How POoR Collective empowers the youth of today

By Ewa Effiom

“Architecture can take decades, and it’s the young people of today who will inherit the architecture of tomorrow.”

Ambling Regent’s Park in autumn of 2021, you may have happened upon a series of polychromatic sculptural benches, arranged on a circular plinth under tree-like canopies. This psychedelic installation – rendered in bright tertiary colours and dubbed ‘Bringing Home to the Unknown’ – wasn’t the work of a feted artist. Rather, it was conceived by a host of year-10 students from Dagenham’s Mayesbrook Park School, as part of a centenary programme for the area’s huge Becontree Estate. The young creators of this vivid intervention were given essential guidance by a group called the Power Out of Restriction (or POoR) Collective – this year’s Emerging Design Medal winner.

POoR is a London-based social enterprise, launched in 2019 and helmed by architects Shawn Adams, Larry Botchway and Ben Spry, and accountant Matt Harvey- Agyemang. Its goal is to empower the youth of today by leveraging its founders’ design expertise and industry connections – engaging them in the decision-making processes of their local areas, of which they’re often disregarded. It strives to give agency and, in doing so, engender inclusivity. Adams puts it plainly when he says, “Architecture can take decades, and it’s the young people of today who will inherit the architecture of tomorrow.” Righting this imbalance is POoR’s impetus.

POoR achieves empowerment via community-led projects that seek to give the rising generation more say in the planning outcomes of their locales; representing the under-represented by fostering their voices and having them assist in the co-design process. ‘Bringing Home to the Unknown’ and a ‘night market’ project for Bexleyheath’s High Streets for All programme – in which public realm interventions were designed with the local youth and prototyped – are prime examples of this.

Another way in which POoR empowers the next generation is by using its founders’ connections to create professional entry pathways – teaming up with industry partners to offer paid opportunities to those interested in pursuing a career in architecture or design. Among others, POoR has facilitated initiatives such as the Makers & Mentors scheme, in conjunction with The Office Group (TOG), wherein three design students were paired with three prominent British furniture designers to deliver pieces for TOG’s White & Black Building in Shoreditch (below). Inherently collaborative, POoR exists at the confluence of practitioner and participant – operating at the intersection of fairness, respect and autonomy.

In granting agency to the young, it circumvents traditions of systematic exclusion in urban decision-making; by harnessing their collective imaginations, it opposes architects’ often messianic urges, instead striving for something more socially progressive, devoid of ego and, most importantly, non-hierarchical. POoR follows in the well-trodden footsteps of those that seek to break down barriers to entry. To appropriate a Virgil Abloh-ism, the collective provides the “cheat codes” – that is, revealing industry secrets in order to break down barriers – with the hope that the built environment will become more representative of all of society and not just cater to the whims of architecture’s old guard. If nothing else, this is worthy of commendation, and this prize only solidifies POoR Collective’s position as a pioneer in the field of socially conscious design.