Breaking the Mould with Tosin Oshinowo

Breaking the Mould with Tosin Oshinowo
Tosin Oshinowo holds a Master’s degree in Urban Design from the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. She also studied architecture at the Architecture Association London. Since 2012, Oshinowo has been lead architect at the Lagos-based cmDesign Atelier (cmD+A). Prior to setting-up cmD+A, she worked in leading international practices like Skidmore Owing & Merril’s LLP London and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture Rotterdam, where she was part of the team that designed a proposal for the 4th Mainland Bridge in 2008. Upon returning to Lagos, she practiced at James Cubitt Architects and was team-lead on projects such as the master plan and corporate head office building for Nigeria LNG in Port Harcourt.
Oshinowo is very interested in architectural history and socially responsive approaches in architecture design and urbanism. She has served as the convener of SHO-N-TEL (2009-2014) at the University of Lagos, an event series that takes practicing professionals back into the studio to present their experiences to undergraduate and postgraduate students. Oshinowo is also an award-winning amateur photographer and has worked in a professional capacity on public art design installation in Lagos. Her written work includes the article ‘the reclamation of public space in Lagos’, which was published in October 2012.  She took part in the Playable Cities Lagos workshop with the Watershed Art Centre, Bristol that the British Council Lagos  organised in March 2016. Tosin Oshinowo  is a founding member of the ‘African Alliance for New Design’ (AAND), a think-tank that explores the value of design for the current generation of creatives on the continent.

How early in life did you know you wanted to be an architect and what do you enjoy most about architecture?

As a child, I was quite creative and in secondary school I was pretty decent at technical drawing. When I was about 12 years old, my father commissioned and built his intended retirement home in Ikorodu, and I took an active interest in it. I understood the plans and even picked my room out. I recall accompanying my father on many occasions to the construction site.

I have always had a good understanding of space, materiality and light, it seemed like an obvious choice. Kolade Oshinowo, one of Nigeria’s foremost contemporary artists is my uncle, so creativity runs in the family. However, I opted to go in the science direction of art.

What I love so much about architecture is being able to conceptualize then realize the ‘stuff of dreams’, then occupy the actual space.

Having been trained as an architect in the West, what particular aspects of your background, upbringing and exposure have shaped your design principles and philosophies?

We are all a make-up of our exposures and experiences. Studying and practicing in the West has heavily shaped my ‘understanding and execution’ of architecture, but my ‘experiences’ growing up in Lagos, as well as my ‘cultural understanding’ of how we occupy space has also played a big role. It is this combination, which I feel influences my approach and made cmD+A so relevant.

You are best known for designing the Maryland Mall, which has become a fast favourite because of its box shape and black aesthetic. Why do you think the building is such a success?

It is the scale, simplicity of its form, location and the big risk of its black aesthetic that has made it famous.

We had visually tested this hypothesis, however, it was a challenge to sell the idea to our clients though it is such a simple idea that works. The building is a silhouette backdrop to the 60-meter LED, illuminated brand signage on the building façade. The building is more beautiful at night as it disappears with all the illumination. In addition, it doesn’t follow the standard typology of a shopping mall, as we understand it in this environment based on the designs done by South African practices. It has been uniquely conceived, and is the first indigenously designed shopping mall in Nigeria.

Now that computer generated visualisations are so commonplace, is there still a place for physical model making or sketching by hand?

True design is produced irrespective of the medium. Zaha Hadid’s early sketches done by hand carry the same language of her later Futurist-style work. What is important is the understanding that software is a tool that gives us more flexibility to fully explore the possibilities of design but does not produce good design. I personally developed my skill as an Architect using software but still sketch to articulate and communicate my ideas.

Presently, there are several debates around environmental sustainability. How can Nigerian and African architects practice environmentally responsible architecture and design including the art of sustainable materials?

We all need to take more responsibility for our environment and as architects/ urbanists, we need to be at the forefront concerning this. It is not always easy to sell environmentally-friendly and sustainability to a client mainly because it tends to mean a higher capitalist cost. However, we have a responsibility to the environment and in most cases on the long-term, it is an advantage to the client with lower building running costs. In Nigeria where most of our building materials and fittings are imported, this forms an additional challenge. The advancement of technology using locally available materials is limited and I admit we all need to take more responsibility in exploring these in our work. In our work, particularly the beach houses we have used a material called willow reed to clad façades. I love this material because of its resilience and aesthetic quality.

Considering the complexities of travel, energy and housing today, how can we imbibe sustainability into our everyday lives?

Sustainability of a lifestyle. We can all imbibe sustainability in how we use resources and how we respect the environment. By consciously reducing waste and recycling, we can save ourselves financially and also respect the environment. wecycle are already doing an amazing job in this regard.

What factors led you to start your own firm and what has been your approach to leadership?

cmD+A was started in September 2012, predominately out of an appetite to explore an African contemporary aesthetic and work on projects of personal interest. I wanted to explore more art/design-based projects focusing on the ‘experience’ of occupying space. So for example, in the early days we worked with Lagos Photo.

I believe leadership is by example and trust. I have an amazing team and we all love very much and believe in what we do. We all have different skills and experiences and when pooled together, we are able to put out the work that the practice is becoming known for.

How did you get your first projects?

Our first project was actually a interior fit-out job. We designed the very first Café Neo outlet, and the brand has now become associated with the emerging creative economy in Lagos. It was a great starting point as we were given just a logo but created the concept for the interior. Much of what you see in Cafe Neo today is based on this aesthetic.

How would you advise female architects to invest in their career?

I do not believe in emphasizing ‘gender’ or ‘minority-ethnicity’ or ‘disability’ or ‘shortcomings’. I believe that when one conscious of these stereotypes/ limitations, this knowledge in itself is limiting. I believe female architects should just consider themselves architects. No one gets an easy ride. As an individual, when you are competent, it does not matter the stereotype as you will succeed.

What’s next for Tosin Oshinowo?

For cmD+A, we have a lot of interesting work in the pipeline. Currently under construction, we have a luxury 8-unit residential development in Ikoyi, and a twelve 2-bedroom apartment development in Lekki. We recently completed the GTBank Fashion Weekend overall master plan and interior layout design.

We have a couple of commercial developments at the early stages and a lot of interior fit-out work ongoing. We are also working on a furniture line called ILE-ILA: House of Lines, using local fabrics and patterns within a contemporary aesthetic.

In our work, we are consciously trying to push the boundaries of what we consider as ‘good design’ in Nigeria and on the continent.

Ladun Ogidan is the Deputy Editor of Omenka Africa’s first art, business and luxury- lifestyle magazine. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication from Covenant University, Nigeria. Ogidan is also Operations Manager at the Omenka Gallery, and Chief Operating Officer at Revilo Company Limited, a leading art publishing company in Lagos. She has co-ordinated several exhibitions at home and abroad.

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