There was a time in Africa when almost every beautiful building was associated with multi national companies who mainly hired expatriates to execute archetypal building projects that would stand out and appeal to the investors and the tenants looking for prime properties either to buy or rent. Well, that narrative is slowly changing as African architects rise up to take up their place in the highly competitive industry. We interviewed two young architects Agnes and Nana who have taken over the skylines of Ghana with a fresh breath of beauty, and excellence.
Where did it all begin?
Agnes: Nana and I were working together in a firm, that we really loved, unfortunately the work dynamic didn’t allow for family life and so when Nana was about to get married she sadly had to leave. During that time, she was doing private projects for one of her private clients who ended up becoming one of the major real estate companies in Ghana, so she worked for him on a project which ended up being very successful, people liked it and wanted the same style because it was so refreshing in the city.
This particular project built success for the client and in turn for us, one building therefore became two and the two became three and eventually she had to register a company and 8 years on we are a 50 staff strong company. Our guiding principal has been to do excellent work no matter what it takes, and to answer the questions that the client and the site bring to us.
One then has to analyse what the site has and what the market trends are in order to give the best answers that may sometimes differ with what the client desires. Sometimes the answer is something that the client may not have even conceived. When you take this approach the results are always amazing.
Was it challenging to make it to the top in a male dominated industry?
Agnes: For both of us, straight out of school our first long employment period was with a female architect and so we do not know anything else, she made it seem normal to be a female architect and I guess that explains why we had a very positive approach when we started our own careers as architects.
There is no one point at which we stopped to think about the issue of gender. There are still moments when you go to site or for meetings and you would be the only female or even the youngest. Sometimes clients who see our work expect to have seen work done by older men. The bottom-line is that we don’t really feel the difference even though we know we are in a male dominated industry, I think its all a matter of perspective.
For instance, Nana once asked the son if he wanted to become an Architect and his answer was hilarious, he said to Nana “Mama I am not a girl” because in his perspective he has grown up thinking Architecture was a girls world when the world’s view is totally different.
How do you manage to keep it fresh?
Nana: We treat every project as being unique in itself, so for every project we start from scratch. we typically start by analysing the site and seeing the context, after which we research on what the client wants and for example if it’s a commercial project we look at what is missing or what can be added to it, only then do we start designing. Each project therefore starts from scratch and each one is tailor made to a particular client and to a particular site at the time it is conceived.
Our projects aspire to answer questions or fill any void that we observe at the time we are executing the project. Maybe that answers why every project looks excellent because the spirit and the thinking of the end product is always at the best they can be.
Why do you have so much affinity for green technology?
Nana: Africa is developing very fast and with the development you can tell that there is a race far ahead of planning. I think it is important for us to be responsible in how we live with the nature around us. At Archxenus we are very sensitive about sustainability.
It actually forms the basis of our design. In the tropics, orientation bioclimatic design already influences how the building is placed in the site to catch light and to allow for ventilation, it is those sensitive elements that if in co-operated in non traditional buildings with the thinking of being environmentally responsible amount to green architecture.
We are passers by on this earth, we will leave this earth for the people coming after us, just as it was left for us, so its important that in our strive to be dominant and to make statements, we be sensitive to the Environment.
What are some of your highlights as a company?
Nana: One of the greatest highlights is being able to combine work and life. Typically work is separate from life but here we try to see that mothers are able to bring their children to work if they need to, and that one can leave in the middle of the day and go to the bank if they need to, or even get their nails done, provided that they are able to meet the timelines and work at their optimum with the freedom of being flexible which allows for creativity and goes hand in hand with the responsibility to be as high performing as possible.
Another highlight is the opportunity to have interns, a good example is an intern who was with us for a year and later left to go and work some where else. This intern entered into an international competition and came second.
I personally found it so fulfilling to look back to the fact that even though we didn’t take part in the competition that some thing we had taught or passed on was living on and making an impact elsewhere. Another aspect that has been so fulfilling has been seeing how much people enjoy the spaces we design after one of our buildings are completed and the users begin to use the space.
I still have a fresh memory of a bank we did recently. A lady who was passing by during the final day of inspections stopped and asked if she could take pictures and we wondered why, so she told us that the father used to own the building and that he would have been so happy to see what we had done to it and I thought that was really nice. She probably wasn’t going to be a user of the space herself but the mere fact that we are able to give that kind of joy to a passer by or a user who wasn’t a part of our plan is for us priceless.
What do you attribute your success to?
Agnes: It can only be God. there is nothing we could have done in such a short time, besides, I believe that when He gives you the gift and blesses you with the opportunity, then you should work hard and give your best at all time.
However, all that is insignificant compared to the favour that He has granted us. I think that apart from all that, its about having a good support network. Having husbands who care and understand and even when we sometimes have crazy deadlines that get us to work strange hours they still edge us on and encourage you to strive for excellence. Our other major asset is having a good team who have the same zeal and the drive to want to be part of achieving the same things we want to achieve.
What do the Awards means to you?
Agnes: The awards to us simply mark recognition of something we did in the past. They also reminds us that there is much more to do and that what we do now must have an impact and be recognizable in the future, so although it marks the past it edges us on to do better and push for more in the future.
How do you want to be remembered?
Agnes: I see Africa as the next frontier, America and Europe have developed to reach their peak, so even though development is still ongoing, its not as rapid as it maybe in Africa. China on the other hand, has developed in the last 25 years from a majorly low income economy to one of the largest middle class economies.
Africa is projected to become one of the most densely urbanised continents. We may owe our slow rate of development to many things including colonialism but even after independence we haven’t really developed speedily as we should have. With that as a background I think we are well positioned as long as we keep in this track without being arrogant and follow God’s leading, to see quite a significant change and development in Africa.
With that in mind, I hope that when we are gone 50 to 100 years from now that we are remembered as the Africans who studied and lived in their continent and did right for the continent. I hope our company will be remembered as one that was able to offer solutions that our continent needed within its context and to design buildings for work and living that suited our people and that were not pegged in the past but relevant for the time we lived in and also for the future. I would like that through our work we are able to create employment and hope and direction for people and also inspiration so that people looking 100 years on will be challenged to say that if these girls were able to do this then I guess we can do even better now.
What else does your company do apart from architecture?
Nana: We do three major things. We consult, we design, we build and we develop. In fact there is a new thing going on of architects getting into asset developing. We find that when we are able to develop a project on our own there is a lot more freedom and problem solving that is different from when a client engages you with a clear objective of what it is they want to achieve which can be rather limiting. It enables us to identify a social challenge and be able to throw our weight behind it using our creativity and our wealth of experience to offer the best solution.
What lessons have you learnt that you would like to share with the youth?
Agnes: For just over a decade, we have had the opportunity and honour to have young people work with us mostly as interns. Sometimes we have had students coming from various schools to work and learn with us. what I usually tell them is that they shouldn’t despise their youth as most African youth especially in Ghana who think that when you are young, then you should simply keep quiet and let the adults talk. Instead they should use the opportunity as a platform to expand their knowledge and to propose new ideas since the youth really don’t have much to loose.
They need to know that it is while colouring outside the lines that you are able to create something exceptional. They should also be aware of the fact that the dark skin God gave us, makes us stand out and that it can be a problem in itself in certain circles. The way to fix it is to be at the top of your game, be excellent, be the best at what you do, then it will not matter where you come from because success has no colour. Excellence speaks.
They should always remember that the best things don’t come easy so they have to push hard until it happens. Finally they should learn to trust and fear God, and be exceptional.