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Rising Star: Shawn Adams

Eleanor Young

Talented designer, architectural writer, pathfinder and mentor for the next generation

Shawn Adams is RIBAJ Rising Star 2020.
Shawn Adams is RIBAJ Rising Star 2020.

Adams only finished his masters this year, during the pandemic, but he had already started using his talents to make change. He co-founded the Power Out of Restriction Collective (or POoR), which aims to help and inspire the younger generation, and joined the Architecture Foundation’s New Architectural Writers (NAW) scheme, a free programme for BAME design critics, while also working periodically.  

Referees and RCA tutors Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe know Adams’ designs and the wider impact he is making. ‘Shawn is an extremely talented architectural designer paving the way for a new generation of BAME architecture practitioners while enhancing the voice of under-represented communities in London and beyond,’ they say. ‘He is already leaving his profound mark on the profession and the urban fabric.’

His most recent project, Plinths and Tapestry, has been published in the Financial Times, Architects’ Journal and the RIBA Journal and was exhibited at the Betts Project gallery, while his writing with NAW  has taken him into magazines such as Vice and Icon. He is using his talents and seeing which direction they take him. But when asked where he is heading he reframes the question to ‘What am I trying to do?’ He writes: ‘To me, architecture is a unique discipline that allows us to create meaningful and impactful spaces… it has the power to positively transform lives.’

Like many people, Adams hadn’t seen anyone like him forge this path into architecture. Or into leaving London to study elsewhere in the UK, as he did at Portsmouth. Or to spend an Erasmus year in practice in Spain, as he did. Or teach at Central St Martins as he now does. ‘I don’t know anyone who has been a lecturer,’ he says. 

Equally he never thought he would be a pioneer, as he has proved to be. Since 2015 he has done educational outreach with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, of which he is an alumni, for the City of London and in schools. 

Adams speaking at a New Architecture Writers event.
Adams speaking at a New Architecture Writers event.

‘There are others out there who have not seen someone of the same race and working class background as me, so I push at each area,’ he says. He likes the idea that those that follow can just message him for a word of encouragement. 

What he did have was youth clubs and volunteers just a little older who organised sports, music and creative activities and gave him the confidence to stand and speak. As those very youth clubs are closing down he and a group of likeminded friends got together to found POoR. How could they offer the same hope, encouragement and voice? ‘We took our passions and made them more tangible,’ he explains. In Wands­worth, London, POoR is leading co-design at a Carney’s Community boxing gym, giving gym goers a real say in change. ‘We can relate to these people, we also played pool and table tennis and went to the tuck shop… We couldn’t really make it otherwise.’ Working with MAKE Architects POoR has also helped launch The People’s Pavilion for young people to design a structure in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. 

‘His interest in the next generation when he is just a graduate is commendable,’ said judge Alex Ely. Klaus Bode pointed out that while Adams wanted things to change he wasn’t waiting for the older generation to do it. In the meantime what is next for him is a job with a housing practice.

Design work, Plinths and Tapestry.
Design work, Plinths and Tapestry.

How would you most like to improve society through architecture?

As a tool to get the voices of those often neglected heard. I would like to improve society through architecture by giving everyone an equal stake in moulding the built environment. I intend to challenge how we view the environment and the interaction between people and ecology to argue for architecture in which humans and other organisms live in unison. 

What existing building or place would you most like to tackle?

I would like to address the space of opportunity. Creating opportunities for working class, BAME, and misrepresented students. For those who dream of studying architecture but think they can’t as they don’t see anyone that looks or speaks like them. I want to help tackle pressing global and societal issues such as the climate crisis, racial injustices and gender inequalities. In terms of geographic place, I want to start in London and expand to the UK, Europe and then eventually the world.

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