Radical Thinking

Sumele Adelana, product specialist at Trimble SketchUp, reveals what makes her tick.

Can you pinpoint the thought, whether yours or someone else’s that led you to a career in design?

I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and I remember the moment my family moved into a new home. The play of light and shadow in the entry way was dramatic. Perforated bricks cast dramatic shadows and kept the space very cool which created a strong contrast from the bright, hot outdoors. The overall aesthetics and respite stayed with me and made me think that I would love to be able to do this for others. So that was where my journey kicked o- . I was decent at both science and art, and my dad was in the creative field. It just made sense that I would leverage both of those strengths and architecture seemed to be the happy marriage between those two.

In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?

I think there are multiple points in the history of architecture that stand out for me, typically because of the back stories threaded through the history. The Viennese Secession was one of the ones I found interesting. In addition to a pull back from the traditional approach to decoration and adornment of buildings, this group of artists, designers and architects questioned the tension between commerce and art. That battle still rages today, and it is essential to balance both factors with a focus on sustainable, generous design that serves individuals, society and the wider world. On aesthetics, decades on, even the most stoic designers add a unique contribution and quirk to their projects.

Which radical thinkers have been inspirations to you in your career?

A few individuals have been beacons for me throughout my career as a designer. In particular, Francis Kere, who is from Burkina Faso but is based in Germany. His beautiful projects deliver architectural excellence within their unique context. The materiality of his projects and how they are constructed means that they’re sustainable and impact the local economy. Kere takes his global mindset and returns home to deliver these stunning projects that are world-class, always using local materials and collaborating with local craftspeople. It’s wonderful to see African architecture being celebrated.

Mexican modernist Luis Barragan’s work is notable for wielding a diverse and striking colour palette that also utilised colour to generate three dimensional compositions. The Salk Institute of Biological Studies, meanwhile, was designed by Louis Kahn and incorporated poured concrete in a trailblazing way at the time. Image Credit: Mathilde Marest / www.Shutterstock.Com   

Who outside the industry can architects and designers learn from?

That’s an interesting one. Well, humans in general! Most of the work we create is for humans. There are lots of things that connect us, but there are also lots of things that make our experiences distinct – age, gender, worldview and location. Good architecture requires a nuanced understanding of what it means to be human, how we experience the world, and our different perspectives. With that in mind, learning the human condition remains a lifelong pursuit for designers and architects – time changes needs and our understanding of what a structure can provide for a local community, or how it can impact humanity, has to stay in step with the need. Curiosity is a key ingredient for staying relevant and delivering work that impacts the human experience positively.

It’s a big question for the industry, because, for example, a woman’s experience of certain spaces will be totally different for a man, be it a work environment, or a shop or even streetscapes. Our cityscape feels different to each of us. If I was experiencing a space at night versus during the day, my sense of safety would be different to that of a man. If I was an immigrant, my first time in another country would be experienced differently contextually to my previous norm – I have no references, no landmarks to anchor a feeling of knowing this space. Per project, it is important for us to keep investigating who our audiences are and what their experiences might be, what are their fears and needs. Questioning this means we as architects or designers can respond to those in a way that is thoughtful, kind and impactful for all the right reasons.

What will lead the way for more radical thinking in your/our field?

Empathy. Stepping into other people’s shoes. Recognising your experience is not the only valid experience.

When I was in San Fransico for AIA recently, there was a stark contrast between the beauty of the city and the socio-economic trauma that plays out on the streets. Even now, I ask myself: How can we do better as professionals? How can we reinvent spaces and property that lies fallow in order to make them more inclusive and supportive of all members of society? If a street is inhabited by the homeless, how do you respond and what gestures do you make as an urban designer or architect to make a positive impact and acknowledge all who inhabit or exist in that space? Architecture and design are integral parts of our socio-economic construct. Although we can’t solve all the problems of the world, we can wield our influence to drive change through the small decisions we make, and the way we collaborate with authorities to transform legislation. If we are thoughtful about our response to briefs, and stay sensitised to our audiences’ needs, we can effect more change than we imagine.

Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?

Ways of Seeing by John Berger, and Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin – both essential reading at the start of my architectural journey – are great for learning how to observe and experience the built environment beyond what is immediately visible. It is so much fun to try to decode a narrative by spotting the layers of history hidden in our surroundings.

Reading National Geographic magazines growing up broadened my view of the world; past, present and future. I could dream about being an astronaut and also imagine that I could be an archaeologist.

Could you name two buildings/ pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time, or perhaps still to this day?

There are so many but by way of a shortlist I would say, I really enjoy the work of Luis Barragan who is a Mexican modernist architect. Where most modernists would steer clear of colour, he didn’t. I love his use of colour as a way of painting three dimensional compositions. Potentially his use of colour and textures is a cultural infusion, but it transcends his locality to communicate a universal joy and vibrance.

Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute of Biological Studies is just so beautiful. It’s in San Diego and looks out onto the sea, and he’s created this symmetry with built forms that frame breathtaking views of the water. His use of poured concrete and wood might not seem radical today, but I’d like to think it was one of the first of many and displays craftsmanship.

The last one is a stunning Art Nouveau staircase by Flemish architect Victor Horta that resembles poured honey. It sits within the Hotel Tassel in Brussels, and was completed in 1894.

Mexican modernist Luis Barragan’s work is notable for wielding a diverse and striking colour palette that also utilised colour to generate three dimensional compositions. The Salk Institute of Biological Studies, meanwhile, was designed by Louis Kahn and incorporated poured concrete in a trailblazing way at the time. Image Credit: Kit Leong / www.Shutterstock.Com

I think best with… (e.g. my hands/a pencil/ with a computer)

Definitely my hand and a pencil! Give me a piece of paper to sketch my thoughts out or to draw a mind map then I can bring it together on a computer.

I think best… (e.g. first thing in the morning/ last thing at night)

In the middle of the night. I know it’s cliche, but it’s true. Those 3am ideas typically end up being brilliant! Sometimes planting the seed of an idea before I go to sleep does the trick.

I think best when… (e.g. in a gallery/at home/ outside/over drinks/with friends/on the bus)

That’s a good question. I think I think best whilst in conversation, anywhere really!

The thought that keeps me up at night is…

How am I making an impact? Whether that’s at home or at work. Whatever that looks like in the world.

The thought that gets me out of bed each day is…

Let each day pay homage to the vision and my purpose. And if you’re stuck procrastinating or in bed down with a huge dose of inertia, how can you make it happen? One small step gets you closer to the vision.

The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov / www.Shutterstock.Com

Do you like to think with, or think against?

Both. Because both hold value. One side will win out but each will be much more sturdy because you’ve thought through the other.

If you weren’t a designer/architect, where do you think your way of thinking would have led you?

Such a good question! I don’t think my way of thinking would have evolved in the way it has if I didn’t study or think like an architect or a designer. I was either going to be an archeologist, astronaut or a lawyer but I landed on architecture. Ultimately, the best outcome is being able to think creatively and strategically.

Could you describe radical thinking in three words?

Unafraid. Empathetic. Questioning.

What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across today or this week?

Giles Tettey Natey’s piece, Interplay, which explores the dialogue between culture, craft and interaction.

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