© AGNESE SANVITO
© OWEN WAINHOUSE
© OWEN WAINHOUSE
© OWEN WAINHOUSE
© OWEN WAINHOUSE
8 March 2018
by Owen Wainhouse
The London Festival of Architecture (LFA) is one of the six organisations awarded the British Council Arts Connect Us research grant, which supports our vision to develop stronger creative sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa and connections with the UK.
Owen Wainhouse is leading on the LFA's research project, focusing on East African countries. He has just returned from his first research trip to Nairobi in Kenya, and will be travelling to Ethiopia and Rwanda in the next couple of months.
Find out more about his work in architecture and the LFA's ambitions with this opportunity to connect the UK with East Africa's architecture scene.
Please tell us about you and your work.
I’m Deputy Director of the London Festival of Architecture and also run our festival podcast, Architecture Masters. The festival originally started in 2004 as the London Architecture Biennale but soon morphed into an annual month-long festival every June. Last year’s festival comprised of over 600 events right across the city and reached more than 400,000 people, making us Europe’s largest architecture festival. The festival is really a celebration of both the architecture in London and the architects who choose to call London home. We think there are a lot of untold stories about the people behind the buildings – which is why we started our podcast, which also allows us to continue this ‘celebration’ throughout the year.
Why did you apply for Arts Connects Us?
A huge amount of our time is devoted to programming events – this is the bit that gets seen. But research underlines everything we do – from how we decide on our theme, to how we spot emerging trends and new ideas. Outside of our main festival period we spend a lot of time listening to the wider profession as part of our ongoing research. This helps us to challenge our ideas and keep the festival modern, exciting and relevant. Architecture is such an international discipline with so many London-based architects making a name for themselves around the world. For us it helps to better understand the context in which they work by engaging to others overseas. As a festival it’s really important to see how others, across the creative industries, celebrate and champion their work. As a small not-for-profit organisation, the grant allowed us to do novel research and make new contacts that we wouldn't otherwise have been able to fund. But more than that, we really welcomed the opportunity to use the British Council's extensive network of contacts in East Africa to help us broaden our research and hear new ideas which will inform our work.
Which countries will you be visiting and what are you researching?
This year the London Festival of Architecture’s theme is 'identity'. Our built environment is so fundamental to our identity – even at its most basic level, there’s no easier way to tell the identity of a city than from its skyline. But questions of identity run right through the architectural profession, from the shared identity of architectural practices to the impact of our changing national identity on the profession. More than a third of architects working in London were trained overseas and they each bring with them their own ideas and identities. I think this diversity really strengthens the profession. London is an open and international city now grappling with its own changing identity as we face crashing out of the European Union. We’ve told a lot of stories about the architects living in London through our podcast, but we wanted to explore the theme of architecture and identity more broadly and to give an international context. For me, East Africa is a fascinating region with architects there having to grapple with their own varied, complex and changing identities. These are fascinating countries with diverse backgrounds and architectural influences - from Nairobi’s colonial buildings to Lalibela’s historic rock-hewn churches to Kigali’s more recent genocide memorials. I really want to explore some of the ideas around ‘identity’ and what it means for architects working across Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Somalia. I’m really interested in what we can learn from others about dealing with and interpreting our own changing identities.
What are you looking forward to most about your trip?
I always think it’s funny that architectural photos are so often devoid of people. Yet architecture is, above almost any profession, all about people and how they live. The nice thing about running a podcast is that it gives you an opportunity to sit down and listen to some fascinating people. It’s really such a privilege - you ask an open question and get an opportunity to hear amazing people talk. I’m obviously really excited to see both the historic and modern architecture across East Africa, but more than that I’m really looking forward to spending a lot of time listening and learning. And sharing some of the conversations on our podcasts.
What impact do you hope the research trip will have?
At the moment I really don’t have an idea of all the stories we’ll be telling through the podcast. I think it’s important to go in with an open mind. But I’m really interested in finding out more about the increasing role that China is playing in the infrastructure, architecture and construction sector across the region – and the ‘soft power’ influence that brings.
I hope our research will help us add new international voices for the London Festival of Architecture and maybe encourage architects both across the region and in the UK to collaborate more in future. The British Council’s work is all about building connections and understanding between people. I hope we can play a small part in contributing to that.