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ADS9: Aura - A Call for An Open Architecture

Shawn Adams

Shawn Adams is a member of the New Architecture Writers and is the co-founder of Power out of Restriction (POoR), a collective that focuses on the development of communities through the elevation of young people. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth with a 1st Class Honours degree, Shawn went on to work in Spain and then in the UK.

In 2019, he was awarded the RIBA Wren Insurance Scholarship and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust Bursary. An Alumni of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, Shawn cares deeply about creating a voice for under-represented people and endeavors to become an architect who supports marginalized communities. Shawn has written for various magazines including VICE and was recently interviewed by the Guardian to speak about being a young Black aspiring architect.

His final year design project titled 'Plinths and Tapestry' addresses the precarious conditions of the electronic waste settlement in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Shawn questions how we can look beyond the conventions of value, beyond its monetary and necessity definitions, and recast it through the gaze of the Burner Boys to give meanings to this otherwise precarious form of life. Plinths and Tapestry approaches and questions the role of an architectural project and practice with a high level of delicacy and humility.


New Architecture Writers

POoR Collective

Dissertation - Wakanda Will No Longer Watch From the Shadows

History and Theory Essay - Built on African Principles

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Degree Details

School of Architecture

ADS9: Aura - A Call for An Open Architecture

Plinths and Tapestry proposes five spaces to the southeast of Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Comprising 14 plinths and three canopies made from electronic waste, these interventions challenge the stigmas attached to materials and create new spatial opportunities for the local community. Ranging from 5-60 sqm, these plinths frame and elevate simple acts of daily life, respite, and togetherness. The three canopies employ various retired components to form a series of electronic tapestries. Spanning 20-40 metres these three structures are held 3-5 metres above the plinths by Asante umbrella-like systems. The proposed platforms and sheltering canopies meticulously define a set of ground conditions and material tectonic. By manipulating the existing ground condition these architectural pieces cut through the landscape to create areas for ceremonial rituals, religious practices, and everyday activities. Plinths are not only a way to simply raise people off of the ground but are an architectural form that redefines and renegotiate how the ground is made inhabitable. This is a project where experiencing areas of raw uncontaminated earth or the touch of your bare body on the intricacies and smoothness of cast electronic components becomes an enormous act of generosity and care. 

Agbogbloshie is a 20-acre material graveyard where African men – who have donned the title “Burner Boys”- see the inherent worth of e-waste. In the Western world, electronics often only serve one purpose. Once they stop functioning as intended, they are usually thrown out. They are no longer of value. However, on this former wetland, electronic items connect people, their environment, and everyday practices. Ranging from 600mm to 5 metres in height, the five spaces question how we can look beyond the conventions of value, beyond its monetary and necessity definitions, and recast it through the gaze of the Burner Boys to offer respite from their otherwise precarious form of life.

Plinths and Tapestry employs a unique formal, spatial, and material language that draws, on the one hand, from its etymological roots in Ghanaian culture (e.g. Ashanti gold weights and umbrellas); and on the other hand, from the global and highly personal remnants of electronic waste. It is a design investigation that places itself outside of the main canon of architecture. It asks: how by reconsidering the worth of materials, can practices, rituals, and everyday activities be spatialised? In the project, the role of the architect is as a listener and learner that advises on loose systems of construction which can be adapted by the residents. It is this process of engagement that allows for new values to be formed. Ultimately, at the project's heart sits the ambition to reinstall how materials are perceived and to provide spaces for new values to emerge. 

Plinth - Frames a piece of ground

Site Plan - 14 Plinths and 3 Canopies

Plinth Steps - Charred ground condition

Rocket Stove - Adhoc burning

Plinths and canopies - Without context

Religious Plinth - Stepped detail

Ceremony space - Plinth and canopy

E-waste - Material Composition

Canopy - Low tech construction

Site overview - Five interventions

In the Western World when we think of electronics, we think of computers, mobile phones, or even printers. Objects that usually serve one purpose. Once they no longer function as intended, they are usually thrown out. They are no longer of value. This way of thinking is one of the reasons why several precarious e-waste settlements now exist across the globe with Agbogbloshie currently being the largest.


Line drawings and high res collages
accracanopycollageghanagroundline drawingmaterialityplinthssite plantapestryvaluewaste

Site Plan — The project renegotiates the ground condition

Ceremony Space — Using the form of Asante Umbrella – an important emblem within Ghanaian culture - four umbrella structures ranging from 3-5 metres hold up an electronic waste canopy while eight plinths puncture the ground below

Ceremony Space — Spanning 30 metres the canopy it is made up of capacitors, computer fans, keyboard keys, and various other e-waste components. It is further supported by a series of cables that can be found across the site

Frame Plinth - Plan and iso

Plinth - Plan

Site Plan - Two spaces

In the project, the role of the architect is not to design these spaces alone but to advise on loose systems of construction which can be adapted by the residents. The architect is a listener and learner. It is this process of engagement that allows for new values to be formed.

Religious Plinth — During the day many of the Burner Boys engage in prayer. The majority are practicing Muslims but have to travel for miles to collectively pray at the local slum. Facing North East, this plinth acts as a compass and space for religious activities. 8 steps elevate the Burner Boy community 1.6 metres above the ground. The proposal allows for up to 30 people to pray together with one of the Burner Boys leading prayer at the front.

Religious Plinth Detail — Zooming into the corner of the religious plinth you can see iron and motherboards fragments delineating the spaces for prayer. The e-waste divides the plinth into 1.2 × 1.8 m segments which match the dimensions of a traditional prayer mat. Giving the e-waste new values and meanings

Frame Plinth — By framing 100 sqm of ground, void of waste, which can be seen in the middle of this drawing, the frame plinth creates a space which could be used for knowledge exchange between masters and apprentices during the daytime, for dancing on the weekend or merely space for collectors to sit down throughout the day.

Frame Plinth - Illustrative cross section

Frame Plinth Section — This plinth rejects the e-waste buried into the ground and instead embeds it into its structure creating a terrazzo-like material

Frame Plinth Detail — This detail of the plan shows white 100 x 100mm electronic plastic cases that are welded together to create a surface

Plinth - Material detail

Plinth - Material detail

In Agbogbloshie, young men have created a new form of life by reconsidering material values. While the site appears to be a grim dumping ground, these 18-30-year-old men see worth in the electronic items it houses. As a result, on the site, a fridge is no longer a fridge. It is an adhoc grill, a bench, a wall, storage, 61kg of steel, or simply insulation foam.

Kente - African cloth designs

African Print - Kente collage

Kente - E-waste model

Kente - E-waste model

Do you see IRON?

Do you see ALUMINIUM?

Capacitors, resistors and fans

Computer, keyboards and dvd players

Screens, monitors, and vhs players

Laptops, remotes and printers

Electronic tapestry - Line drawing

Electronic Tapestry - Retired objects

Merging culture with materiality, these models aim to explore new ways of reading value. By dismantling electronic items, they are stripped of their previous constraints. We no longer read them as objects with a singular purpose. By learning from the burner boys we may start to see iron, aluminum, or copper when we look at electronics.

Reconstructing electronics can transform the way they are understood and ultimately give them new values. Here e-waste can be read as electronic tapestries, rhythmic scores of materials as opposed to a series of retired items.

Gold Weights — Weights made used as a measuring system by the Akan people of West Africa

Frame Plinth Development – Development of form

Plinth and Canopy - Plan exploration

Ceremony Plinth - Design development

Ceremony Space - Plan development

Ceremony Space - Tensile canopy

Ceremony Space - Plan and form development

Asante Umbrella - Form analysis

Series of design iterations, starting from the form and shape of Gold Weights to the Asante Umbrella,

Agbogbloshie — Found footage triptych


Burning — Found Footage

The Insider — Agbogbloshie Documentary
Poised at the edge of the Odaw river, Agbogbloshie is a sprawling 20-acre electronic graveyard in Accra, Ghana. Tons of e-waste is disposed of from Western Europe and the USA in the form of donations. E-waste arrives from the Port of Tema, which is 20 miles east of the site and is then is driven and dumped in Agbogbloshie.

Young men from different parts of Ghana reside in Agbogbloshie for three to five months before returning home for 30 days to deliver their earnings. The site houses approximately 7,000 people who have donned the title Burner Boys. This community is a warren of different tribes, classes, and lineages living and working collectively. Agbogbloshie is a complex web of roles, relationships, and new forms of kinship.

Watch The Insider's documentary to learn more.
24 July 2020
18:00 (GMT + 0)

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