With expansive approaches to architecture and design, the practitioners we profile in this multi-part feature are unleashing vibrant new aesthetics, reimagining our shared spaces for better inclusivity and forging new connections for collaboration. In Spatial Reimaginings, we talk to global design talents Adam Nathaniel Furman, Germane Barnes, Lanza, Community Design Agency and Burr Studio.
Adam Nathaniel Furman’s growing portfolio — which includes furniture, interiors and public spaces — exudes joy with its effervescent palette and playful shapes. Scarabesque is a campy throne with a Barbie-pink fibreglass seat perched on swirling, lemon-yellow legs made from powder-coated steel. (Speaking of Barbie, Furman’s Glowbules light fixture is featured in Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster.) On a larger scale, Abundance, an accordion-like wall, greets commuters with a burst of rainbow hues as they travel through Paddington Station, the bustling but decidedly grey rail hub in Furman’s hometown of London, England.
Beneath the brightness is a deeply personal narrative. Furman, who identifies as agender and uses they/them pronouns, says design is partly their “therapy” to overcome the traumas of growing up queer at an unaccepting point in Britain’s history. Furman’s childhood was marked by Section 28, a now-defunct Thatcher-era law that banned teachers from talking about homosexuality. “Section 28 was incredibly damaging,” explains Furman. “I was asked not to attend school at one point because my teachers couldn’t deal with the homophobic bullying I was experiencing. They simply couldn’t talk about it.”
For solace, Furman wandered London, sketching what they saw. “Buildings were my silent friends,” they say. “Buildings don’t bully you.” Furman’s love of urban forms led them to study at London’s Architectural Association, where they later co-led a course on colour. Although Furman did not go on to qualify as an architect, their passion is still evident in installations such as the Croydon Colonnade, where they used a gradient of blue tiles to articulate the base of a 50-storey residential tower. “I really like corporate architecture that manages to be artistic,” they say. “There is something wonderful about squeezing elegance out of a tight commercial budget.”
Furman uses both their design aesthetic and their rising influence to be an unapologetic voice for queer inclusion. When the Victoria & Albert Museum removed a poster that read “Some people are trans, get over it!” from its Young V&A wing, Furman called for a boycott and public protest (“Sadly, no one else joined me,” they say. “People are just too afraid in this era where all non-right-wing protest is dismissed by being labelled ‘cancel culture’ ”).
In October 2023, Furman designed a space at London’s Kew Gardens to house “Queer Nature,” a show featuring video interviews with over a dozen horticulturists, scientists, authors, drag artists and activists, highlighting the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the great outdoors. For the exhibit, the walls were festooned with green fabric panels covered in William Morris–style flowers, recalling the wallpaper in the Paris hotel room where Oscar Wilde died in exile. “It’s in the spirit of Victorian aesthetics, layered with flowers that have been symbolically important to the queer community — and in a deep green that recalls how that colour was a cipher for queerness and decadent interiors.” MH
To say that the past couple of years have been good to Germane Barnes — fresh off his Rome Prize fellowship and Venice Biennale participation — is a tremendous understatement. Yet if we need to identify an annus mirabilis, it might be 2021, when he was included in MoMA’s “Reconstructions” exhibition, contributed the Block Party installation to the Chicago Architecture Biennial and received both the Architectural League Prize and Harvard GSD’s Wheelwright Prize.
An exhibition exploring “the relationship between architecture and the spaces of African American and African diaspora communities,” “Reconstructions” definitively catapulted Barnes’s career into the spotlight. By this point, he had already been prolific, beginning with his work in Opa-locka, a years-long project that had first brought the Chicago native to Miami (where he’s been based for 10 years now) at the age of 27. At the time, the district was doubly distinguished: by its high crime rate and its unique Moorish revival architecture. As its designer-in-residence, Barnes led a multi-phase refurbishment that included transforming a roofing company’s factory into an arts centre with a shared vegetable garden. Yet until MoMA came calling, this important work was flying under the radar. “I wasn’t getting recognition because the budgets weren’t high,” says Barnes, “and the work was at a very basic level of necessity.”
Around the same time as the MoMA exhibition, Design Miami and the Chicago Biennial took notice of Barnes, and he began to create the types of installations — architecture at the intersection of art infused with Black identity and socio-political commentary — that he’s since become known for globally. It’s also when he decided to apply for the Rome Prize with a proposal to research North African contributions to classical architecture and the provenance of porches in ancient civilizations — and won. During his subsequent fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, he found plenty of archeological evidence for his thesis and evolved it into the basis for Griot, the work he showed at the Venice Architecture Biennale. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to design a brand new column model. Because if we already have this stuff that’s stolen, I’m going to do my own column order that references this history and I’ll break every rule that’s within classical architecture — and design it based on identity and migration and labour.’ ”
His participation in marquee art and design world events (in November, the Museum of Art and Design Miami will present his gathering space, called Ukhamba, based on African woven-wood baskets) hasn’t distracted him from locally rooted projects. As an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture and the director of its Community, Housing & Identity Lab, he’s been working in Palm Beach County neighbourhoods that have been historically disenfranchised and disinvested, like Delray Beach, where he’s creating a Bahamian marketplace with a wonderfully faceted architectural awning.
“I would say my number one priority is to make my family proud,” Barnes says of his ambition. “They have influenced me in many ways, from my style to the way that I design architecture; they don’t realize how impactful they are. My second priority is to make nice spaces for people who have historically not had nice spaces. There are a lot of marginalized communities that have had spaces taken from them, either due to gentrification or urban renewal or just simply by a loss of finances, the result of wars and pandemics and recessions.” EP
Shortly after opening shop in 2015, Lanza — a Mexico City boutique founded by architects Isabel Abascal and Alessandro Arienzo — was commissioned to design a suite of bathrooms along a cycle path in Ecatepec de Morelos, just north of the city. Rather than mere pit stops, their bathrooms were public kiosks, with planters and shaded rest spaces. The local government failed to maintain the amenities. They’ve since been picked apart and blanketed in graffiti. As infrastructure, they’re no longer functional, yet they still exert an aesthetic presence. “They’re strongly vandalized,” says Abascal, “but the architecture remains.”
Abascal and Arienzo are fascinated by the life cycle of buildings — the way they morph over time into entities their creators never envisioned. For them, architecture is not about control but rather contingency and flux. “We try to make architecture thinking of what the second life of our projects might be,” says Arienzo. For Design Week Mexico 2018, they built a temporary pavilion above a pond in a public park: a narrow corridor featuring a stone floating in mid-air, seemingly defying the laws of gravity. After dismantling the project, they sent the materials, mostly compressed earth blocks, to a town destroyed by the 2017 Puebla earthquake, to be reconstituted anew.
Some of their projects are original builds; others are interventions that give existing structures a second life. For Concéntrico, the annual design festival in Logroño, Spain, the duo adorned an angular Franco-era courtyard with three massive red-brick circles. That simple move — a soft flourish in a hard, fascistic space — completely changed the ambience. Citizens who’d always steered clear of the courtyard suddenly found themselves drawn toward it.
Lanza’s early conceptual work has gotten it the kind of attention that leads to more traditional commissions: a fusion restaurant where, from a distance, the pink concrete panels resemble slabs of marble; a forest home made of golden brick with an adjacent yard demarcated by a curvilinear wall. “We envisioned wild nature inside the yard,” Arienzo explains. The abandoned bathrooms in Ecatepec, meanwhile, are sitting among the lush foliage. “The beauty of the space itself remains,” Arienzo says. SL
Half a kilometre from the Sanjaynagar slum, an informal settlement in Ahmednagar, India, there’s a housing project composed of grim brick-and-mortar mid-rises. The regional government invited Sanjaynagar residents to relocate to the nearby buildings for free, but most declined the offer. For architect Sandhya Naidu Janardhan, founder of the social-impact firm Community Design Agency, this decision is hardly surprising. Sanjaynagar, she explains, isn’t just an agglomeration of shanties; it’s a neighbourhood, a place where parents watch over each other’s children, where people cook for one another, where Hindus coexist peacefully with Muslims, upper castes with Dalits. “Residents feel that it’s important to stick together,” she says.
Her firm specializes in people-centric design. Recent projects include a co-working space for e-waste sorters, a safe place of business for sex workers and a suite of public amenities for a Mumbai housing project. The most ambitious undertaking is an in situ rebuild of Sanjaynagar. Before commencing the design, Janardhan spent nine months consulting with residents. The result: a planned community of eight mid-rises with ample public spaces, including wraparound balconies and internal courtyards.
One building is already completed. The materials — fly ash bricks, steel railings, decorative and shade-producing bamboo — are hardy and elegant, and the engineering program, which includes pile foundations and load-bearing arches, guarantees that the structure will endure despite being sited on spongy terrain. Funding for all eight buildings will come from governments, donors and residents themselves. The amount won’t be insignificant: While Janardhan believes in being thrifty, she doesn’t believe in being cheap. “With low-cost design,” she says, “you end up squeezing on the square footage and taking away the social infrastructure — the very thing that makes communities strong.”
The best aspect of the project is the respect it conveys for Sanjaynagar itself. “We shouldn’t look at this community as just a collection of families,” says Janardhan, “but rather as a larger, cohesive unit.” She sees the slum not as a problem to be solved but as a successful experiment in communal living — one that can be made even more successful. SL
When a new client comes to Burr Studio, the architects go with them to scout locations. This work may seem like the purview of real estate agents, but Jorge “Jano” Sobejano, a partner at the Madrid firm (along with Elena Fuertes, Ramón Martínez and Álvaro Molins), insists that it’s fundamentally architectural in nature. Client conversations don’t focus on resale value (Burr designs are too idiosyncratic to be blue-chip investments anyway) but rather on the potential of an existing post-industrial building to be transformed into what Sobejano calls a “programmatic hybrid” using the firm’s “strategic tool set.” The question, then, becomes how — with a few ingenious tweaks — can a factory or warehouse be retrofitted into something it wasn’t intended to be?
Each of Burr’s adaptive re-use projects is an answer to this question. The team begins by refurbishing everything that needs a touch-up, from the plumbing to the trusswork to the plasters. Then it adds a few choice architectural interventions, which are both minimal (in the sense that there aren’t many of them) and bold (in the sense that they’re conspicuous and unique).
For Eulalia, a warehouse residence for a collector of art and objects, they built industrial sliding doors and stairs with twisty yellow banisters — architectural curios worthy of the owner’s collection. For Blasón, a home for a writer, they bisected the main space of a former automotive workshop with a cement-block wall, creating both a living room and a gallery. And for NN06, a family home in a former office, they suspended a bookshelf painted cobalt blue from a steel ceiling beam: The fixture almost touches the floor but not quite. “The shelf is a totem,” says Sobejano. “It stands in the middle of the house, demarcating space and giving everything around it a sense of order.”
The beauty of Burr’s adaptive process is that it makes for a certain kind of architecture — expansive, prismatic, occasionally cathedralesque — out of what’s already been created. “Working in pre-existing structures gives you the chance to inhabit incredible spaces,” Sobejano says, “which you would maybe never build nowadays.” Burr’s job is to honour and augment such buildings, allowing them to express their subtle beauty. “Our clients get to keep the high ceilings and the volumes of air,” says Sobejano. “All of that is already there.” SL
The practices of Lanza, Germane Barnes, Community Design Agency, Burr and Adam Nathanial Furman are creating more inclusive and equitable public spaces and installations.