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Social enterprise POoR Collective win the Emerging Design Medal at London Design Festival 2023

From left to right: Shawn Adams, Larry Botchway, Ben Spry and Matt Harvey  (Tobi Sobowale)
From left to right: Shawn Adams, Larry Botchway, Ben Spry and Matt Harvey (Tobi Sobowale)

The Emerging Design Medal at the London Design Festival 2023 has been awarded to Power Out of Restriction (POor) Collective.

Acting as both prescient nod to the next big thing and platform for said blossoming career, the medal is typically handed out to a singular talent — emphasis on singular.

Previous winners include Bethan Laura Wood, Yinka Ilori and Mac Collins, a key contributor to the commended British Design Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.

But it is a foursome — Shawn Adams, Larry Botchway, Ben Spry and Matt Harvey-Agyemang — who have picked up this year’s emerging prize as co-founders of the social enterprise and design practice they set up in 2019.

POor Collective seeks to give communities greater agency over their built environment by engaging young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, with architecture and design projects that produce tangible results.

“We wanted to be able to provide opportunities for them, to teach them transferable skills, to show them that if they’re creative and have a creative mind that they can apply that,” says Adams.

Partially, he says, it is about filling a gap left by the closure of youth clubs and community centres, which the group all benefited from growing up in working class families in south London and Kent.

For ‘Bringing Home to the Unknown’, Mayesbrook Park School pupils helped create a colourful public realm installation for Regent’s Park (Luke O’Donovan)
For ‘Bringing Home to the Unknown’, Mayesbrook Park School pupils helped create a colourful public realm installation for Regent’s Park (Luke O’Donovan)

The Collective moniker is “intentionally non-hierarchical” says Spry. “Their ideas are just as valid as important as ours. Everyone is an expert in their own experience”. He mentions teenagers who lack the confidence to draw a stick man, nevermind apply for architecture courses traditionally the preserve of the wealthy and well-connected.

It is important work that requires sensitivity and connection — though “the power of the co-design process” can spring surprises.

When asked by the RIBA to create a public realm installation with a group of Year 10s from Mayesbrook Park School, a pupil referral unit in Dagenham, the four soon started discussing where it should be placed on the local Becontree estate. The teenagers had other ideas.

“They said, ‘oh no, we want it to be in central London!’” says Botchway, “because they wanted people to see their work.

“These young people might have an Oyster card, but central London doesn’t feel like theirs. You can see Canary Wharf from their school, and if anything it enforces that experience of distance.”

What landed in Regent’s Park was a colourful, carousel-like pavilion, inspired in part by areas of the school where pupils said they felt happy, including a car park with seating and a security guard — “the kind of passive surveillence” Botchway says can actually facilitate a sense of freedom.

The team has also supported a Makers & Mentors scheme with The Office Group and, most recently, facilitated the creation of inclusive street furniture for Bexleyheath.

They met through the University of Portsmouth, finding kinship among peers with architect parents. “None of us knew architects growing up,” says Botchway, “Working class people use builders, not architects.”

At one university interview he was asked if he’d chosen architecture as it began with ‘A’. Later, when a module required students to design social housing, he realised he was the only one to have lived in a council home.

For Harvey-Agyemang, who has a finance rather than an architecture background, the sudden closure of the McDonalds in his hometown of Mitcham was an unlikely catalyst for the work he does today.

“Afterwards I realised it was because it was attracting crime, but it would have been nice to have been consulted, because if young people really cared then that might have stopped. Who knows? We might still have that McDonalds.” Instead, an informal meeting point for kids from all the local schools was lost and Mitcham “kind of turned into a ghost town after that”.

Furniture made as part of the Makers & Mentors scheme resides permanently in TOG’s The Black and White Building (Ian Tillotson)
Furniture made as part of the Makers & Mentors scheme resides permanently in TOG’s The Black and White Building (Ian Tillotson)

For now, POor Collective is a part-time gig, but there are tentative plans to pull away from other commitments. So what’s next? “We really want to do a youth centre,” says Adams.

“Moving forward it would be great to see more practices that aren’t focusing on that one designer or that sole name because we know in design it’s always collaborative work. I think we need to move away from this kind of egotistical, self-centered approach to design.

“It’s about a process, about a collective, almost a movement in a way.”

Judge Jane Withers said: “Emerging Designer is often the toughest of all the medals to award as it’s not about judging a designer’s track record but taking an informed punt on their future.

“The judges were really impressed by the collaborative ethos and person-first approach of the social enterprise POor Collective and their commitment to championing young people.

“We are excited to see the impact POor Collective’s creative approach to co-designing with young people and harnessing the power of collective imagination could have on the design of schools and other community buildings in future.

“As funding cuts have affected art and design teaching in schools, it is encouraging to see architects finding other ways to engage creatively with young people and give them a voice in the debate about public space.”

The Festival has also announced its medal winners in the three other categories.

Structural engineer and AKT II co-founder Hanif Kara OBE wins the London Design Medal, while Pooja Agrawal, the CEO of social enterprise Public Practice, is awarded the Design Innovation Medal.

Potter and UCA chancellor Magdalene Odundo DBE has been recognised with the Lifetime Achievement Medal.