Alternative Practice: A Conversation with Lucia Ene-Lesikar and Dionne Bimpong

28th September 2023

This year’s programme of events at Build Studios will explore alternative practice within the built environment, facilitating the space to discover and explore new methodologies of sharing and participating.

This conversation between Build Studios members Lucia Ene-Lesikar and Dionne Bimpong and Build Studios projects and community associate Leia Monger considers the wideness of the built environment, the notion of being adjacent to architecture, and its associated diversions and inherited barriers. Lucia Ene-Lesikar grew up between Tanzania and Southampton and is entering her third year at the London Interdisciplinary School. Lucia is part of the school’s first cohort. As the name suggests the school rejects the singularity of one discipline to solve complex problems and brings together a wide range of skills and knowledge. Dionne Bimpong grew up in the London Borough of Ealing and is a graduate of Architecture from the University of Cambridge. Dionne is also a community review panel member for Ealing Council. Both Lucia and Dionne are completing an internship at the Thornton Education Trust and working in Build Studios.

Whether it is due to an inaccessible mode of study that values intensity or a culture that favours individualism, the number of students that make the decision to end their pursuit of becoming a fully qualified architect is significant. Within the first year of study around 87% of students have plans to qualify, when asked if this cohort kept those intentions this figure drops to 70% with 24% responding ‘I don’t know.’* Those students who decide to find a route out of their pilgrimage are often women and people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. 68% of women asked still wanted to qualify, in comparison to 77% of male students. Across the qualification stages the RIBA reported that 60% of Part 1 students are white, this increases to 71% at Part 2 (Masters Level) and 79% at Part 3. The substantial cost of architectural training is also causing the direct blockage of student successions. Outside of the standard academic costs ‘architecture students spend around £2,200 a year on hidden extras such as model-making, printing and study trips, as well as computers, software and books.’

Leaving can feel like a mighty fall from grace. Students that experience systematic barriers or recognise the foundational skills learnt in architecture schools can take them elsewhere, are accounted for as statistical drop outs. Yet, where these students find themselves once outside of the architect’s house is critical to understanding our assumptions of who shapes the built environment. We seem to acknowledge that architecture, by its nature, requires an interdisciplinary perspective, but perhaps we fail to acknowledge that these perspectives are shaped by those who find themselves taking a sideways step out of formal architectural education and practice. 

LM: I want to start with how you came to architectural education initially and then what diverted you from it. Lucia, this question sounds slightly different to you considering you in some ways began outside of the architect’s training path by choosing to study at the London Interdisciplinary School. 

DB: I think what initially brought me to architecture as a degree is the way it combines different skills, so you can use your creative and artistic abilities and your critical thinking. It’s also about interacting with people, spaces, everything in between. For me it was wanting to create better spaces for myself and for my communities. 

People don’t talk about the alternative options, so when I went to university and wanted to become an architect I didn’t know the barriers within that. Being a woman, especially a black woman, there’s so many different obstacles that we face, and people didn’t really prepare me for that, especially going to an institution like Cambridge. The things I took interest in weren’t placed at the forefront and Eurocentric approaches and western studies were favoured. It was only until the end of my degree where we had lectures that delved deeper into decolonial curricula and colonial architectures. I participated in a decolonial society established by masters students that decolonised traditional approaches to architecture to create more inclusive spaces. This felt like an awakening and I felt there was more to the built environment and there were other avenues I could take. I explored these skills and interests further by centring my design projects in multicultural communities and producing artwork for our African and Caribbean society. 

I saw myself thinking more creatively and using my skills in other ways and I’m still trying to figure that out but I wanted something more people focused and something tangible, something I can actually see my impact in. I wanted to engage with people rather than be behind the screen and that felt more rewarding to me.

LEL: I wanted to study architecture in secondary school but I knew I didn’t want to do just one thing and studying architecture was even too narrow. When I was around 12/13 I read a book called Happy City that opened up the possibility for me that there was more space to explore than what I was interested in. I wanted it to be more contextual than just a singular building. That’s really what led me to wanting to study interdisciplinarity, particularly at the London Interdisciplinary School because there we take the stance that complex problems need different perspectives to be able to contribute to them being solved and urban design and sustainable urban spaces are complex problems. 

In my second year we had a new lecturer called Lara Kinneir who had a big impact on me, she studied architecture but had left to look at interdisciplinarity and the built environment more broadly. We were looking at systems and patterns, studying urbanity through perspectives such as democracy, value or culture. Through that you start to get a sense of the complexity behind it and the different elements.

Also for me, like Dionne was saying I was always interested in architecture and design from an African perspective and from an indigenous perspective. It felt for me that when I was looking into architecture I was interested in a niche element. When you’re outside of architecture looking in, it can feel very much like an exclusive club. 

LM: Going backwards a bit I’m really curious to know about how you both experienced the built environment as young people, how you understood it and how you saw it being organised.

LEL: I grew up in Tanzania and then also in the UK with both the village and the city. So to see what an African city looks like and then seeing that change over time, I would go back to visit my family seeing the change that happens. I wanted to understand the relationship between rural and urban and what that actually means. In the West there is such a distinction of what is rural and what is urban, but in Tanzania and seeing the city where there are cows walking around and farms in the city, you question what differentiates these spaces. 

When I started to tell people I wanted to be an urban designer in secondary school, people just didn’t understand what that meant. People would ask me, associating the word urban with black people, so you only design for black people? People understand the role of an architect but to understand that there’s this whole industry where there’s interrelationships and different avenues isn’t understood yet. In the book Terraformed, which is an ethnography, looking at Newham through the perspective of community, the built environment, sonic landscapes and policy you can think about the interrelationships between things. You could be interested in music and not understand there’s a relationship between the space you inhabit and the laws that are around that and it’s all relevant. It’s important to provide space for young people to find what resonates with them. 

DB: I live on the edge of the city, in a suburban area in Ealing. Growing up there, it didn’t really impact me architecturally, but I felt like I had the space and opportunity to have green spaces to run in, the canals, a nice route to school, a scenic route to school even. So I think I was privileged in that sense and I thought ok, this is what I’ve experienced and enjoyed so how can I create this universally. 

Growing up in an environment where I was able to have fresh air, and transportation links and all this access was always at the back of my mind. I can recognise that but also how that’s changing now. I’ve just seen a transformation. These places aren’t accessible anymore, they’ve been blocked off, there’s high rises in every corner. 

It was my experience of living in London, and seeing the city, and being in the city. I’m more interested in things that really impact people personally, especially since there’s a decline in healthy spaces, and especially after COVID, we spent so much time inside and the spaces that we’re meant to feel safe in, are not. People are getting evicted, there’s damage, there’s mould growing in apartments. That should be a top priority, and I think with an architectural route, you can only do so much. 

I’m part of a community review panel, so any new proposals that are being built in Ealing in the coming year, are then taken to the community to ask what they think, how can we improve it, and it’s a way of me expressing my perspective of living in Ealing, my lived experience as a young person. Going into that panel I recognised that it was made of a certain demographic and It needs to change. Younger voices in that conversation I think are really important.

If I actually do want to expand in the built environment and go down into policy and planning, I realised these are things that I could be impactful in. It becomes all about the big picture. Everyone’s ambitious, but let’s dwindle it down to what can I do in my everyday life, and how can I interact with my own immediate community.