Selasi Setufe MBE is a multifaceted fresh new force within architecture, who tells Rebekah Killigrew about the fundamental need for change within the industry.
Selasi Setufe is a Senior Architect and Innovative Sites Programme Manager at urban regeneration company Be First, she is one of the founders of social enterprise network Black Females in Architecture, and earlier this year she was awarded an MBE for her services to diversity in architecture in the Queen’s 2022 New Year’s Honours.
Selasi’s earliest memory of design and architecture is from secondary school: “that’s when I was first introduced to design and architecture as functional art forms,” she says, “and also where I was introduced to the idea of architecture as a potential career choice.” Following her secondary education, Selasi gained her Part 1 from the University of Portsmouth, her Part 2 from the Manchester School of Architecture, and her Part 3 from RIBA.
Though initially not giving much thought to what kind of architect she wanted to be, Selasi knew that she simply wanted to create places for people; and that initial aspiration developed into something much more profound as her studies progressed.
What kind of architect did you aspire to be?
As I studied I grew increasing aware of how impactful architecture and the spaces we create can be on society and the environment; almost no one can claim to have no significant daily experience of architecture. I therefore aspired to become an architect that contributes positively to society, creating well designed places and spaces in which everyday people can thrive, and to do so in an environmentally sensitive manner.
Who are your design/architecture inspirations?
I generally take most inspiration from those who challenge the status quo and the same applies with both design and architecture. I’m inspired by those that embrace the need for and actively work towards change, inclusivity and meeting the needs of the marginalised.
You were recently awarded an MBE for your services to diversity in architecture in the Queen’s 2022 New Year’s Honours – congratulations! How did this feel and what impact do you hope this might have within the industry?
Thank you! It was a massive surprise and I was incredibly honoured that someone somewhere deemed the work I do worthy of recognition – I do not take that lightly.
My intention is to continue in advocating for diversity and I hope that being awarded an MBE creates a bigger platform to do so in more meaningful and impactful ways than has been possible to date.
I hope it will help elevate the work my fellow co-directors and I have been doing through Black Females In Architecture. I hope to see more opportunities for people like me to contribute to shaping the built environment as well as creating opportunities for people like me to thrive as professionals in the industry.
How do you continue to carve your own path in the industry?
I have found myself having to adopt an open mindset about my path in the industry and moving away from an idea of a typical journey through architecture and leaning into exploring unconventional modes of practice.
Carving my own path in the industry through exploring things I’m passionate and curious about is an approach that has been incredibly challenging, with no guarantees, but also presents unexpected opportunities.
You currently work at urban regeneration company Be First. What does your role entail?
At Be First, I’m a Senior Architect and Innovative Sites Programme Manager. In my role I have the pleasure of championing high quality design across a variety of projects, ranging from large-scale masterplans to small site interventions.
What has been your most rewarding project to date?
I can’t currently point to a single project as being the most rewarding to date although I can confidently say that working at Be First, delivering much needed affordable housing and specialist housing, I’m fortunate to be working on several incredibly rewarding projects. The added fact that I’m able to do this in my home borough of Barking and Dagenham make these projects extremely rewarding for me.
What does the face of architecture look like to you in 10 years time?
Unfortunately, architecture and the profession for the most part remains dominated by western ideals of what the profession is, who it benefits and who its delivered by. This is evident in academia, in practice and in the architecture is produced.
In the next 10 years I hope to see more diversity in architecture. Our societies are not a monolith, they are diverse in demographic, culture, thinking, aspirations and needs. As a profession and as something that serves society, architecture should be equally diverse.
My architectural education has been critical in shaping my thinking and while I value it, I’ve come to realise that there are so many incredible forms of practice that contribute to creating impactful spaces and places and being an architect isn’t a prerequisite for doing this kind of work.
All this considered, I strongly believe that it is essential to diversify the face of architecture, work more closely with those working on the fringes of architecture. I also believe that there is a need to fundamentally change the way we practice and deliver architecture.
The need for this level of change has been the catalyst for the emergence of organisations, initiatives and movements such as Black Females in Architecture (BFA), which I am the co-director of alongside Neba Sere and Akua Danso. BFA is a social enterprise and global community supporting a membership of over 400 women of black and black mixed-heritage to elevate and empower each other. The organisation advocates for diversity, race and gender equity in Architecture, Design & Construction industries.
If you hadn’t become an architect what would you be doing?
I have always had an interest in creating and making as a mechanism of addressing a need or providing a solution so being an entrepreneur of some sort seems most likely.