Collaborative Design Research

A year ago, HuMatLab director DK Osseo-Asare served as architect for Ghana’s second-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2022, after Sir David Adjaye’s 2019 debut, both curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The exhibition architecture utilized the fufuzela building system. Under development over multiple years prior to our 2019 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program finalist proposal, this approach to biomaterial symbiosis anchored the text “Architecture” authored for the Report of the Presidential Committee on Ghana’s Museums and Cultural Heritage, “What is Fufuzela? Futuring the Pan-African Museum” (2021). Digital and physical works by Ghanaian artists Afroscope and Na Chainkua Reindorf were installed in a building of the Arsenale that is now under renovation, affixed to structural elements of fufuzela that reassembled in Italy to prototype the curator’s vision of a mobile museum ecosystem, after hosting a previous international art exhibition in Germany on restitution.

Exhibition at Dortmunder U (left) transforms into Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (right)

Now in 2023, these same structural elements are reincorporated into LowDO’s bio-digital installation, “Enviromolecular,” part of the Dangerous Liaisons section of 18th Venice Architecture Biennale, by invitation of the curator, Dame Lesley Lokko, bearing testament to her call for decarbonization and the decolonization of architecture. The call asked us to reflect proactively on “The Laboratory of the Future.” In response, we deployed in the Arsenale three fufuzela telling the story of AMP spacecraft, alongside twelve drawings showing the spherical mathematics by which we derive the primary two- and three-dimensional forms that make up the AMP build kit for “crafting space.” The AMP initiative, i.e., the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform, is a cooperative future design project that we have been undertaking since 2012-2013 (see Publications).

Several key milestones were achieved in the spacecraft development, between the 59th International Venice Biennale last year and the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale this year. First, as explained above we demonstrated a material reutilization strategy wherein the physical components of the exhibition architecture were designed for use across multiple installations and venues. Second, we integrated the underlying geometrical formulation of the fufuzela “bambot” para-structure and the deployable kiosk microarchitecture typically referred to as “AMP spacecraft” into the same three-dimensional matrix system of coordination. This grid combines the typographic “point”, the millimeter, centimeter and decimeter into a rotational “square” fractal array. Manipulation of this grid can describe beats and rhythm, as well as chords and tonal harmony.

Third, the trio of fufuzela “telling the story of the AMP spacecraft” on two digital rear-projection screens instantiate a higher degree of immersion viz. a situated “hyperportal” than previous iterations (Nantes, Dortmund, and Venice), building on design research explored by engineering design graduate students during the Design for Open Innovation course taught in collaboration between Penn State’s College of Engineering and the Princeton School of Architecture.

Prototypes at the Venice Architecture Biennale

Work of HuMatLab researchers featured as part of the LowDO installation “Enviromolecular” at the 18th international architecture exhibition Biennale Architettura 2023: The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Dame Lesley Lokko, as part of the Dangerous Liaisons section in the Arsenale. Per the Catalog of the Biennale:

Over two decades, Low Design Office – based in Austin, Texas and Tema, Ghana – has explored autochthonous material ecologies of micro-architecture, ranging from canopy, table-top and umbrella-serviced micro-enterprises to home-businesses housed in sheds (colloquially called “kiosks”) and arboreal, roadside and cottage industries that constitute, in aggregate, a massive distributed armature of regenerative infrastructure for socioeconomic empowerment. 

Integrating design and engineering, this work advances a model of autoconstruction that recasts kiosk culture as emergent infrastructure for African “rurban” transformation. Launched with French design consultancy Panurban in 2012, the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) initiative combines lab research and iterative “popular prototyping” via community workshops with grassroots makers in West Africa to co-design flexible archi-technology for crafting space. 

AMP spacecraft is an open design and manufacturing standard that utilizes design for reassembly principles and modular prefabricated components to reformat the kiosk typology as synergetic matrix for material coordination across space-time. Coproduced in and around Accra’s Agbogbloshie scrapyard, recycling and maker hub, AMP amplifies circular processes of (re)making with others as a mode of collective habitation. The open-source design kit builds equity by replacing paradigms of innovation (that exploit the planned obsolescence of artifacts for profit over planet) with reparative praxis of renovation for spatial justice across physical and digital realities.

“Enviromolecular” refers to basic structure for life support and a “chemical” approach to building dynamic space. Atoms conjoin periodically to form molecules, minimum microstructures capable of performing a material’s chemical behavior – how matter interacts, electronically – enabling quantum effects to register harmonically at human-scale. Components of this ongoing project are presented at La Biennale Architettura 2023: The Laboratory Of The Future.

Low Design Office, Austin, USA; Tema, Ghana
— DK Osseo-Asare, State College, USA, 1980;
Vive e lavora / Lives and works in State College, USA and Tema, Ghana
— Ryan Bollom, Spring, USA, 1979;
Vive e lavora / Lives and works in Austin, Texas

Collaborazione autoriale / Authorial collaborators
— Yasmine Abbas, Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP)

Collaborazione tecnica / Technical collaborators
— HelenHanCreative with Allie Palmore, Humanitarian Materials Lab (HuMatLab) and Digital Fabrication Lab (DigiFAB) at the Stuckeman School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Graphic Design

— Kwabena Acheampong, AMP Makers Collective, Ashley Heeren

Con il supporto aggiuntivo di / With the additional support of
— Stuckeman Collaborative Design Research Program at the Pennsylvania State University, ANO Institute
for Art and Knowledge, producers of the Ghana Pavilion: Biennale Arte 2022, curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim

Harvard Wheelwright Prize “Bucky in Africa”

The Harvard Graduate School of Design announced today that HuMatLab director is one of four finalists for the 2023 Wheelwright Prize, for his research proposal below:

“Bucky in Africa: Remembering the Chemistry of Architecture”

DK Osseo-Asare is a Ghanaian American designer who makes buildings, landscapes, communities, objects, and digital tools. He is a co-founding principal of the transatlantic architecture and integrated design studio Low Design Office (LowDo), based in Austin, United States, and Tema, Ghana. He holds an appointment in Humanitarian Materials at the Pennsylvania State University, where he directs the Humanitarian Materials Lab, a transdisciplinary research lab architecting materials for human welfare. He is a TED Global Fellow; member, Ghana Institution of Engineering (GhIE); and received A.B. in Engineering Design and M.Arch degrees from Harvard University, with a focus on kinetic architecture and network power.

With “Bucky in Africa: Remembering the Chemistry of Architecture,” Osseo-Asare seeks to decolonize the practice of architecture using a mixed methods approach of action research to investigate the African roots of “design science” from an architectural perspective. The proposal’s focus starts with the decade-long itinerary of the American design scientist R. Buckminster Fuller’s transdisciplinary teaching and research in Africa. By studying the links between indigenous African technologies of design and established conventions of architectural production, Osseo-Asares incorporates linguistics, archival research, fieldwork, and community-based making with academic and community partners across Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The collected research constitutes a sequence of temporary outputs that will also contribute to the development of the next generation of African architects and designers, considered in the context of the global African diaspora.

Osseo-Asare’s Wheelwright proposal research stems from his finalist proposal for the 2019 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, “Bambot: Fufuzela,” which reconceived architecture as living structure with independent agency, understood from an African perspective, in which all material is alive and “spiritually active.” The Wheelwright Prize will support Osseo-Asare’s fieldwork throughout North Africa and Middle East, East Africa, West, Central and Southern Africa, and result in a publication, public lectures, and exhibition content as well as a series of workshops in various African communities.


Repair Revolution! at Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

Installation view of the exhibition Image: Susanne Völlm © ZHdK

AMP spacecraft built in and around the Agbogbloshie scrapyard in Accra, Ghana, and upgraded at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, is now on display at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, as part of the exhibition “Repair Revolution!” on public view from March 31 – October 15, 2023. New features included for this exhibition include latest iteration of the modular “Parawall” archi-technology under development since 2013-2014, with a cross-bracing pattern refined with assistance from current researcher Alireza Zamani working at HuMatLab in dialog with Kwabena Acheampong, who led co-development with AMP Makers Collective community in Accra, Ghana. Folded Aluminum toolbox pods digitally fabricated with a CNC plasma cutter in Ghana are scheduled for installation in Zurich during summer 2023. Yasmine Abbas, who directs Penn State’s Immersive Experiences Lab produced the film explaining aspects of the project “Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform” that the installation, Spacecraft_ZKM @ZHdk, plays on loop within the gallery space of the museum in Zurich, a major venue of international exhibition and design scholarship, which commissioned the new work for the curated group show “Repair Revolution!”

Driving the Human in Berlin

HuMatLab joined with Penn State’s Spatial Æffect Lab to develop the prototype “Habit@” (i.e., habitat), as part of the Driving the Human art-science initiative coordinated by acatech, the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, Forecast, Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, and ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, with support from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Radialsystem, Berlin, Germany. (April 9, 2021 – October 17, 2021). First public installation of fully digitally-fabricated fufuzela (v.2.0, CNC-routed laminated bamboo) and interactive fufuzela skin. “Driving the Human is a catalyst for experimentation, shaping sustainable and collective futures that combine science, technology, and the arts in a transdisciplinary and collaborative approach.” Project overview:

AMP model in action: design pedagogy

HuMatLab presented AMP model to 20 Masters of Architecture and Urban Design students from TU Berlin in the DESIGN STUDIO, WS 2020/2021, taught by Prof. Dr. Philipp MisselwitzMoritz Ahlert: Global Maker Space(s) | Spaces, practices and infrastructures for commons-based urban production

[Initial prototype of AMP spacecraft in Agbogbloshie scrapyard shown in poster below. Image: Julien Lanoo/LOWDO/AMP]

"As global urbanization accelerates, informal settlements, especially in the cities of the Global South, will be where the majority of new urban citizens will live. The way these inhabitants construct their dwellings, or consume and produce resources like energy, food, water, information and manufactured goods will decide if we as a global society will succeed in transitioning towards sustainability and address existentialist threats such climate change, poverty or resource depletion."

"In the context of weak and poorly resourced states in the Global South, the impetus for transitioning has to come from within urban societies themselves. The studio investigate the potentials of bottom-up approaches towards collaborative production, consumption and learning. Based on the principle of low-threshold access and use, rather than capital investment, we will investigate urban workshops, makerspaces, hackerspaces or repair shops. This studio will reflect how can a new maker culture enable local communities and support user driven urban transformation processes and co-production of neighborhoods. Are there counter strategies to create urban futures that are accessible, inclusive and open source, especially for inhabitants of rapidly growing informal settlements? What could be a role for architects and planners?"

"Students of this studio will analyze the spatiality and architecture of existing makerspaces in global south and linked commodity flows, and develop programmatic and architectural proposals for these as part of a broader urban design and intervention strategy to enhance existing and generate new spatial interfaces between the city and makers, neighbors and global networks.We will collaborate closely with Prof. Michelle Christensen and Prof. Florian Conradi (Einstein Center Digital Future), both experts for critical making culture and open science, and a network of of local initiatives across cities such as Medellín, Accra, Lagos, Johannesburg or Amman as clients and collaborators to design strategic scenarios and proposals for infrastructural interventions to evolve them into a series of catalysts for grassroots-driven urban transitioning towards sustainability."