Tara Gbolade, Co-Founder of Gbolade Design Studio, chats to Rebekah Killigrew about her early memories of design and her passion for serving the community.
Tara is a Co-Founder of Gbolade Design Studio and a RIBAJ Rising Star Winner who has previously worked at Mace Group. Tara leads the Harlow & Gilston Garden Town Sustainability Strategy, and sits on a few Design Review Panels including; RBKC, Lambeth, and Merton Councils – advising on major planning applications. She is also a founding committee member of the Paradigm Network: a professional network championing Black and Asian representation in the built environment, and sits on the Public Practice Board as an Alumni Observer.
With a sense of community that sits at the heart of Tara’s ideals and ethos, she has taken her passion for sustainable architecture and placemaking to the forefront of Gbolade Design Studio. Tara has a strong belief in the power of learning and growth to effect positive change and is inspired by global activists and projects that encourage communities to thrive.
Here, Tara discusses the rich memories of her childhood home in Nigeria and her early educational years, the people who inspire her in work and life, and what her award-winning studio represents.
What is your earliest memory of design and architecture?
Growing up in the north of Nigeria, I remember my family home well. It was large and featured a compound (courtyard), which led to a generous veranda that wrapped across the front of our home. It acted simultaneously as a formal and informal welcome, and due to its orientation and form, protected us from the suns’ intensity and the rains’ ferocity through a large overhang – this architectural response was typical of many homes in this part of West Africa at the time.
While other parts of our home were typical of any home, it was the veranda I loved the most as I felt that it documented well the happenings of real life. Raised about half a meter above the ground to avoid flooding, I’d play with my siblings on its’ large smooth concrete base; I’d stand here in awe and stunned into silence as the downpour of rain that followed the dry harmattan season released the distinctly beautiful scent of the dry sand being beaten; I’d eavesdrop on my parents and their friends as they had a chinwag on the wick chairs that adorned it. Our veranda was complete with two exquisite life-sized bronze leopards (Nigeria is famed for its’ exquisite bronze art) that terrified any guests who weren’t used to our home – it made me chuckle every single time someone screamed upon noticing them. It had all manner of planting surrounding it; from wild purple hibiscus to midsummer nightingales whose velvety red colours attracted butterflies during the day and released the sweetest scents at night. It was this typical west African architecture of the compound and veranda designed as a social terrain that enabled daily life to thrive which formed my early thoughts of defining ‘home’ as beyond the boundaries of the four walls we are so often used to.
Where did you study?
First in an international school in Nigeria which had a profound impact on my sense of community; the cluster of buildings played an important backdrop to daily life in boarding school; walking from our hostels and classrooms every morning and evening seemed long and arduous, but provided an opportunity for daily exercise and friendships to flourish through conversations and debates. The onsite sports pitch and large canteen, which held all student groups meant leisure activities were built-into our rigorous study programmes, giving us the opportunity for competitive sports between ‘houses’ and friendly rivalry. After moving to the UK; I studied at Liverpool University for my Part 1 and Newcastle University for my Part 2 in Architecture where the process of acculturation perhaps has taken far longer than I had expected – but, armed with the resilience of a true Nigerian-British, I adapted.
What kind of architect did you aspire to be?
I never really aspired to be a particular type of architect, but rather, a particular type of person; one who cares about improving the quality of daily life for people – and my focus on sustainable architecture and placemaking is a response to this. My upbringing in a close-knit family and community has been the backdrop to many decisions I have made; consciously or sub-consciously, and allows me to ask the question: what enables people and communities to thrive? It is this question that my practice looks to respond to daily through our work.
Who are your design inspirations?
I have been long inspired by the great Wangari Maathai, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the social, environmental, and political activist whose passion was infectious while I was still a student in architecture. Her contribution to sustainable development, particularly her work in empowering local communities through the Green Belt Movement led me to explore sustainable development in more depth.
I am also inspired by international environmental lawyer, diplomat, and activist, Farhana Yamin, who was a negotiator on the Paris Agreement, and responsible for spearheading the concept of net zero by 2050, which has become one of the global defining calls of our society. I was moved to action personally and through our practice after reading ‘This is not a Drill’ also co-authored by Farhana under Extinction Rebellion. More recently, my work is influenced by economist Kate Raworth for her work on ‘doughnut economics’ – the economic model which highlights the interconnectedness between environmental and socio-economic sustainability, lying in the sweet spot that is both ecologically safe and socially just for humanity. In this Decade of Action humanity finds itself, the most useful architecture is one that responds to the deep inequalities held in societies worldwide while protecting our planet for future generations.
What does Gbolade Design Studio represent as an architecture firm?
Gbolade Design Studio truly believe that architecture has the power to change and enhance people’s lives in profound ways, and our specialism in residential, commercial, and community developments allows us to reflect this vision.
Our ambition is therefore to make everyday places for people extraordinary, and our projects respond to this vision within the framework of our ethos: Sustainable – ensuring that both embodied carbon and operational energy are vastly reduced in dealing with the environmental aspects of sustainability, embedding rich biophilic design that addresses peoples social health and wellbeing, and addressing fuel-poverty for economic sustainability; design led – ensuring developments are distinctively local and contextually-driven while creating shared spaces (roads and parks) that accommodate all generations and mobilities; Innovative – through our product and/or process using intelligent BIM platforms and undertaking R&D on generative design; and Commercially-minded – ensuring that developments are optimised for commercial return for our clients and eventual end-users.
Our practice directors also advocate for high-quality design and equity through sitting on Local authority led Design Review Panels (DRP’s), contributing to industry-wide sustainability guidance, and sit on professional body working groups (such as the RIBA). We are particularly proud to be founding committee members for the Paradigm Network; the well-respected professional network that champions Black and Asian representation in the construction industry.
So as a practice, I’d say we represent a desire to keep learning and growing in order to bring needed change in the built environment.
How do you continue to carve your own path in the industry as a studio and an individual?
I have always been led by what I believe are the most important issues of our time, and where I can make the greatest impact. So, our work as a practice will never be fixed in a theme or place or time as we have committed to prioritise learning and growth. We have therefore been intentional in choosing the types of projects we work on and the types of clients we work with, to ensure they align with our values. Having a strong set of values alongside our ethos makes it quite straightforward to make decisions that are congruent to our belief systems and vision, only taking on opportunities that align with these.
What has been your biggest design commission to date?
While not our biggest project at the moment, but one we are very excited about is Hermitage Mews in Crystal Palace, London. Designed to be net zero in line with the RIBA 2030 climate challenge, Hermitage Mews is a compilation of eight 3-4Bed high-quality townhouses on a long and thin plot of land in a suburban part of the city. The schemes’ sustainability ambition was radically upgraded from its original Architects’ design to ensure it was net zero. Embodied carbon has been addressed by adopting a timber frame construction, reclaimed brickwork used for the red-brick façade with lime mortar to ensure brickwork can be re-used in future, and recycled glass to form permeable paving and other hard landscape. Operational energy has been addressed through a high-performing fabric-first approach, including triple-glazing; an air-source heat pump will provide heating and hot water; and PV panels contribute to on-site electricity generation. The project started on site in October 2020 and is due to be completed in winter 2021.
What does the face of architecture look like to you in 10 years time?
My sincere hope is that the purveyors of architecture are reflective of the communities they serve. I sincerely hope that architecture responds to the environmental, socio-economic and equality challenges posed by humanity in this early 21st century by default, and that in 10years from now, our communities are less polarised and live more harmoniously. For this, I have faith in the next generation – I am in awe of their attitude towards, and ability to, cause change.