How do you breathe new life into Jamestown, one of Accra's poorest but most historic areas? Slowly and with art, says British-Ghanaian architect Elsie Owusu.
“In Accra, the economy’s is skewed by the growth and discovery of oil. There’s a lot of hugely commercial as well as luxury residential buildings being developed, but there’s not much for middle- and lower-income families.”
So says Ghanaian-British architect Elsie Owusu OBE, who has helped to regenerate Jamestown, one of the oldest districts in Accra, Ghana, through a series of projects over the past 15 years.
Born in Ghana but now based in London, Owusu considers her craft as that of an artist, designer and businesswoman. As a partner at Feilden+Mawson Architects and principal of her own practice, Elsie Owusu Architects, her projects include the UK Supreme Court, London’s Green Park Station and transport projects in Ghana and Nigeria. She’s a specialist conservation architect but there’s a much bigger picture to what she does.
In my work it’s not so much that ‘I am an architect’, but more that ‘I do architecture’.
Take the Jamestown project, for example. “It’s a way to work with artists and young people to get old buildings re-used and regenerated,” she explains. “It was difficult to find a catalyst in such a poor area of Ghana, but James Fort provided a good hub space for the creative and cultural industries.”
The British-made fort in question is an old prison that was once used as a slave factory. Empty since 2007, it’s been gradually falling apart, which means its re-use as a creative venue is a tough challenge. But plans to retrofit the building, which once comprised separate incarceration sections for men and women, are steadily underway.
“It’s a way of overlaying the sadness of the slave trade and colonialism through a new use of the space inside and out,” says Owusu, “and it’s one of a few design projects we’re working on.”
Those few projects also include the Jamestown Cenotaph and a historic well. “What we want to do is create a memorial garden around the monument and another green space around the well,” she says. “These things will be in memory of Ghana’s Gold Coast soldiers of the First World War, as well as those of the Second World War.”
The heritage aspect of the project is crucial and although it would be great of think of Owusu as the primary driver behind the regeneration of this fishing community, there are multiple key efforts involved.
The work is being done as part of her company, JustGhana, which has an office in Jamestown’s Mantse Agbona Palace.
Essentially, Owusu sees JustGhana’s smaller scale activities as a smart and economical way to test the development of robust relationships. These creative steps will help build up to the major investment that will ultimately be needed to complete the James Fort project.
“At the moment, if we have £1,000, we can create a computer lab, but it would cost us the same amount to make an application to Bill and Melinda Gates, just to get rejected,” she says. “We’re going to need a large amount of money for James Fort. It’s going to cost around £500,000 or more, but we haven’t got the systems to spend it yet and if you’re not careful, what happens is you raise everybody’s expectations because they feel that if you’re spending that type of money their lives are going to change. It’s much better to under-promise so people get used to a consistent, good quality project – so that when the money actually arrives you’ve got the infrastructure to be able to absorb it, otherwise it’s just a recipe for disappointment.”
Another element of Jamestown’s regeneration comes from the annual, two-day Chale Wote Street Festival, an international showcase of performance, art and design that was founded by the Ghanaian cultural network Accra [dot] Alt and takes place in Jamestown this August.
It’s significant that the festival has become a symbol of the area’s vibe. After all, the district – aside from its long-held connections with the British Empire – is said to be the place that spawned the popular Azonto dance craze. Jamestown is also famous for the large number of boxing schools in its Bukum neighbourhood, many of which have produced world champions such as Azumah Nelson, Ike Quartey and Joshua Clottey.
JustGhana’s connection with the festival has featured a link with sculptural and performance artist Serge Attukwei Clottey back in 2011. Through a JustGhana sponsorship, he took up a residency at Chale Wote, running a series of workshops with local children who used recycled materials to produce public sculptures.
The opportunity for Attukwei Clottey to engage with and inspire young people in the town that he was born and raised is crucial, as is the ability for JustGhana – through its partnerships with other stakeholders including the Traditional Council of British Jamestown – to work closely with schools, artists and the wider community.
JustGhana’s involvement in the collaborative regeneration of Jamestown is significant for Owusu, whose fascination with design started back in her childhood. However, long before settling on the notion of working with big buildings, she had harboured even grander plans that involved dabbling in politics.
The humorous story is that when I was about nine I thought, ‘Hmm, I think I’ll be President of Ghana’. I thought that seemed like an interesting job where you could make yourself useful about the place. Then after the coup I began to realise that there are certain occupational hazards to being an African president.
In truth, there was never really a time in her memory when she didn’t want to be an architect. “My step-grandfather was a local contractor in Ghana, so I think building’s always been around in the ether. It was mainly to do with tall buildings when I was small.”
A graduate of the UK’s independent Architecture Association, she was selected by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) as one of 12 role models whose diverse identities and practices demonstrate how the profession is becoming more inclusive.
And then of course there’s her OBE for services to architecture, a title that was bestowed on her in 2003, partly in recognition of her role as founding chair of the Society of Black Architects, which has now folded into the organisation Architects for Change (AfC).
“What happens is that you get a letter saying something like, the Prime Minister is minded to recommend your title to the Queen and if she accepts it, would you also accept? There’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing so at the time I spoke with my daughter, who said she’d have a think about it. I also spoke to my mother, who said, ‘Of course you must accept. Your problem will be living up to it!’. I like to think of that as ironic humour but I suspect there was a grain of seriousness in it.”