feature by Nana Anokyewaa Antwi-Boasiako
Accra, April 04, GNA - It was a hot windy afternoon as we made our way to the third floor of the building Alice Asafu-Adjaye’s architecture firm is located. Looking out from her balcony, we enjoyed an almost panoramic view of South-Central Accra. Walking in to the wide and naturally ventilated cool hall where she operates her studio, we were intrigued by an extensive collection of paintings, sculpture, photography, furniture pieces–which give a sense of Alice. She is different. On the west side of the apartment is a visitor’s area and at the east, is the working area with conference table around which a group of young people sat discussing projects.
Alice, a lady, in Architecture, a male dominated industry, appears to hold her own in the industry very well.The visit to engage Alice about her work happened last month, (March 2018) as the world marked the International Women’s Day to celebrate women’s’ roles in development.
It was a good time to engage Alice, particularly, as she was recently mentioned as the Associate Director and the Head of the Accra Office of Adjaye Associates, the architecture firm leading Ghana’s National Cathedral (NC) unveiled by the President of the Republic, on 6 March.
As Alice walked from the office area to join us, one could clearly see a warm personality withstrong Afrocentric style that exudes not just a proud African but also a confident professional. Curious about the Cathedral Project, we asked Alice about it and how it was picking up. She, however, informed us she no longer worked with Adjaye Associates. “I have been the Principal at my own boutique design studio, “Mustard”, since 2015 when I left Adjaye Associates. The NC project seems fascinating and I am happy for David [Sir David Adjaye]. I am now focused on expressing and growing my own vision through Mustard and delivering value for all my clients in Africa and beyond.”
Alice’s interest in architecture started from her days as a teenager at Wesley Girls’ High School. At 14, she decided to pursue a creative career rather than engineering, which her father wanted her to study. Her natural passion was design. “I have not regretted this choice,” she says.
Nurturing the seed
Alice travelled out of the country with her parent where she pursued her passion in Architecture at Nottingham University and London’s prestigious Bartlett School ofArchitecture. For the next 18 years, Alice worked with internationally renowned Foster+Partners and Adjaye Associates, returning in 2012 to Accra as the Associate Director of African Projects, for Adjaye Associates, until 2015 when she established Mustard.
Male dominated industry
Alice acknowledges that the profession has been a male dominated industry but is quick to state that women in many cultures have always played an important role in the creation of functional, attractive and sustainable spatial solutions whether in human shelter, livestock or food preservation. This female architectural tradition is sadly not fully recognized. She, however, expresses satisfaction that more women, are now pushing the frontiers, demonstrating that gender has no bearing on design capability.
As she recalled the past, Alice said: “Starting Mustard, though fulfilling, was a challenge; it requires competing with veterans in the industry for jobs and establishing a good support network – staff, artisans and collaborators that sing from the same hymn sheet. I now have the support of a vibrant team and a wider support network of professionals, friends and relatives. We also have clients with whom we share a vision and who believe in Mustard. “There is a more knowledgeable, informed and discerning clientele out there that expect and demand more from professionals and Mustard is set up to address this”.
Alice believes that gender bias in economic relations remains the biggest challenge facing women in Africa. To her, female labour is hugely under-valued worldwide, with women being paid less than men for performing the same tasks. Women, she argues, are basically an exploited social group – with society justifying this exploitation by creating stereotypes such as intellectual inferiority, emotional instability etc. Having her own practice is also liberating in that she can now be more expressive about gender creatively in practice-building and in advocacy. She recognises that gender inequality is a multifaceted problem and requires a multifaceted response. She is, particularly, interested in education and how we socialise boys and girls from an early age to create opportunities for all.
Making Impact through Partnerships
She has recently embarked on a project collaborating with the University of Ulster and the CSIR-IRon on a study of urban governance, infrastructure, power, water and sanitation in inner-city Accra. Embarking on pilot projects that will combine architecture and sustainable technology solutions to improving quality of life in these areas is important for Alice.
Love for the Arts
Alice believes that everything she has been involved in or achieved has been driven by her love for the arts, be it architecture, interior design, fashion, product and furniture design. Her interest in the arts has led to collaborations with artists and designers to create furniture collection with AMWA Designs and the co-hosting of the Africa by Design Exhibition, which had its inaugural launch in Accra on March 6th, 2017.
Advice to Young Ladies
She urges young ladies interested in the profession to have confidence in their abilities in order to convince their audience, referring to two ladies she has the pleasure of working with- Latifah Iddriss, and Seyeram Torkonoo - both of whom she believes are talented architects in the making. “Architecture is fulfilling, a good enough reason for anyone who is passionate about the profession to embark upon. And to be good, one has to remain true to their instincts and be rigorous in their application”.