Architect and Specialist Conservation Architect, interior and urban designer, Elsie has a wide expertise in transport and infrastructure, as well as the issues facing emerging economies. Passionate about contemporary architecture and city planning, she is particularly fascinated by their relationship to the arts in general, and the specific work of individual artists.
Eminent artist Sir Peter Blake, amongst others, has collaborated with her on a number of projects from jewellery to housing. While a partner at Feilden+Mawson LLP, Elsie was responsible for the masterplan for Green Park Station in London, as well as being lead architect for arts and interiors on the UK Supreme Court’s refurbishment. She has completed designs for public transport systems in Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana.
Previously a board member of Arts Council England and the National Trust of England, Elsie is currently serving on the boards of the Architectural Association, the UK Supreme Court Arts Trust and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Council. She is also Vice-Chair of the London School of Architecture.
Elsie is also director of ArchQuestra, which provides the best of British architecture, art and engineering to support emerging economies.
A long time director of JustGhana, a UK company dedicated to investment in the people and culture of Ghana, Elsie is currently designing a range of Ghanaian ethical gold jewelry with prominent UK artists.
What is your favorite quote? “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King Jr Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.
What is the key to having a diversity of styles of work in your portfolio?So as far as I’m concerned, any, any commission is worthy, you’re worthy of any commission. And I believe that you know, that you have the skills and the talent to do it. It was interesting that he was holding us up and boosting our sense of self-worth. And ever since then, I just felt really boiled up by that by his confidence and the feeling that as an architect, you have the capacity to design anything that anybody wants you to design.
How has your Ghana heritage shaped your career: I noticed in my grandmother’s house, that there were certain details, which to me looked almost like a sort of mock Tudor Gable end of a building. And so I said to her, why do people make buildings like that? Because all I noticed all the way through the town, there was these sort of English detailsAnd she explained that my grandfather had been a main contractor in the town. So I then started noticing that wherever he had built a building, he used a certain detail. And then I began to realize how much of the town he and his company must’ve built. And then later on when he died, I discovered that he’d worked on buildings with English, architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. So although it obviously was an absolute surprise to me to find these things out. It was a great surprise, but it was also just a real pleasure to feel connected, to such, such wonderful work
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From the headquarters of Swinerton. This is the modern built environment podcast, featuring exclusive
interviews with world-class thought leaders, executives, and civic leaders committed to a better and more beautiful built environment established in 1888 and build on a foundation of integrity, trust, and collaboration.
Our history has prepared us for this moment. Possibility is limited only by our imagination. We know what tomorrow can bring because we’ve seen thousands of tomorrows and are prepared to shape what comes next, right of ownership. Peace of mind. Our podcast is hosted by Tom Dioro of the modern architect show at Stanford University KZSU.
Go to swinerton.com/podcast
Thank you, Meggie. For our guest today. Let’s welcome. Elsie Owusu, principal, and specialist conservation architect, interior and urban designer, Elsie Izzy, Ghana born British architect and founding member. And the first chair of the society of black architects. She’s also known to have co-led the refurbishment of the Supreme court, a United Kingdom, and worked on the green park tube station. She’s been elected Royal Institute of British architects, council member, and vice-chair of the London school of architecture. Halsey’s passionate about contemporary architecture and city planning as you’ll hear in our interview.
And she’s particularly fascinated by their relationship to the arts in general and the specific work of individual artists Elsie’s contributed designs for public transportation systems and logos, the geria and Accra Ghana. For more information, feel free to visit Owusu.uk that’s Owusu.uk. Hello, Elsie welcome and thank you so much for being on our show, today. It’s awesome to see you as always.
Elsie (1m 34s):
Hi Tom. Nice to see you too. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a real privilege.
Tom (2m 9s):
Thank you, Elsie! Elsie, as we’ve talked about before we came on the show several times, do you have
a particular quote, mantra, a prayer that just kind of moves you through the day personally and professionally?
Elsie (2m 22s):
Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, and if it’s all right, I should read it to you quite short. Okay. And it is a quote from Martin Luther King jr in 1963 when he was in Birmingham city jail. And he said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment or destiny, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Elsie (3m 5s):
And so that’s one of my favorite quotes. Obviously, I don’t say the whole thing to myself, but just that, line “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is something that echoes through my life
and my work. Wonderful and actually, it was one of the quotes which was chosen for the Supreme court in London when, when I was working on that project. So it means a lot to me.
Tom (3m 37s):
Elsie, thank you very much for sharing. Let’s segue into your work as an architect designer and overview
of entire cities and communities. I love so much of your work, but it seems not, but it seems as if you start with the people first, I know it’s a design building community or structure, what it looks like your design with the human in mind first, am I wrong or …
Elsie (4m 7s):
No, no, you’re absolutely right. Yes. That, that is always where my starting point is, I mean, as a human
being, whether that those are the people in the team or the people who I know, and I hope will enjoy living in the buildings that we make together.
Tom (4m 26s):
What, or who spired you in architecture or design?
Elsie (4m 38s):
Well, I think coming from Ghana buildings and particular homes have always been as a focal point in our, in our family and in our culture because people make homes, not just in the metaphorical sense, but in the physical sense, most people in Ghana have family land of some description. And so it is a continuing subject of conversation, what people are going to do with their land, where they’re going to live, where they’re going to move. And it is a very land focused and building focused culture.
Elsie (5m 23s):
So when I grew up, my step-grandfather was a building contractor I later discovered. So I think it must’ve been from very beginning part of my past, certainly part of my childhood from before I can remember.
Tom (5m 39s):
That’s interesting because it sounds like there’s a lineage and even a spiritual connection to land and a place of home for you.
Elsie (5m 51s):
Yes, people talk about land. People talk about home and making buildings a lot. And it was quite interesting because when I went back to Ghana after years and years and years of being away, I noticed in my grandmother’s house, that there were certain details, which to me looked almost like a sort of mock Tudor Gable end of a building. And so I said to her, why do people make buildings like that? Because all I noticed all the way through the town, there was these sort of English details.
Elsie (6m 31s):
And she explained that my grandfather had been a main contractor in the town. So I then started noticing that wherever he had built a building, he used a certain detail. And then I began to realize how much of the town he and his company must’ve built. And then later on when he died, I discovered that he’d worked on buildings with English, architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. So although it obviously was an absolute surprise to me to find these things out.
Elsie (7m 11s):
It was, it was a, it was a great surprise, but it was also just a real pleasure to feel connected, to such, such
Tom (7m 24s):
In that connection, from what I’ve seen of your work, what I find is many things fascinating, but one in particular is that there’s a great range of your work. It’s not just a set style, but there’s a range. Is that by design that you have that kind of breadth or diversity of design?
Elsie (7m 46s):
Well, it’s interesting because what I discovered when I went back to Ghana after maybe 30 or 40 years, was that people just thought that if you are an architect, if you had trained to be an architect, if you had got your qualifications, then they could ask you to build anything. You know? So it started off with an audience, with a president who said, I have a project that I want to discuss with you. And we all sort of sat forward in our seats, as you do, if such an important person talks to you.
Elsie (8m 28s):
And he said, yes, I’d like you to consider designing my new presidential residence. And, after we picked
ourselves up and practically said, well, excellent. So are you really sure you want to do this? Well, he said, you know, I studied in the UK, he was a barista trained in the UK. He said, and I know how difficult it must’ve been for you group of people we’ve as a society, a delegation from the society of black architects. I understand how difficult it must’ve been for you to persevere and be resilient and stay in the profession and to be where you are now.
Elsie (9m 12s):
So as far as I’m concerned, any, any commission is worthy, you’re worthy of any commission. And I believe that you know, that you have the skills and the talent to do it. It was interesting that he was holding us up and boosting our sense of self-worth. And ever since then, I just felt really boiled up by that by his confidence and the feeling that as an architect, you have the capacity to design anything that anybody wants you to design.
Tom (9m 51s):
Excellent. You’re listening to the modern built environment podcast brought to you by Swinerton. We’re
talking today with Elsie OHSU, principal, Owusu architects, for more information, feel free to visit http://www.owusu.uk/ . I loved it. You talked about being worthy of any project.
Do all clients see the value and your skillset, your expertise, your passion, and you’re personableness, or is it something that’s, in some ways you have to educate them as to the value as well?
Elsie (10m 37s):
Well, I think that at this stage, that I think I’ve done enough work for people to understand or have an inkling of what I’m about before they come to me. So when I was a young architect, you did have to go through them, sort of trials and tribulations of establishing a relationship. But now it is pretty much that people know who I am, the work that I’ve done. And, you know, thanks to Google people often do the research before they approach you, or they know your building, or they know somebody who knows the building that you’ve built.
Elsie (11m 22s):
So it’s been, it’s much, much easier as a mature architect. I think when you’re a young architect, you do have to go through battles with people. Most people think that they’re buying your skills in order that you do what you’re told. You know, I’m paying you. I want a building that looks like my next door neighbors or my cousin in a village somewhere. And I want you to design one of those. Thank you very much. And so one of the most important things that I was taught, one of the first lessons I was taught as a baby architect was never work for people you don’t like, never worked for people you don’t admire and always be ready to walk.
Elsie (12m 11s):
And there was a lovely story. I’m sure it’s apocryphal about Richard Rogers when he was a baby architect designing the Pompidou center. And the story was told that he always kept a letter of resignation in his back pocket, you know, so, and that’s been a really important lesson for me, which is that your life is very precious. Your life is very short and nothing is worth the sacrifice of your skills, your talent, your conscience. So I try to instill that in the young architects that I work with.
Tom (12m 46s):
At what point did that resonate with you? Was it earlier in your career or as you…
Elsie (12m 51s):
It was kind of the second day at the architectural association.
Tom (12m 56s):
Wow. So it really resonates with you obviously.
Elsie (12m 60s):
Yes. So that’s, that’s an English expression. I don’t know if you’ve come across it commercially. Oh, I’ve been a comedian from a young age and I think that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Tom (13m 18s):
How about your process when you, when you work or you’re going to be working with a prospective client or a commissioned project, can you share with us your, your vision when you see a project, whatever it is, do you have a mental checklist that you go through to say, okay, I understand what they’re looking to, what their expectations are, and based on what I’m seeing, experiencing hearing, and I’m thinking about here’s how we can meet that expectation or even exceed it in the timeframe and the, the budget or the commission itself?
Elsie (13m 57s):
Well, I mean, I find that working with clients is a bit like being a therapist,. And so the aspiration that people come to you with is quite often not where you end up and having been through the process numerous times, you kind of know that, that you’re more than likely to end up somewhere different from the place or the space that your clients imagine. So I think the most important thing for architects, the most important part of an architect’s anatomy is their ears.
Elsie (14m 39s):
So the capacity to listen and to listen closely and listen to the messages, which are not necessarily the top line messages, but the third and fourth, maybe line of messages that people are sending you the body language. If it’s a family or a couple, the relationship between the couple, how have they speak to me each other, the regard that they have for each other, the tensions that there are between them in the first or the second session, all that comes to the, and you know, then you know that you are somehow going to become part of that dynamic.
Elsie (15m 22s):
And you have to very swiftly make a decision about whether you want these people in your life or not. You know, never mind them wanting you in there. Like, if, for instance, if there’s a couple who have a real, a proper tension between them and the house is building is a focus of that tension, or it’s an organization, which is going through a transition and they come to you with a commission that is going to become a big area of contention between them. Then it’s likely that you and your relationship and your practice might suffer, or they might come to you.
Elsie (16m 5s):
And they’re just wonderful people. And you think, gosh, I’m going to learn so much from these people. We are going to have a blast. This is going to be fantastic. And you pick that up really, really quickly. And then it’s either a question of moving forward and guiding people without making them feel patronized, making them feel Boyd up and supported through the process because it’s very easy. It’s such a technical process, and it’s such a complicated process that quite often, people feel intimidated and can feel distant, empowered by the process.
Elsie (16m 48s):
So, yeah, you know, you have to judge that very finely and quite quickly create a language of mutuality. So a way of sharing, sharing ideas, a common language between you and you have to do that pretty fast so that you can move, move ahead with it, with the project. I mean, there’s a wonderful quote, Cedric Price. He said, you know, people come to you saying they want to build a new extension to their fantastic home because you know, the granny’s getting older and she needs somewhere to live and you pick up very soon. Yeah. You know, he might want his mother to live there, but she, her mother-in-law living in the house.
Elsie (17m 31s):
And you might say, well, you know, have you thought of sending your lovely grandma through for a long
holiday and the staff of France, for instance, and then, you know, you can save the money on the extension. You can hap see there by a farmhouse somewhere that you can, you know, so you, you kind of work through exactly what it is that they’re employing an architect to do. And it might not. It might be them employing an architect as a panacea for a series of problems that they identify don’t identify. And you very quickly have to assess the situation and see how you can help. And it might not necessarily be through bricks and mortar or making a building
Tom (18m 16s):
Fascinating. You’re listening to the modern built environment podcast presented by Swinnerton. Our
charitable contribution service announcement is for Transplant Links. And what transplantlinks.org does is there’s a desperate need for living kidney transplant programs in developing countries. The outlook for someone with kidney failure in many countries is worse than if they had HIV AIDS. Kidney failure often goes undiagnosed and untreated. The rate of kidney failure is so high. The County for nearly 10% of hospital admissions in Africa, if the only treatment available is dialysis, many people can’t afford dialysis.
Tom (19m 3s):
And in many countries it’s unavailable, particularly for children, patients, therefore, die unnecessarily. For more information, feel free to visit transplantlinks.org. Again, that’s transplantlinks.org. We’re talking today with Elsie Owusu principal at Elsie Owusu Architects.UK. Elsie, can you share with us the meaning and why, transplant links matters to you?
Elsie (19m 37s):
Well, I was born in Ghana, which used to be called the gold coast. And the reason it was called the gold
the coast is because it produced so much of the world’s gold. So Ghana still produces 1.5 million ounces of gold per annum. And most of that gold is produced by the informal mining sector, the minors,
and the miners use a number of toxic substances. They use cyanide and they use mercury. And what
happens with mercury is that it can result very quickly in kidney failure.
Elsie (20m 19s):
So if you’re living on less than a dollar a day, and you’re using mercury, and you’re up to your waist in
mercury and you’re a young person of eight, nine, 10 upwards, you know, the possibility of getting a renal failure is very high. And if you get renal failure, the only option is dialysis, which costs between 50 and a hundred dollars a day. You know, your livelihood, that’s why it’s really important that those people who do get kidney disease get treated properly. And the best way of treating kidney disease is through inter-family transplant.
Elsie (21m 4s):
So brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, if we can find a match, then transplant links community goes out from the UK to garner and to the Caribbean and does those transplants. But it even though it’s much cheaper than it is in the UK, it’s still very expensive. So each trip can cost up to 50,000 pounds. The doctors and the nurses give their time for free, but it’s still relatively expensive. So I’m a patron of the transplant links community. I work with gold miners in Ghana, and we were hoping to hold an auction.
Elsie (21m 48s):
So if you check on their website, it should be coming up.
Tom (21m 50s):
Thank you very much, Elsie. Wow. That’s very, very moving, looking forward to helping at least spread the message and the importance of this. Thank you. Elsie. What’s changed in the last several years for you as an architect designer and your passion is city planning as well. What’s changed for you in the last several years that you’d love to share with your audience today?
Elsie (22m 21s):
Well, I think the climate emergency has come to the fore and has been recognized at loss for what it is,
which is, you know, a real challenge to health and wellbeing. And it’s not just a climate emergency, it’s a
public health emergency. So housing emergency, the great movement of people, particularly from
Sub-Saharan Africa and the huge lack of housing that combined with COVID with the pandemic and the
black lives matter movement, I think has fused to bring a series of concerns to the fall.
Elsie (23m 6s):
I mean, in the UK, for instance, people from the black, Asian minority ethnic communities suffer
disproportionately from the effects of COVID. And that’s a combination of many things, including very poor housing provision and the migration into cities in all over the world is causing a huge emergency. And to me, it seems that there is an opportunity for architects and engineers and technicians artists to, to bring about a different awareness of how we manage this confluence of great challenges that we’re facing today.
Tom (23m 50s):
Excellent. Please go back to what you had said earlier in your show, is that about life being very precious
and finite? Can you share with your audience today, how it also relates obviously to architect, you touched on it now, but even go a little, a little deeper as to why that means so much to you?
Elsie (24m 11s):
Well, my beloved mother is 91 and she will, she does not like being described as elsewhere, but I think she has a wonderful, wonderful memory. And my daughter and I have just been doing her, working with her on her life story. So we’ve been recording a decade of her life at a time. And so we’ve now got to her seventh decade and it’s been such a wonderful, wonderful experience because you know, her, her long-term memory is absolutely pin sharp.
Elsie (24m 53s):
So when you say, you know, and what about 1939? Oh, I remember that very well. She says that’s the year the war started. And, and of course, that was the year of the earthquake. And, and she then tells a lovely I’ll call. Your Hannah’s came to see us, you know, earthquake started and he ran down the stairs, shouting fire fly, and then you get shown a picture of uncle. Your hand is in its best. And it’s just a wonderful experience, but also it’s a real gift because that, and she wanted to do it because she wanted her children and her great-grandchildren to know her and understand her life.
Elsie (25m 40s):
And then, you know, the whole thing about the empire, cause you know, she was born in 1929 when the
British empire was at its Zenith. So, you know, on empire day would be a holiday for them. And
she, she learned songs, she learned English songs and she learned songs in her own language, but
primarily she learned about mother country and how important the mother country was. So, and of course with black lives matter, that’s become a big talking point in the UK, but to hear another side of it, which isn’t binary, you know, it wasn’t this or that.
Elsie (26m 28s):
It was so many shades and so many colors and so many asks to hear that brought to life and the songs and the poems and the little anecdotes, just fantastic. So that made me understand really the span of my
mother’s life from 1929 to 2021, nearly just how short life can be and how precious life is.
Tom (26m 57s):
Elsie. It’s been an absolute honor and a joy having you on our show. I hope you consider coming back again soon. This is really wonderful. I could talk to you for much longer. Thank you so much.
Elsie (27m 9s):
Thank you, Tom. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
Tom (27m 12s):
Thank you. You’ve been listening to the modern built environment podcast brought to you by Swinerton. You can find us online at swinerton.com/podcast. Our guest today has been Elsie OHSU architect, principal and specialist conservation architect, interior and urban designer. Elsie was born in Ghana. She’s a British architect and founding member, and first chair of the society of black architects. She’s also known to have co-led the refurbishment of the Supreme court of the United Kingdom and worked on the green park tube station. Elsie has also been elected Royal Institute of British architects council member and in Feis chair of the London school of architect, Elsie’s passionate about contemporary architecture and city planning.
Tom (28m 2s):
She’s particularly fascinated by the relationships to the arts in general and the specific work of individual artists LCS completed designs for public transportation systems in lagos’ Nigeria and Ghana. For more information, feel free to visit her website http://www.owusu.uk/ that’s http://www.owusu.uk/ Please join us again next time when we welcome another leading architect-engineer, builder, manufacturer, or civic leader, committed to building a better and more beautiful built environment for healthier cities, communities and lives. I’m Tom Dioro.
Meggie (28m 41s):
The modern built environment podcast is recorded at the Swinnerton headquarters and on location. The recording engineer is Steven Blaton. The executive producer and host of the modern built environment podcast is Tom Dioro and we’re all assisted by Mr. Eric Foster. This is the modern built environment podcast by Swinerton.