We are warned to watch our heads as we stoop into Elsie Owusu’s cottage in Ticehurst, East Sussex. “Once I turned around and my tall assistant was flat on the floor,” she says, heading into the tiny kitchen to make us tea and coffee.
The 64-year-old architect splits her time between this 14th-century cottage, which she bought four years ago, and her London flat. She has just spent the whole of August here, her longest stint yet.
Born in Ghana, Owusu came to England when she was eight. Most of her life has been in London — Brixton, then Regent’s Park — but she has long felt a fondness for Sussex, having taken her daughter (who works for the FT) on holiday there several times when she was a little girl. She also wrote her thesis on nearby Sissinghurst Castle, “fascinated by how Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West shared the space”.
Owusu studied at the Architectural Association, enrolling in 1974, with a three-year-old daughter. She became a Founder Member of the Society of Black Architects, and Partner at Feilden + Mawson, where she oversaw the refurbishment of the UK Supreme Court (2009) and the redesign of the entrance to Green Park Underground Station (2011). She left in 2015 to work for her own practice. Owusu’s retreat to Sussex comes in the wake of her recent campaign to become President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), which she lost to Irish architect Alan Jones.
The tiny cottage is a far cry from Sissinghurst, but Owusu doesn’t share her Sussex space with anyone else. She loves living alone: reading late, watching Netflix and enthuses that “you put food in the fridge and then it’s still there!” She doesn’t seem to be wholly on her own, however: it feels as though the previous owner, who had lived there since the 1930s and is now deceased, lingers in the furniture and objects that were his.
“When I bought it, it was filled with Gary’s stuff,” she says. Today the cottage is sparsely furnished, but much of what is there is inherited from him — she points out a table here, a chair there. On the mantelpiece is one of Gary’s old vases; beneath is a glass sample from Owusu’s refurbishment of the UK Supreme Court, its colourful emblem looking relatively sober against the bright lime green wall behind. “Green is my mum’s favourite colour, so I started experimenting with it.” She gestures through the window to a neighbour’s climbing rose and points out how the colour of her walls helps to “bring the outside inside”.
Up the winding staircase, there’s a nook on the landing, with a fold-up chair sandwiched between the bathroom and a window. “That’s my writing space,” she says, taking in the view of an idyllic 11th-century church and churchyard. Every morning, she starts her day with 15 minutes here, writing down anything that comes into her head. She pulls her notebook off an unusual wooden bookshelf beside the window. It transpires that this shelf is in fact a small ladder, which used to fold down from a hatch in the ceiling — climbing up to the attic must have been an athletic endeavour. Owusu widened the opening in the ceiling, and leads me up a reassuringly substantial new ladder to see two bedrooms squeezed in under the eaves.
It is hard not to see this breaking through the ceiling as a metaphor for Owusu’s mission to open up the profession of architecture to a wider range of people. She describes current British architecture as dominated by a few big practices, made up of “white, middle-aged men ruling over ranks of serfs at their computers”. She despairs that this “swagger and swank” cuts out so much talent and lists shocking statistics: 94 per cent of architects in the UK are white; 74 per cent are male; 50 per cent of black British male architecture students drop out between completing their Part I undergraduate course and beginning their Part II Masters.
“We need to think in a disruptive way,” she says. She is patently unafraid to ruffle feathers. Earlier this year, during her campaign to become president, Riba served her a “cease and desist” order when she publicly challenged its chief executive over his £180,000 salary. She took issue with this salary given the relatively low amount earned by newly qualified architects, who enter the profession having built up a huge amount of debt after a long course of studying — seven gruelling years, though she says on average this stretches to 10.
I sit down by the window, mostly to avoid the floor-bound fate of Owusu’s assistant. She sits opposite on a small sofa; beside her hangs a colourful painting by Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. The beachscape in her bedroom is by him too, and Owusu tells me he took part in an artist-in-residence scheme she set up in Jamestown, Accra — “one of two projects that are closest to my heart”.
The second scheme aims to bring the Eden Project’s “Big Lunch” — an annual event encouraging neighbours to gather for a shared meal — to Konkonuru, the village where her father was born. Her company, JustGhana, now funds a monthly meal there for 400 children and their teachers. She explains that in taking a digital register of everyone who attends the meal, the company can gather data on family size, housing, and employment, thereby getting a feel for “the socio-economic life of the village” with a view to creating “a master plan” to improve conditions. The meal is “only about £1 a head”, she says. “Really, it shows how tiny bits of money can be part of a transformative process.”
Owusu clearly feels passionately about her native country, and we talk about the projects at length. She tells me that young people there “want to be in the creative and cultural industries . . . kids, mostly boys, are getting together and saying ‘look what’s happening in London on Facebook, let’s go, it’s so exciting . . . ’ Lots of these kids find their way to Libya — some of them just walk there — then they get on these rickety boats and then lots of them end up drowning in the ocean.” Owusu is determined to give them “a livelihood, education, training” at home in Ghana — “to bring the excitement of the Facebook culture to them instead of them having to go and find it”.
Back in the UK, Owusu wants architects to take inspiration from how other creative and cultural industries work, with shorter hours and more “flexibility of access”. In her own practice, everyone is in the office together just one day a week — “the equivalent of a tutorial”, she says.
She recently launched “Architecture: Incubator” with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to help architects from diverse backgrounds start small practices. She’s also encouraging Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, to spread the capital’s new housing projects between a number of small firms rather than give them in bulk to big practices, in the hope of generating “competition, innovation” and, vitally, “new perspectives”.
We pause to put our shoes back on before Owusu drops us back at the station and we chat about village life. She is a fan of the local pub and most of her neighbours have been welcoming. There is, however, one “Gangsta Granny”, she says, who has been less than friendly: parking in front of Owusu’s window, blocking her garden gate with bins, and even ripping the flowers out of her beds.
Owusu shrugs it off: “Everyone has a racist granny in a cupboard somewhere.” Trainers on, she stands in the doorway, filling the small frame, and adds cheerfully, determinedly: “Oh you can’t be spooked by other people, or you’d never do anything.” And with that, we are off.
This traditional Ashanti stool was the ceremonial seat for a Ghanaian Queen Mother, the woman who chooses the Chief.
Owusu says she likes it because it is her “link to Ghana” and also because her daughter gave it to her after her first trip there.
“She even brought it back on the plane. That shows devotion!”
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