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Muyiwa Oki: Rebel with a cause

Eleanor Young

Muyiwa Oki brings an egalitarian determination to the RIBA presidency, but he believes his ambitions to improve practice culture should appeal to all

Communicating and convincing are core architectural skills. How can the profession celebrate and make the most of them, asks Oki?
Communicating and convincing are core architectural skills. How can the profession celebrate and make the most of them, asks Oki? Credit: Ivan Jones

Muyiwa Oki becomes RIBA president this month. To get here he won not one but two elections. The first was unprecedented. Young practitioners, coalesced in groups like the Future Architects Front, Section for Architecture Workers and Architecture Climate Action Network, got together to ensure that the younger generation was represented. Four candidates made their case at a pre-hustings hustings and Oki was selected. And then he won again among the wider membership.

His young age (32) and his ethnic background, even his recent architectural career working with Mace, mark him out as different from previous RIBA presidents. At an event shortly after his election, around themes of decolonisation and education, he was surrounded by well-wishers buoyed up with enthusiasm. Here and in other conversations over the last year it is clear to see the hope he has engendered for the future of the profession and the possibility of change in architecture. 

We meet in Sheffield School of Architecture, on the 16th floor of the Arts Tower, surrounded by the designs and ideas of the final show. He chose this location, it is a nod to the impact his part 1 and part 2 studies here have had on his thinking. ‘Teaching at Sheffield was participatory, it got you close to the community, you had to go out and talk to people. It was doing live projects before most universities – you actually had to have a client and solve a problem for them,’ he says. 

Being an architect was an breakout move. ‘As the child of first-generation immigrants you have a defined pathway before you, engineering or medicine,’ he says. But he wanted to be creative, to make things and to serve the common good. And he did well in his south London school, hanging out with other ‘third culture kids’ – melding the culture of where they lived with that of their parents or nationality. He lived in Lagos, Nigeria, until the age of 11. Reflecting now on his times in Nigeria, as a kid and later visiting, gave him a clear sense of inequality and an understanding that decisions have power. He is determined to thread this awareness through his presidency. 

He spent four years at Grimshaw, working on the North London Heat and Power Project and on HS2. On both he was pleased to be working on something bigger than architecture. ‘It was doing something for the community,’ he says. ‘Architecture has a life bigger than buildings, around the common good.’ Working client side as concept guardian on the heat and power project, he, as part of Grimshaw, had to ensure a quality design as a contractor took on the project. As part of the scheme Oki also delivered a new community centre for Edmonton Sea Cadets. He values the practical aspect of problem solving and working across different teams, of communicating and of the process itself. 

You can trace the quiet rebellion of choosing architecture through his early architectural heroes and their deconstructivist tendencies –from Lebbeus Woods through Coop Himmelb(l)au and Zaha Hadid. Later came Lacaton & Vassal for its work on deep retrofits and interventions the practice designed to be replicated. He admits he’s bit of a rebel – how else would he have ended up running for president on such a ticket?

Oki doesn’t attack so much as appeal to the best side of his audience: ‘I want to create the profession I want to be in

Participatory design and problem solving are just two of the lessons Oki took from Sheffield.
Participatory design and problem solving are just two of the lessons Oki took from Sheffield. Credit: Ivan Jones

As he waits, you see his fingers tapping. Not impatient but full of rhythm, his body poised to join in. And yes, Oki is a drummer. In Sheffield, with rounds of parties and a basement to practice in, he was part of a band. At his home in north London, not far from the ground of his football team Arsenal, there isn’t space for a drum kit or even a scaled down electric version – a familiar story for many of his generation. He recognises the generational divide that has become increasingly obvious in the last few years as architectural workers have found their voice. His voice is one of the most prominent. 

Oki was elected on a commitment to take a critical stance, as Simon Allford was before him. But Oki’s position, as laid out in the RIBA Journal before that election, was also critical of some of the profession’s business practices. He identified in particular the ‘toxic working culture’, highlighting overwork and underpayment among architectural workers. Despite that he is not a tear it down rebel; earlier this year he took the initiative to present to architects of the elected RIBA council how his manifesto pledges worked with existing plans (he will have the voices of seven members of the Just Transition Lobby on the council – who won seats in July, also brought together by the Future Architects Front). Oki doesn’t attack so much as appeal to the best side of his audience.

Wouldn’t anyone want a happier, healthier team and practice?  ‘I want to create the profession I want to be in,’ he says. 

He has worked for nearly two years at Mace – best known for its role as a contractor – as a senior architectural manager, advising public sector clients on delivery. However, this autumn he not only takes on the RIBA presidency, he is also shifting to focus on net zero carbon within the retrofit team. ‘I feel there is an opportunity there,’ he explains. ‘It comes with a few risks, but if we don’t seize it, it will go elsewhere…’

Oki can be both serious and rather fun. Throughout a complex interview and photo shoot for the RIBA Journal and the film being made for his inauguration, he was positive and engaged, always making the most of things. That plays into one of his other presidential priorities, a better telling of the story of architecture, from concept generation to delivery, with all the convincing and engagement it takes along the way. 

He calls it architecture without boundaries, where those skills can go beyond building design to cleaning up the energy supply and decarbonisation of homes and places and where the narrative is about helping to solve problems in the environment but also beyond. ‘Architects have been working on this for years. But we haven’t celebrated it or communicated it or made it part of our everyday work. It is good for the planet and it is good for Greta [Thunberg],’ he says.

When Allford took office he also hoped for disruptors. And here is Oki, right at the heart of the architectural establishment. He is taking on two of the biggest issues of our time, generational inequality and sustainability. Watch this space.