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Low Design Office: ‘For our generation, the only way to be radical is to build’

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At Low Design Office’s Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform in the scrapyards of Accra, Ghana, new into old takes on a whole new meaning

Often referred to as the world’s largest e-waste dumping site, Accra’s Agbogbloshie district provides livelihood opportunities and quick cash business to thousands of workers who disassemble digital detritus, from automobiles to hair straighteners to solar panels, and extract heavy and precious metals, often by burning electric cables. Ghanaian authorities have been attempting to evict the scrapyard-cum-market but, as pointed out by local organisations, this would only transfer the problem elsewhere rather than offer beneficial solutions in the long term. 

The alternative, and hopefully more constructive approach, is to attempt to improve the conditions and prospects of those living and working here. ‘For our generation, the only way to be radical is to build’, believe the three co-founders of Low-Design Office (LOWDO) – Ryan Bollom, Ashley Heeren and DK Osseo-Asare – a young transAtlantic practice with a foot in Tema, Ghana and the other in Austin, Texas. In 2014, Osseo-Asare started collaborating with French architect Yasmina Abbas to develop a modular makerspace prototype for scrap scavengers and grassroot inventors at Agbogbloshie.

In order to enable these creative fabricators to gather tools and resources, learn by doing, and from others, produce more and better items, trade to generate steady income and to amplify their reputation as makers, the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) provides three basic components: a personal toolbox, a community workshop and a mobile app. Assembled out of light-gauge steel trusses bolted together, the structural frame is then infilled with repurposed materials found on site, its set of instructions available on AMP’s open-source web platforms. Individual toolboxes stack to make workbenches, while the deployable makerspace kiosks – that can be put together ‘by roadside welders anywhere in Africa’ – are used for recycling, inventing, fabricating, sharing and trading. 

In Accra’s former wetland, now one of the planet’s most populated slums, roofing sheets are converted into stoves, tiles are made out of plastic scraps, and bracelets out of wires; radiators become pots, styrofoam is upcycled into drones, portable grills and paint sprayers are born out of fridge parts and oil drums. ‘Unlike the majority of global consumers, who have no idea what makes up the black boxes of their electronic devices, here people know exactly what is inside them – and how much it is worth’, says Osseo-Asare.

New into old takes on a whole new meaning here, and nowhere more than on the African continent does it seem so important to integrate close-knit productive ecosystems of repairing and recycling into the built urban fabric and its service economy. The young practice’s research into informal economies and urban developments – and the links and overlaps between the two – led them to the ‘kiosk culture’ phenomenon and the realisation that mobile and modular micro-architecture could be a promising starting point, particularly if combined with information technology.

Design should not be restricted to static architectural objects, and architects have a lot to learn from the tech sector, argues LOWDO, from its model of competitive collaboration, particularly open-source software, as well as from actual new technologies. ‘A lot of hype surrounds mobile phones as a so-called leapfrop technology, enabling African citizens, cities and countries to bypass an entire phase of industrialisation, like the installation of regional networks of land lines’, they explain, before adding ‘we need to radically rethink the architectural profession if we want to deliver design at the scale necessary to steer African urbanisation along a sustainable trajectory’.

Beyond participatory design projects, the practice’s portfolio also includes more conventional client-commissioned work, on both sides of the Atlantic. Since West African development is mostly private sector-led, Osseo-Asare speaks of a ‘real tension’ to balance economic growth driven by direct foreign investment and real-estate speculation with equitable progress that uplifts all of society – not scared to dream big, he is currently working on new models for sustainable development, including Anam City, now under construction in the Niger Delta.

A piece of design, be it a product, a building, or an entire city, emerges out of the wider set of networks it inhabits and feeds into, and LOWDO seeks to derive ‘innovative design and meaningful aesthetics’ out of bottom-up responses to low supply environments. Originally trained as engineers, Bollom and Osseo-Asare are both enthralled by rigorous technical precision, but their desire to creatively solve ‘open-ended problems’ and ‘make the world more beautiful’ reoriented their trajectory towards architecture – a discipline that, in their eyes, fundamentally serves to ‘organise the environment and humanise the physical world’.