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Honour bound

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Once a 'scourge to colonialism', Elsie Owusu, a founder of the Society of Black Architects, is now an OBE, overseeing projects at home and abroad

Elsie Owusu, who used to dub herself 'a scourge to colonialism', was astonished to be honoured by the Queen in the Birthday Honours list. 'Being something called an Order of the British Empire feels odd for someone who spent her formative years as an anti-colonialist, ' she says. 'I think I was shouting at somebody when I found out and I stopped dead, I was so surprised.' She does acknowledge, however, that 'it's very nice' and is recognition for the work of the Society of Black Architects, which she helped to set up. 'It's good to be seen as a group that makes a difference.'

Being speechless is not something 49-year-old Owusu is used to - she has had plenty to shout about in the society's 13 years, though she feels much has improved.

'When we started in 1990 we campaigned against rather than for things, ' she explains.

'Over the years it's become more positive, and what we were trying to achieve is happening.' This includes a funded study by CABE and the Policy Studies Institute on ethnic minority students, and CABE bursaries. However, when she recently quizzed the commission on its enabling panel, black representation was pathetic. Indeed, probably fewer than 100 of the UK's 30,000 architects are black. 'But overall, things have changed for the better, 'Owusu concedes. 'We feel able to stop soldiering so hard and think about the pleasure of architecture and making things.'

Big things are happening in Ghana for a team led by Elsie Owusu Architects, which includes Richard Rogers Partnership and Llewelyn-Davies. It has won planning consent for a 40ha site in the capital of Accra for leisure complexes and homes (AJ 19.6.03).

The project grew out of a competition, launched by Ghanaian president John Kufuor, for a palace - which raised Owusu's hackles.

'We said we wouldn't design a presidential residence but proposed a strategic framework for regenerating Accra. It was so far from the brief it threw the jury and we had to explain ourselves to the president, ' says Owusu. Surprisingly, the president agreed.

Accra has grown explosively in 20 years, with zero investment. Several 'catalytic projects' include a seafront regeneration initiative with UNESCO and a Public Finance Initiative transit system, including Meditram mobile surgeries. A 'telemedia' project is looking at quick-build hospital buildings, with materials such as freight containers, and software to send X-rays online is in the pipeline.

But the framework study may rankle locals eager to see results by 2007, the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence. 'So many African countries have been subjected to studies and are fed up with Western consultants swanning in and writing tomes that get bunged on a shelf, ' says Owusu. 'This is project-based. They are saying, 'don't tell us what you're going to write, there's the site, what are you going to do with it?' But you need those studies or someone builds without thinking of context.'

Nevertheless, Owusu's proposal, partfunded by the Department of Trade and Industry, has made political waves in Accra.

It has chivvied the government into creating a project champion, a private-sector minister and a ministry for modernising the capital. 'This is amazing, ' says Owusu, 'there are no regeneration ministers in Europe, let alone in Africa. Kufuor is keen on regeneration and a good modern patron.'

But none of this puts money on the table, so Owusu's team has to find it. 'We set up a development corporation and have gone from knocking our heads against a brick wall chasing UK jobs to a situation where people enthuse about offering us projects. As soon as we have an idea, they say 'brilliant, do it', and we have to say 'hang on'. But being designer, developer and client in some cases is marvellous. It's great to land in Ghana and be welcomed as an architect without being called a 'bloody architect'.'

Owusu, who came to England in 1962 with her mother and diplomat father, has not always been made to feel welcome.

Though the privileged nine-year-old was chauffeured to and from school, she was barred from a tennis club and a friend's parents refused to let her swim in their pool.

By the time she went to the Architectural Association in the mid-1970s she had had a child, Kesewa, and was still shocked by the raw racism and sexism of the building game.

The AA was a disappointment to Owusu, who was keen on architecture with more social bite. (Owusu campaigned against the demolition of Victorian houses in Brixton, and will do likewise if needed to save old buildings in Accra. ) Her first job with Solon Housing Association threw up many of the same issues. 'How can you create an architecture for people with little money and allow them to control the process in the way monied people have control?' Some of these problems grind on, and the firm she formed in 1985 works mostly overseas.

'You reach a point when you no longer have the energy to schlep and schmooze, with the growing awareness that you don't have that much professional life left, ' she says. And despite changes for the better, Owusu shudders at the thought of ethnic-minority architects hacking out back extensions and wasting their potential.

'People talk about black architects giving value to inner-city regeneration but it's lip service. The architectural oligarchy perpetuates itself, and the debate becomes sterile and ineffective. Despite talk of the benefits of a culturally diverse design team for schools and hospitals, it doesn't happen and everybody loses out.'

However, she is hopeful that the momentum for change is unstoppable, and though the politics of committees puts her off a RIBA presidency bid, Annette Fisher's recent tilt bodes well. 'Annette is incredibly dynamic and would have made a huge difference to the institute, ' she says. 'It's only a matter of time before somebody else comes along with similar dedication.'

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