- Interview by Isabel Allen
I’ve talked to over a hundred architects about how they first became interested in architecture and I’ve only heard ‘Lego’ once. Sometimes they say their parents were architects. Light is important. Often, it’s about the light. But problem-solving is their superpower. The architect’s mindset is ‘let me understand how it works’. Then there’s the emotional connection, which is my superpower. Poetry can be very educating this way, particularly when it’s not elitist.
My English literature teachers at secondary school taught me to see the beauty of William Blake. That’s what sparked my interest in poetry; my interest but not my enthusiasm. I’m a big fan of hip hop. Hip hop poets retain an element of purity. They put their authentic souls into their words.My English literature teachers at secondary school taught me to see the beauty of William Blake. That’s what sparked my interest in poetry; my interest but not my enthusiasm. I’m a big fan of hip hop. Hip hop poets retain an element of purity. They put their authentic souls into their words.
Imagine if a borough of London were designed by a poet, a hip hop artist, a product designer. Imagine what it would be like. Imagine stepping out into that space. Something completely different. That’s what the Barbican represents. A reaction against the status quo.
The poet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib talks about gentrification as the erosion of memories of a place. When you walk through certain parts of the city you’re walking through the ghosts of our built environment. If the Barbican ever changed … it’s so much part of who I am. Sometimes I think we should preserve the monuments that promised change.
I’m challenging the ways things are done. Exposing people to different ways of existing. That’s the reason I went to Japan – to see how their culture has allowed spirituality to permeate the built environment and how I can cross-pollinate that with other cultures. There’s one space I lived in for two days in São Paulo that had this view. I feel like I’ve been searching for it my whole life. It was a view that said ‘Thank you for looking at me’.
It’s a huge honour to work with Grimshaw. They have been very supportive about letting my culture influence their culture. They said ‘OK, we want to do this. But how will we make it work?’ It’s a very bespoke way of working. It has to be. If I’m in a work environment the conditions have to be there for me to be creative. If I was more assimilated into the office I wouldn’t have such an impact. It’s surprising what people speak to me about. Not just technical jargon or design: poetry; meaning; mental health; love.
I want my poetry to have an emotional impact, but I want it to be relevant too. It’s not about shouting or going on a demonstration. That’s not my path towards change. My path is to change those cog wheels one at a time. When we’re walking though the built environment we’re walking through people’s decisions, the result of people saying ‘This is what we need’. If I make one change in the way people think about things, and that makes one change in the way they design one building and the way that people influence wellbeing and mental health …
I’m hoping to change policy at some point but incremental change is incredible change.
With climate change what we require isn’t incremental. It’s human instinct not to take responsibility when something feels overwhelming. There are so many unfathomable things happening. It’s easier not to see world problems as our problems. They’re for the experts to sort out. Or the scientists. We run away from the problems even when they’re staring us in the face. They call it analysis paralysis. Most of us are running towards something and we don’t know what it is.
We need help from the kids who haven’t been conditioned to the way of thinking of the ’80s and ’90s. People like Greta Thunberg. That’s why we need … what’s a better word than diversity? That’s what I’m talking about but I’m so tired of that word. I’ve made up a new word. Amoratory. It’s not the same as sapiosexual, which people confuse it with. Sapiosexual describes people who find intelligence sexually exciting. Amoratory is love of the creative use of words.