sites were themselves.

A rendering of the proposed Day Laborer Station. Courtesy of Francesco Fanfare for Public Architecture.

ID: Why was that?

LO: Well, if you were someone that was angry at immigration at the border, you weren’t actually going to go to the border, but every city had a day labor site, which meant people would go and protest there or treat the workers badly. The laborers had to live under the radar and so were often subjected to abuse by employers, or they would get robbed. There was a challenged relationship to authority and so they did not feel safe reporting crimes to the police. We wanted to address these things, to build a kind of park that met these basic needs. We heard from them that they wanted a flexible seating area, a bathroom, and an office for organizing or classes they could take when they weren’t working. For a potential site in Los Angeles, we proposed a community garden that would be jointly tended to by the workers and those in the adjacent residential community. We wanted to try to build things that would create a touchpoint to create relationships between the workers and the rest of the community.

A rendering of Public Architecture’s proposed Day Laborer Station Community Garden. Courtesy of Public Architecture.

ID: So that your design served everyone affected by it?

LO: In design we think of clients as the people who pay us, but I think we serve two clients: the people who pay us and the people who have to live with what we’ve created. Those may not always be one and the same.

ID: How do you ensure they both are equally served in so-called revitalization projects, such as the temporary NOW Hunters Point in San Francisco?

LO: It’s on the site of a former power plant that the community lobbied to be torn down. Pacific Gas & Electric then replaced the soil with clean soil and capped it so it wouldn’t blow away. It was about 30 acres and had been vacant for close to a decade. Sometimes when people think of temporary design they think of pop-up retail space, like, cool stores inside shipping containers. We really felt that, since the communities had fought for the land, we should ask them what they thought the use should be. One of the things they said was that stories were being lost. They couldn’t tell us what they wanted to see, but I mean I couldn’t visualize what I wanted to see on 30 acres! But they could tell us that much. We wanted to show that we were serious and had heard them. So, we reached out to StoryCorps, who had a listening booth in San Francisco but had not had a lot of stories recorded in this neighborhood. We pitched them the idea that we would build a listening booth on the site if they would bring their recording program. They thought we were crazy, but they came! And what was really interesting was that a lot of what people said about what they valued about the neighborhood and their lives there were things we needed to know anyway, to figure out how and what to build.

The perforated exterior of the first permanent structure at NOW Hunters Point in San Francisco embodies data obtained through interviews with the local community. Photography courtesy of Envelope A+D.

ID: What did you do with what they told you they needed, and what they desired?

LO: We started partnering with local groups based on the data we heard, everything from job training workshops to yoga workshops to harvest festivals to an annual circus. Over 25,000 thousand people have come to the site over the six years we’ve been in operation. And the events are sort of like community meetings. The traditional community meetings end up rewarding people who are time-rich as opposed to those who are time-poor, for example coming from a second shift to some random hall about some project that might never see the light of day. That’s a hard call. But you’re happy to take your kids to the circus, and while you’re there we can engage you in some questions about what you want to see. So, the data from that has been used toward the design of the shoreline park that runs along the edge of the site, the first permanent piece to get built. It’s also codified in a report on the website, so that even in the long run if we’re not involved, what the community has said is put out there as a permanent capture.

ID: Speaking of the future, are there particular kinds of projects you’d like to tackle next?

LO: You’d think I’d have a sense of a dream commission! But I’m always surprised at the projects that land on my plate. Right now, I’m working on how to create a theater with the University of Chicago that is on the South Side and feels like it is of the South Side. I’m suggesting taking a healing lens to the harm that has happened on the South Side and thinking about what a justice-ranged project would look like and how to engage with issues of gentrification. Could the theater be a place for that to get processed? If you think about the concept of spatial justice, one part is that there’s been spatial injustice, and connected to that, a lot of trauma and pain. And so achieving spatial justice isn’t just about ensuring resources get to communities that traditionally haven’t had them and ensuring everyone has equitable access. It’s also about, how are we healing the wounds that were created before? What would it mean to have a healing justice process that layers on top of community projects?

ID: What is design’s role in healing, then?

LO: There is no such thing as a neutral design. Every design impacts people. Sometimes it’s been easy to say, we’re just responding to a commission, we have no control. But just as we’ve been talking more about justice, we also need to talk more about complicity. There’s been an incredible level of passivity at an industry level—if you think back to freeways that have cut through once vibrant communities, usually communities of people of color; if you think about housing that goes up that doesn’t adequately serve people, or uses materials that are harmful; or office towers participating in gentrification and displacing people. All of those things are acts of harm. As designers of them, of the buildings or pieces of them or products within them, we have a responsibility. So, in my projects, I’m asking: how am I holding myself, my clients, my team to account? Am I asking the right questions and bringing the right people to the table? Those who are most impacted can hold us accountable—because we have made their lives better.

Read more: 10 Questions With… Arielle Assouline-Lichten

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