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Celebration, Conservation and Consecration at Sharjah Architecture Triennial
A conversation with Papa Omotayo & Eve Nnaji and Yussef Agbo-Ola on urban conservation and environmental consecration, starting from their participation at SAT02.

At the ongoing Sharjah Architecture Triennial, pre-industrial and ephemeral rituals are summoned and recontextualised, revealing contemporary interactions between the seen and the unseen. A vacant lot is reimagined as a sanctuary for communal and interspecies solace in We Rest at the Birds Nest, a collaborative installation by Papa Omotayo (MOE+ AA) & Eve Nnaji (ADD_apt), while Yussef Agbo-Ola (Olaniyi Studio) invokes Bedouin, Yoruba and Cherokee practices as well endangered species to convene Jabala: 9 Ash Cleansing Temple. We discuss urban conservation and environmental consecration with both sets of participants.

KOOZ Conceived as a form of indigenous urbanism, We Rest at the Birds Nest sites itself within Sharjah’s industrial zones, where the region’s waste is transformed into new products, looking to its empty plots and unoccupied interstitial spaces to question “Where does life happen?” My first question to you is where does life happen, in this part of Sharjah?

PAPA OMOTAYO & EVE NNAJI (PO/EN) It wasn’t that there was no life in those places… we were just looking for something else. Coming from Lagos, we were curious as to how individual agency was expressed in a city like Sharjah and more specifically in the industrial zone, which functions as a hub of machine parts and migrant labour. So when we stumbled across our site — this little patch of organic life, after blocks and blocks of repetitive industrial blocks and car part shops of “Industrial Area 5” — it really felt special to first see these beautifully-kept plants and flowers blossoming, and then to hear the sound of birds before finding a group of workers nesting and tending to birds in a makeshift aviary. This is really about where life starts for these workers, and for our journey to celebrate both human and non-human life, and the connections we share.

"Coming from Lagos, we were curious as to how individual agency was expressed in a city like Sharjah and more specifically in the industrial zone, which functions as a hub of machine parts and migrant labour."

- Papa Omotayo (MOE+ AA) & Eve Nnaji (ADD_apt)

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KOOZ Jabala: 9 Ash Cleansing Temple is a living architectural entity for homing non-human life and endangered species. Specifically, the project addresses the effect of climate change on Sharjah’s biodiversity. How has climate change impacted the biodiversity of Sharjah and how does the project give these species presence?

YUSSEF AGBO-OLA (YAO) Oftentimes, the non-human world is overlooked because of the complexities of their scale and uniqueness. The notion that humans have dominion over an environment breeds a community perspective of dominance. It is this tension that the temple aims to counter, as a way to highlight the small, fragile, delicate systems and organisms to which we are connected. After a site visit to Sharjah, I began researching organisms in the UAE that were endangered, as well as endangered species in the Amazon forest where I was living at the time. Some of them included the Poison dart frog, Arabian Oryx, Uakari Monkey, Arabian Leopard, Parasimplastrea Sheppardi, and the Sooty Falcon.

"Oftentimes, the non-human world is overlooked because of the complexities of their scale and uniqueness. The notion that humans have dominion over an environment breeds a community perspective of dominance."

- Yussef Agbo-Ola (Olaniyi Studio)

As this research developed, each species was consecrated as a knitted form, embedded in the designs of the plant-fibre fabric skin that holds the temple together. I was looking at their skin patterns, on both a macro and micro level, as well as the outer anatomy of cell and bone structure. These species are part of a community that are dynamically affected by pollution, deforestation, and the effects of climate change. When these organisms which are symbolically represented in the knits, they are linked together in the temple: they create a new visual ecosystem as a symbolic form of their dependance on each other. The human visitor also becomes part of this system, by walking through or reflecting upon them in the Jabala’s inner womb.

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KOOZ Yussef, your project borrows from the architecture typology of the tent within Bedouin cultures whilst the temple’s outer form mimics the silhouette of Ras Al Khaimah’s Jebel Jais Mountain and the porous tectonic layers embedded within the region’s geological history. How are these forms knitted together to reflect cosmological belief systems within these cultures and environmental entities that human life depends on?

YAO It is my core belief that mountains are the mothers that hold an environment's wisdom and DNA within them. They can speak to us and are seen as elements in a landscape that humbles us in relation to its scale and presence. The truth is they are also extruded from the land by the unseen tensions, and movements of the tectonic layers under the surface. The relationship between the seen and unseen connections in our environments have always been a core pillar within my artistic and medicinal architecture practice at Olaniyi Studio.

"Symbolically the seen and unseen can represent dichotomies of balance, exchanges of energy and the cosmological concept of reciprocity with the environment."

- Yussef Agbo-Ola (Olaniyi Studio)

Symbolically the seen and unseen can represent dichotomies of balance, exchanges of energy and the cosmological concept of reciprocity with the environment. We as humans are active elements in a larger system of multi-layered feedback loops that can be experienced through reflections of care and environmental reverence. In Jabala: 9 Ash Cleansing Temple, the mountain's presence, its porous tectonics, the forms of endangered species and a collaboration with rays of light are embedded within the fabric skin and its shadows. The colours of the knits are inspired by the palette of the mountains and rock formations in the landscape, as well as light patterns that depict fractal fossilised micro crustaceans in its stony surface. The act of sitting and breathing within this symbolic mountain, while smelling the burning of bakhoor in reflection, allows for a contemplation on the water that once covered this mountain, and connects to the cultural rituals of energy purification in the region.

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KOOZ Papa and Eve, far from the mechanical and automotive waste which is reprocessed nearby, your project takes vegetative waste as a material to create an array of nesting rooms, for both humans and birds. Composed of both the elementary organic waste found in the area and scaffolding, how does the project’s lifespan abide by the ephemeral nature of both ecology and construction?

PO/EN The first part of the lifespan rests in the form of the birds’ nests; an individual unit able to be placed on walls, crevices, populating different parts of the district, is the first deconstruction of the tower. The second part is in the material composition of the nests. Circulating the same material used to house birds in ‘natural’ habitats, timber from trees which is turned to paper pulp then cardboard, this material again at the end of its life is turned to a pulp mixed with waste vegetation in order to create space for bird habitation once again. The organic composition is then allowed to decompose and reach a rest in its end life as it would have in its first form, whether a tree or grass.

The choice of using construction materials, such as marine ply and scaffolding to compose the structure, follows suit. Reusable materials that seem to pass through multiple phases of life until they are no longer functional, come to a final resting point that will be determined by those who are fortunate to re-envision these materials.

"The world as we know it now is divided into many cultures, many belief systems, traditions, and ecologies, but when we zoom out to a cosmic perspective and look back to Earth, we see a network of diversity that makes up the whole."

- Yussef Agbo-Ola (Olaniyi Studio)

KOOZ After its life in Sharjah, the Jabala temple will be relocated to the Amazon, where it will merge with the forest, creating a sacred space for human and non-human environmental contemplation. From the UAE to the Amazon, what is the potential in juxtaposing these two distinct geographies and cultures?

YAO The juxtaposition is harmonious in my view. I see the Earth as one living being; one living system of relations that are in constant communication with each other. The world as we know it now is divided into many cultures, many belief systems, traditions, and ecologies, but when we zoom out to a cosmic perspective and look back to Earth, we see a network of diversity that makes up the whole. The UAE is in constant communication with the Amazon Forest, and the Amazon is in communication with every human and non human, as it produces so much of the oxygen we breathe — no matter where we are in the world.

In my culture, when we give an offering to the sky or to a river, we are not just giving to the sky we can see or the river that is in front of us. We are actually giving to all the skies and all the water bodies on earth. The difference is that we offer to connect, listen to, or exchange with the environment that we are in and by doing this we connect to the whole macro scale of unseen systems. I believe it is the things that we cannot hold on to, that we cannot possess or claim, that become meaningful and hold an essence of amazement or reverence within us. The temples are designed in a similar way, in the sense that each fabric skin in the design should be seen from the perspective of the single thread that holds it together. The effects that occur when one microscopic organism eats the temple’s fibres or lays eggs on it are just as important as the overall form and shape of the temple from a macro scale.

The temple is also a living architectural entity, as the home for the unseen ancestral spirits that are at work to keep a balance across all the environmental systems to which we are connected. In this regard the temple functions cross culturally and allows for an embracing and adaptation to different cultures and environments. The sacred elements of the temple are then activated through the experience of ephemerality, impregnated within the temple’s reaction to environmental systems of entropy.

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"As architects, we tend to construct hard buildings with concrete materials, seemingly unbreakable and independent; however, we have built a structure using soft materials that require care and invite observation."

- Papa Omotayo (MOE+ AA) & Eve Nnaji (ADD_apt)

KOOZ By reinforcing simple habits of rest — tending, caring, observing — your project aims to offer a template for collective agency. How can design promote a greater responsibility towards our built and unbuilt environments?

PO/EN Responsibility comes by creating something that is connected to people, communities and the ecology — thus we will need people and nature for it to thrive, in a very physical and emotional sense. We must design thinking about care, and how that extends through a lifecycle. As architects, we tend to construct hard buildings with concrete materials, seemingly unbreakable and independent; however, we have built a structure using soft materials that require care and invite observation. These soft structures depend on us; they offer an invitation of partnership between the people and the environment in which they are engaged.

Bio

Yussef Agbo-Ola, founder of Studio Olaniyi, is an architect and artist living between London and the Amazon. His practice questions how art, architecture, and anthropological research can create experimental environments that challenge the way we experience geological conditions and living ecosystems. His research manifests through architectural pavilions, photographic journalism, material alchemy, interactive performance, experimental sound design, and conceptual writing. Yussef holds a Masters in Fine Art from the University of the Arts London, and a Masters in Architecture from the Royal College of Art. He has led art and architectural commissions for the United Nations, Institute of Contemporary Art (London), Serpentine Gallery London, Sharjah Architecture Triennial, TEDx East End, BBC Arts, Venice Architectural Biennials, Palais de Tokyo, Tai Kwun Arts Center, and Lexus Automotive Innovation Centre Japan, among others. Agbo-Ola is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture at Columbia GSAPP where he directs an experimental design studio within the Advanced Architectural Design program.

Papa Omotayo (MOE+ AA) and Eve Nnaji (ADD_apt) are a collaborating team based in Lagos Nigeria working on a series of projects and installations focused on cultural infrastructure, ecology, and material intelligence. Papa Omotayo is an award-winning filmmaker, architect, designer and writer. His work strongly focuses on exploring the nature of culture and its context within contemporary Nigerian and the extended African condition, locally and globally. Eve Nnaji is an architectural designer, researcher and writer. She is the founder of ADD_apt, a practice that utilises architecture, design, and data as a tool to bridge environmental consciousness with urban development. Her research interests include urban flood mitigation strategies, bio-fabrication, and material intelligence.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

Published
26 Jan 2024
Reading time
10 minutes
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