How does your background, being born in Nigeria and visiting many cities around the world from a young age, inform your view of architecture?
I strongly believe my background and life experiences, to a great extent, shaped what I became in life. Considering how you phrased the question, it is intriguing how you paint a very exotic picture of my childhood, but the fact is that I was not just visiting these places per se, we were there to stay until the next move… usually necessitated by my dad’s nomadic-like career as a mechanical engineering technician with a Swiss company in West Africa. So, living in these various places (mainly in northern parts of Nigeria and afterwards in various parts of southern Africa), allowed me to absorb different cultures, and in so doing, I considered myself fortunate to have experienced a truly cosmopolitan and colourful life to the fullest. In turn, this has shaped my architecture and the way I view architecture to be emblematic of the values we hold dear in our communities. So, in a nutshell, if my childhood and adult adventure has taught me anything, it is the fact that architecture is definitely one of the most powerful tools that we can use to address important issues of society.
Having worked both in Africa and abroad, how does the standard of architecture currently being built in Africa compare to the architecture being built abroad?
I truly believe architecture is a very good measure of the state of affairs in our communities. It is a true reflection of the standards we set for ourselves. Just like food and many other human attributes we can relate to, architecture can be an acquired taste. With this said, if one assess standards by delineating certain principles such as creativity, inspiration, whole-of-life performance, resilience and appropriate innovation, it is very easy to see how unique and comparable the standard of architecture in Africa is to the rest of the world.
Talking about standard of architecture in Africa, there is an inherent assumption that Africa is a monolithic entity instead of the cosmopolitan, diverse continent it is with 54 countries and multitude of cultures.
I believe there is always creativity everywhere – irrespective of where you are. Just look around. Gratifyingly, it is an ubiquitous tool in our profession that is manifest in all that we do – for the benefit of every citizen and the ordinary person on the street. It matters how we let our creativity shine and how we use it to shape the quality of life of our built environment – especially at the grassroots level. Any where I am, my assessment of the standard of architecture is through the lens of how we use every project (no matter how small) to make a difference in our communities. With such a yardstick, it is often an uphill task to compare the architecture of different places without taking a reductionist approach. Quoting Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” So, let’s live a life inspired by design and make good design a habit!
What challenges are architects in Africa currently facing, and how do you believe these can be overcome?
I am always inspired by the great work of many young people in different parts of Africa from all works of life. With this said, as the continent with the youngest population in the world, I think more can be done to empower the youth in Africa with the right kind of opportunities to excel beyond measures. Because the future of the continent is in the hands of our youths, not creating opportunities for them to thrive could well be one of the most pressing challenges I see in the continent. I count myself privileged to be associated with this demographic group. Much as I do not think any position we attain in life is a destination but rather as part of a multifaceted journey – with twists and turns, I will dare to say that no matter how big or small the challenges architects in Africa are facing, with a sizable dose of creativity, diligence, dedication and discipline, a lot can be accomplished.
In other words, for a long time, architects in Africa, and frankly speaking, in other parts of the world too, have nurtured, cultured and cultivated insular instinctive processes that make it difficult for the public to understand what we do, why we do it and how we do it. While I understand it is always our intention as architects to create a pleasing, useful and coherent built environment for the benefit of all, we always fall short of attaining this lofty goal in the face of the insularity of the way we engage the public as a profession. This is a conundrum that needs to be overcome, and to do this, we must go through a shift in our instinctive processes to enable our expectations, intentions and intuitions to align.
To this end, we must transform the profession from insular-instinctive and process-driven to knowledge and evidence-based supported by sharp intuitive perception where research and development is held up to high esteem. Simply put, we should at all times be able to empirically and scientifically demonstrate and prove how the schools that we design help make students learn better or how the hospitals we plan help promote healing or how the office space we design enhances productivity.
What about African architecture inspires you?
The beauty, simplicity and elegance inherent in African architecture because they evoke cultural pride and give pride of place to humanistic values of diversity, inclusiveness and social justice.
Which African architects, past and present, do you admire?
I know a lot of creative and excellent architects across the continent from Egypt to Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Angola, you name it. I have also had the opportunity of meeting a lot of them and even working with some of them. Whether it is the likes of the late Ivor Prinsloo from my days in Cape Town in the 90’s, or the late Shim Adeshina who inspired me during my university days, or Hassan Fathy whom I admire for his innovative means and methods in architecture, there is no shortage of African architects I admire. One that stands out for me in the present is my friend from Burkina Faso whom we are currently working together on some interesting projects – Francis Kéré. I am so proud of what many architects in the continent are doing to enhance people’s quality of life.
Can you tell us a bit more about the African Multicultural Community Centre project? (See more on the project here)
The African Multicultural Community Centre – simply known as Africa Centre in Edmonton, Canada – is an intricate, culturally-sensitive project that I am humbled and honoured to be leading with Francis Kéré on behalf of our various firms collaborating on the project (AECOM | Kéré | HCMA). It is a project envisioned to foster Africa’s cultural pride and provide sense of place and collective identity for people of African descent in Canada. It is a project that stands out as the highlight of my career, not because it is a multi-million dollar project or it’s size (which is not as large as other high profile projects I have had the opportunity of working on), but because of its impact in the diaspora to serve as a source of enduring pride of place for our community for years to come.
To effectively deliver the project, Francis and I quickly figured it had to be a place where the knowledge of Africa’s rich cultural heritage is integrated with architecture, sustainability, landscape, urban design, interior design and infrastructural design to produce an excellent outcome; a place of celebration to showcase the wonders and excitement of Africa. Emblematic of Africa and Canada’s humanistic values of social justice, respect, equality and inclusiveness, the Africa Centre project is very unique and we are delighted that through the project, we will be able to tell Africa’s story in a manner that is authentic, unapologetically and unmistakably African – albeit the project is located in a cold climate environment with sub-zero temperatures during the winter.
What advice would you offer to current architectural students in Africa?
As I mentioned earlier on during this interview, with sheer diligence, dedication and discipline, we can become whatever we set our minds to be. It boils down to what our attitude to life is and what we permit to shape our world view. The world view I will like to share with architectural students in Africa is for them to aspire to be the best that they can be; be yourself at all times; be self-aware, focused and motivated. Shun retrogressive and negative companies irrespective of who they are. Surround yourself with people that will inspire you to greatness. As Tony Robbins always says, it is never about resources but resourcefulness. Be resourceful to command all the resources you need to succeed!
About Samuel Óghale Oboh
With an expansive career spanning nearly 25 years in both private and public sectors, Samuel Óghale Oboh (Sam) is a highly accomplished architect, resourceful leader and design management specialist committed to innovation, stewardship and achieving excellence for the greater public good. He is the 2015 President of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) – the first Canadian of African descent to lead the 110-year-old professional organization.
Having worked in South Africa and Botswana before migrating to North America with his young family over a decade ago, Sam is a keen advocate of excellence in the built environment. He is motivated by an enduring commitment to advocacy aimed at strengthening the architectural profession and enhancing its standards of excellence.
With dual master’s degrees in architecture and communication, Sam is an alumnus of Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University), Ahmadu Bello University Zaria – Nigeria and the University of Alberta in Canada. His varied background has enabled him to bring valuable perspective to his role as an architect in both the private and public sectors.
As an architect respected for his knowledge, community service activities and commitment to excellence, Sam was appointed Honorary Consul for the Republic of Botswana in Canada. He is an award-winning architect who has been featured in many publications (both local and international). In recognition of his contributions and accomplishments, Sam has been elevated to Fellowship of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA). He is a distinguished fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada; recipient of the 2018 NBCN Professional Excellence Award; 2016 Excellence Magazine Award for Leadership; 2015 American Institute of Architects’ Presidential Medal and many more awards and recognitions.
An adherent of integrating architectural practice with research and academia, Sam served as an adjunct/Reviewer/visiting lecturer at the University of Calgary, University of Toronto, Carleton University Ottawa, University of Port Harcourt, Durban University of Technology, and the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He was recently named as one of the 50 most influential Albertans and one of the 150 Extraordinary Canadians in 2018 by the Transformation Institute for Leadership and Innovation.