Photo by John Ulan
The former president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada talks about the social life of buildings, his favourite structure in Edmonton and what good design can learn from nature
Born in Nigeria, architect Samuel Óghale Oboh worked in South Africa and Botswana before moving with his young family to Alberta 13 years ago. A passionate advocate for innovative design, Oboh is a principal with the firm Kasian. In 2015, he was named president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada — the first person of African descent to lead the 109-year-old professional organization — and one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People by Alberta Venture magazine. This year he will take on the role of honorary consul for the Republic of Botswana in Western Canada.
What inspired you to become an architect? My dad was a mechanical engineering technician in Nigeria. His work took us all over the country. By the time I was 20, I’d lived in six cities. But that movement brought me in close contact with very beautiful natural and built environments.
So you discovered design through nature? Nature is very efficient and effective — its systems are integrated and work well, and there’s no waste at all. I’m drawn to biomimicry — the idea that when we do things the way nature does, we have a lot to gain. Being able to emulate or mimic nature is a good way to think about sustainability in design.
How would you describe architecture in Edmonton? The quality of architecture in Edmonton has improved tremendously from the time [in 2005] former mayor Stephen Mandel, ’16 LLD (Honorary), said “no more crap.” Now there’s a consciousness and a desire to have an inspiring, attractive environment. There are still lots of areas we need to work on — how do we make communities more vibrant and walkable? How do we become more sustainable?
Do you have a favourite local building? Peter Hemingway Pool [designed in 1967] is one of those outstanding gems that not only transformed design in Edmonton but made an impact in the architectural world. Also, I’m biased, but my favourite place here right now is the newly renovated Federal Building. [Oboh was the lead architect for master planning on the project.] I beam with pride when I see how good architecture turned the former parking lot into a vibrant public space and preserved the building’s original art deco design.
Why do we need good architecture? Architecture affects our lives in such a way that we hardly take notice. The buildings where a lot of decisions take place — such as parliament or the legislature, or the kitchen where families sit around the table and discuss things — the way those spaces are put together has an enormous influence on how we perceive things. Good architecture can be used to appeal to our collective identity and civic pride. Good architecture can promote social inclusion, accessibility, sustainable lifestyles, and health and wellness.
Why did you do an MA in communications and technology? I wanted to look at architecture as a medium of communication. Architecture can make powerful statements that reflect our values. Winston Churchill once said that we shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us. For my capstone project, I examined the messages we get from the architecture of parliamentary buildings, such as the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., which was built to convey authority, strength and power.
So how does your stamp- and coin-collecting hobby fit into all of this? Those artifacts remind me of all the places I’ve lived and visited — places I hold dear. My favourite stamps commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and feature the work of Arthur Erickson, Douglas Cardinal, ’02 LLD (Honorary), Raymond Moriyama and Moshe Safdie. I know three of these four great Canadian architects well, and they autographed the stamp collection for me. Who would have thought that from my humble beginnings in Africa, I would have the opportunity to build on the work of these great architects?
This interview has been edited and condensed.