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contribute to Pan-African exhibition

Visitors take in “Fufuzela­ – Lieu Utile,” as part of the “UFA – Université des Futurs Africains [University of African Futures]” exhibition at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France. Image: Provided by Y. Abbas

Penn State faculty members DK Osseo-Asare, assistant professor of architecture and engineering design, and Yasmine Abbas, assistant teaching professor of architecture and engineering design, have designed an architectural space within the “UFA – Université des Futurs Africains [University of African Futures]” exhibition at the Le Lieu Unique, a national center for contemporary culture in Nantes, France. 

The exhibition, which opened on April 9 and runs through Aug. 29, is part of a year-long "Africa 2020" event that was launched as a laboratory for production and the spread of knowledge and ideas generated out of African cultural heritage and knowledge systems. At the opening of the Africa 2020 season, which was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron noted that both its “multidisciplinary nature – visual arts, performing arts, cinema, literature, science, technology, entrepreneurship, gastronomy, fashion, design, architecture” and its inclusion of 54 African countries make the Africa 2020 event “unprecedented.” 

Curated by Oulimata Gueye, the UFA exhibition explores 21st century relationships between technology, science, ecology, care and the emancipatory potential of pan-African paradigms of computational knowledge. The projects on display engage the continued relevance in art and design of the term “HistoFuturist,” which is defined by African American science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler as “someone who looks forward without turning his or her back on the past, combining an interest in the human factor and in technology.” The work also reflects concept of “active utopia,” a term advanced by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, whereby African actors create their “own metaphors of the future” based on indigenous models.

Osseo-Asare and Abbas’ featured work is the latest evolution of their open-source ”Fufuzela” design research, experimental adaptive bamboo structures engineered to function at the intersection of architecture and furniture while integrating biology with environmental design and engineering. These kit building systems leverage a novel, bamboo-composite, steel joint mechanism to enable low-cost construction of dynamic modular spaces that allow for a hybrid or “blended” experience of physical and digital realities. At Le Lieu Unique, the designed space is titled “Fufuzela­ – Lieu Utile,” which translates as “the useful space,” and serves as a central makerspace-type installation within the exhibition that can be used as a gathering place for research, meetings, collaborative work and performances.

The research has been supported by the Museum of Modern Art, Penn State Materials Research Institute’s Covestro “Materials Matter at the Human Level” humanitarian materials initiative, and the Collaborative Design Research Center in the Stuckeman School. Central to the project is the approach of Osseo-Asare and Abbas to connect Penn State researchers in the Humanitarian Materials Lab (HuMatLab) and the Spatial Æffect Lab jointly with high-end fabricators in the United States and Europe, as well as grassroots artisanal makers and engineering technicians in Ghana and West Africa, to work on materials-driven, collaborative design research.

A dozen Penn State graduate and undergraduate students from both the Stuckeman School and the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP), have participated in the Fufuzela collaborative design research project, including Lizz Andrzejewski, Paniz Farrokhsiar, Sam Rubenstein, Nicholas Fudali, Bryan Ray and Danielle Vickers. In addition, the work of current master of science in architecture students Tiffanie Leung and Mahan Motalebi in the past year garnered them credit in the UFA exhibition.

Leung, who worked with Osseo-Asare to study the “bone” morphology and joint mechanics and maintained the open-source repository throughout the co-creation process, reflects that “ ... one can see how the Fufuzela can begin to emerge as an organism capable of development and revision beyond the lab.”

Motalebi, who assisted Abbas with computing the threaded “skin” of the structure, said, “One thing that I like about [the] Fufuzela is the way it gathers people from … different parts of the world with people working on it from different locations … I see [the] Fufuzela as an object and a structure that provides the space for more human entanglement, and I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of that.”

Since France was under lockdown due a COVID-19 surge in early spring, Osseo-Asare and Abbas could not install the exhibit themselves; however, students from Ecole des Beaux-arts de Nantes St. Nazaire have worked with the pair remotely to make their design come to fruition. 

According to Osseo-Asare, both the Stuckeman School Shop and the Digital Fabrication Lab were “invaluable resources to support building physical mockups and using computer-controlled rapid prototyping equipment to iteratively test design components.” The Fufuzela design research project is part of the Material Matters (MM) research cluster in the Department of Architecture.

In parallel to the exhibition in France, several additional modules of the Fufuzela have been constructed in Ghana by members of the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) Makers Collective in collaboration with a local partner, the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge. The modules are slated to travel to eight regions in Ghana for codesign, knowledge exchange and curation workshops conducted as a third cycle of ANO‘s Mobile Museum project that Osseo-Asare collaborated to pilot in 2015. 

Founded by renowned writer, filmmaker, historian and cultural theorist Nana Oforiatta Ayim, ANO is currently leading a complete re-establishment of Ghana’s museum sector on behalf of the Government of Ghana. In January 2021, Osseo-Asare authored a chapter titled “Architecture” for the Ghana Museums Report, as part of the President’s Committee on Museums and Monuments, titled “Fufuzela: Futuring the Pan-African Museum.”

The AMP, founded by Osseo-Asare and Abbas, is a transnational project that helps bolster maker ecosystems in Africa by encouraging grassroots makers, students and young professionals to collaborate to reutilize recycled materials. The project has garnered numerous awards, most recently winning the Smart Cities Urban Innovation Award for Citizen Engagement in the Le Monde 2020 World Urban Innovation Challenge. The project won the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Challenge 2013, a 2017 SEED Award for Public Interest Design from Design Corps and a Design Award Commendation, Social Impact, from the American Institute of Architects-Austin 2020 Design Awards.

Osseo-Asare is a cofounding principal of Low Design Office, an architecture and integrative design studio based in Austin, Texas, and Tema, Ghana, that explores the links between sustainability, technology and geopolitics. The firm was recently named a winner of the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices 21 competition.

At Penn State, Osseo-Asare directs the HuMatLab, which triangulates the Stuckeman School, SEDTAPP in the College of Engineering and the Materials Research Institute. The lab serves as a key driver of the University’s Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering and Design with Africa (AESEDA), a cross-university initiative to leverage teaching, research and service to better the lives of those living in Africa and the diaspora. Osseo-Asare’s research spans design innovation, open-source urbanism, digital fabrication and architecture robots.

Abbas, who is also affiliated with the College of Arts and Architecture’s Center for Pedagogy in Art and Design (C-PAD), researches the computational design of ambiances and the making of environments for living across contemporary conditions of expanded physical, digital and mental mobilities. The Spatial Æffect Lab, which she founded, advances atmospheres design as a general approach to parametric placemaking. The two modules of Fufuzela on display as part of the UFA exhibition investigate optical effects of structural color in threaded spatial envelopes.

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