Ben Flatman talks to Lanre and Tara Gbolade about setting up their practice and their vision for architecture as a tool for social and environmental change


Source: Tamed Designs

Lanre and Tara Gbolade

For a growing proportion of architects, a fulfilling career is not just about achieving commercial success, but also about engaging directly with the big issues of the day, and contributing to real social and environmental change. Few practices exemplify this approach better than Gbolade Design Studio, led by the husband and wife team of Lanre and Tara Gbolade.

From delivering sustainable housing to exhibiting at the Venice Biennale and working on the redesign of one of the UK鈥檚 busiest train stations, the practice seeks to blend its principles seamlessly with project delivery.

For Gbolade Design Studio, this means that work encompasses not just buildings, but the people, places and culture that surround them. The practice is currently involved in the new Waterloo Station masterplan for Lambeth council and Network Rail. Working alongside Grimshaw, it is focused on the placemaking strategy and on the meanwhile uses during implementation.

It鈥檚 a project with very real resonance for the practice, as its own studio is located on Westminster Bridge Road, and very much part of the immediate context of the station. 鈥淲e鈥檙e in Waterloo, so we know the area well,鈥 says Tara. 鈥淲e understand the challenges, and the air and noise pollution.

鈥淏ut we鈥檙e also profoundly aware that what we have here is a vibrant, wonderful part of the city. It鈥檚 a wonderful part of Lambeth. But, like everywhere else, it has this problems.鈥

The project aims to transform the UK鈥檚 busiest transport hub, along with its surrounding public realm. This ambitious initiative seeks to enhance the daily experience for the 100 million passengers who pass through the station each year.

The project explores the potential to unlock and rejuvenate the edges of Waterloo Station. The perimeter will be transformed into active, permeable and welcoming frontages, featuring new fully pedestrianised plazas. The intention is that these changes will encourage increased footfall along vibrant, safe and walkable streets, both during day and at night.

Image Credits - Grimshaw. Grimshaw & Gbolade Design Studioo_Waterloo Station Masterplan

Source: Grimshaw and Gbolade Design Studio

Waterloo Station masterplan - public realm

鈥淭he masterplan vision also looks at how we address challenges such as air pollution by increasing green routes, whether that鈥檚 by trees or low-level planting,鈥 explains Lanre Gbolade. 鈥淲e want to create places for people to dwell as they come out of the station, rather than just rushing through it.鈥

鈥淚t鈥檚 a fascinating challenge, as we鈥檙e having to consider the needs of so many different types of users, including office workers, students and tourists,鈥 he adds. 鈥淲aterloo also has this challenge of having so many exits that nobody even knows about, as well as this subterranean world of Victorian tunnels that we鈥檙e trying to reanimate and integrate with the station and wider public realm.鈥

The practice hopes that the project will better connect the station with Waterloo鈥檚 rich cultural and commercial heritage, with the masterplan designed to create connections to key local attractions. These include the street market on Lower Marsh, the vibrant entertainment and nightlife along The Cut, the cultural landmarks of London鈥檚 South Bank and the unique graffiti art scene on Leake Street.


Source: Shutterstock

The Leake Street tunnel beneath Waterloo Station - a haven for graffiti artists

鈥淎t the moment people en route to the South Bank are just looking to get there as quickly as possible鈥, says Tara. 鈥淏ut there鈥檚 a real opportunity for people to actually dwell in and around the station.鈥

鈥淲e also want to open up new and old routes into and under the station, such as the Milk Passage, which runs north to south and would create a new connection to Lower Marsh.鈥

鈥淭he graffiti tunnel is just outside our window,鈥 adds Lanre. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a really exciting masterplan and I think it will really encourage lots of people to be far more integrated with the station and the wider area.鈥

Image Credits - Grimshaw. Grimshaw & Gbolade Design Studioo_Waterloo Station Masterplan_New Southern Concourse_Undercrofts

Source: Grimshaw and Gbolade Design Studio

Waterloo Station masterplan - new southern concourse undercroft


Both Lanre and Tara Gbolade trace some of their earliest memories of architecture to childhood in Nigeria. Lanre鈥檚 family moved to the UK when he was four, so memories of the family鈥檚 home in Ogun State, north of Lagos, are filtered through family videos his father made.

鈥淲e lived in a single-story dwelling that was filled with lots of light,鈥 he recalls. 鈥淚t was a west African kind of courtyard house.

鈥淢y memories of it are both visual and sensory. I can remember that space even now and still walk around it in my mind. It鈥檚 a significant kind of memory in terms of architecture and how I conceive of a domestic space.鈥

鈥淏ut rather than focusing on buildings, I think the thing about Nigeria for me is the vibrancy of the people. There鈥檚 very much a focus on family and networks in terms of friends and relatives. Everybody is either an uncle or an aunt or a cousin.鈥

Tara spent a longer period of time growing up in Nigeria and also emphasises the cultural and social interactions she experienced as major influences on her approach to architecture. 鈥淢y love for art and architecture really came from growing up in Nigeria鈥, she explains.

鈥淭he variety of architecture that I got to experience on a daily basis was incredibly powerful.

鈥淚 never want to say 鈥楴igerian architecture鈥 because it鈥檚 so varied, but a lot of the west African architecture is very responsive to the climate, which is why I don鈥檛 think one can really experience architecture without experiencing the people who are connected to it.

鈥淎rchitecture is so much to do with environmental, social and cultural conditions. How Nigerians live is what the architecture has responded to,鈥 she says.

鈥淪o, you will always have the veranda to stop overheating. You will always have the courtyard or the compound, so that culturally people can come and connect to each other. And so that cultural and climatic response is the way that I understand architecture.鈥

Architectural education

They couple met as Part 2 students at the University of Newcastle. Lanre had already completed his Part 1 there, and speaks of his time in the North-East as one of architectural and social awakening.

鈥淚 remember my first project was a crematorium. Can you believe it? A crematorium 鈥 that kind of hit me. You know, it鈥檚 the start of your career and they鈥檙e telling you to think about death and you鈥檙e kind of like, 鈥榬ight, OK then!鈥

鈥淭he challenge of thinking literally about the finality of life and then trying to understand what architecture is was definitely an eye opener for me.

鈥淭he Newcastle course was very contextually responsive,鈥 he explains. 鈥淚t had a very strong urban design agenda and interdisciplinary approach which focused on questioning the city.

鈥淚t definitely exposed me to the fact that architecture is about working alongside other professionals and collaboration. I found it really helpful to understand the built environment beyond the building itself and the red line, and thinking about how we connect people.

鈥淣ewcastle is a great city, so it was also a good time to just explore my own ideas around architecture and independent working. What I value is that we were pushed to think beyond architecture as this idea of solitary practice, embracing collaboration and thinking about other disciplines. And this timeless question of how do we make the built environment work across the board for everybody?鈥


Source: Shutterstock

Newcastle: 鈥渁 great city鈥

Tara had done her Part 1 at Liverpool University before heading to Newcastle. 鈥淚 really loved my time in both,鈥 she says, 鈥渂ut a memory that really sticks with me was the history course at Liverpool.

鈥淭here didn鈥檛 seem to be any consideration of architecture beyond Europe. And everything was presented through photographs of wonderful pristine buildings, devoid of human beings. It certainly sat uneasily with me, because it was quite different to this climatic and cultural response that I鈥檝e always had to architecture.鈥

Venice Biennale and Lesley Lokko

GDS Team @ 18th venice architecture biennale 2023_漏GboladeDesignStudio_crop

Source: Gbolade Design Studio

Gbolade Design Studio exhibited at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2023; here in attendance with the team

This passionate belief in looking at architecture from more diverse perspectives led to Gbolade Design Studio being invited to exhibit at the 2023 Venice Biennale. Last year鈥檚 theme was The Laboratory of the Future, with a focus on Africa and the African diaspora.

鈥淲e were invited by Lesely Lokko to pitch our idea,鈥 explains Lanre. 鈥淪he鈥檇 seen some of the work that we were doing at the Lloyd Leon Community Centre in Brixton.鈥

The community centre is home to the Brixton Immortals Dominoes Club and the Brixton Soup Kitchen.

鈥淚t was a fascinating opportunity to be part of a biennale that had such impact,鈥 says Lanre. 鈥淭he whole event was about decolonisation and decarbonisation, so those are topics that are critical to how we think as architects and how we鈥檝e always thought as architects.

鈥淚t provided an opportunity to bring a lot of this wider thinking about histories, about heritage, and about climate together in a single installation. So, it has definitely been a personal career highlight 鈥 and for the practice as well.鈥

In recognition of Lokko鈥檚 work as lead curator of the biennale 鈥 and her groundbreaking career as an academic and teacher 鈥 the practice successfully nominated her for the RIBA Gold Medal, which she received in a ceremony at RIBA鈥檚 Portland Place headquarters in May.

Founding the business

The couple graduated from their Part 2 course at Newcastle during the recession that followed the 2008-09 financial crash. With a challenging jobs market, Lanre decided to extend his studies by doing an MSc in project management.

鈥淚 knew I wanted to be an architect, but I also recognised the need to really understand how to go about actually leading projects, managing them and delivering them,鈥 he explains.

鈥淚 didn鈥檛 necessarily feel as if I got a good grasp of that during architecture school and my year out with Aedas Architects. So, for me, there was an additional year of study before going into practice and working with a small practitioner.

鈥淭he work I did was small scale, but it was hands-on and a great way to learn about the process rather than maybe working on a huge, high-profile architecture project.

鈥淭hat experience served me well. It gave me a better understanding of how we go about delivering projects and starting to understand the craft.

鈥淏ut I also had this itch to explore a different scale and specifically experience the development environment as well. So, I then spent quite a few years working on the client side at Berkeley Homes on Royal Arsenal Riverside to understand architecture from the other side of the table.

鈥淚t was great exposure to actually just understand who鈥檚 pulling the levers within the built environment, who鈥檚 making the decisions and how decisions are made.

鈥淚 also learnt a lot about engaging clients, and how to coordinate and motivate teams to deliver. And how you bring forward good design 鈥 good buildings that actually work and consider the needs of all people.鈥

Tara spent a formative period during her year out working for the leading contractor Mace. While she was there, she was advised to get experience working in a small practice.

鈥淚 remember my informal mentor at the time telling me I would be forced to work on all facets of a project, and I think it was some of the best advice I ever received,鈥 she says. 鈥淎nd it鈥檚 the advice I now pass on to any budding architects 鈥 work in a small practice first.

鈥淚t really was a brilliant training ground because the buck stopped with me. So it helped me to grow up quite quickly.鈥

She then went to work for a medium-sized practice, seeking promotion and developing her career in the conventional way, before deciding to take a different route. 鈥淭here was this nagging feeling within me and I decided to undertake the Passivhaus designer course.

鈥淚t really was a pivotal moment for my career,鈥 she explains. 鈥淎fter I did the course and became certified, I realised I just couldn鈥檛 go back to just working to the 黑洞社区 Regulations. It felt unethical somehow, and I just thought, now I know better, I can鈥檛 help but do better. And I really couldn鈥檛.鈥

Regenerative design

鈥淚t was a starting point for us forming our own practice, in terms of taking the leap and deciding to choose the clients that you get to work with and to choose the type of architecture you want to work on,鈥 says Tara.

They founded the practice in 2018.

Initially Tara worked full-time on building the business, while Lanre worked as a consultant to L&Q, the leading housing association. With its own construction arm, L&Q was shifting towards modern methods of construction (MMC), an area in which Lanre has developed a wealth of expertise, and for which he received an award for 鈥極ffsite Pioneer of the Year鈥 in 2022.

He was also working what he describes as 鈥渢he graveyard shifts鈥 for Gbolade Design Studio 鈥 weekends and the evenings in between the day job. 鈥淚t鈥檚 what young practices do,鈥 he says, perhaps unwittingly also illustrating the phenomenal commitment and hard work that underlies a successful start-up.

Regenerative Power Exhibition, 18th venice architecture biennale 2023_漏GboladeDesignStudio

Source: Gbolade Design Studio

Gbolade Design Studio鈥檚 Regenerative Power exhibition at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2023

The practice鈥檚 philosophy is grounded in what Lanre and Tara describe as 鈥渞egenerative design鈥. It鈥檚 an increasingly influential approach within the built environment, based on the idea that architects need to aim beyond simply reducing their impact on the planet, and instead need to start delivering tangible net benefits.

鈥淥ur practice mentality is steeped in responding to the climate emergency, as well as prioritising socio-economic sustainability,鈥 explains Tara.

鈥淔or us, regenerative responses to architecture are very much about creating a just space for people and co-evolving with nature. It鈥檚 really thinking about how we use our operational embodied carbon and how we can build on this concept of net positive good.

鈥淚 think we approach all projects in that vein,鈥 she explains. 鈥淎nd a really important aspect is thinking beyond the red line of the site boundary, which architects are so used to.

鈥淲orking with a local authority client really reinforces that. You understand that there really is no red-line boundary. You know, air quality doesn鈥檛 stop at the boundary of a site.

鈥淕aining that understanding means that you really have to think far bigger, far broader than I think architects are ordinarily trained to do. Regenerative architecture really requires us to think about the wider issues, such as how we deliver just spaces.

鈥淲ho uses these spaces? Are they equitable for women, children and people from diverse backgrounds? How do they feel safe in a space?

鈥淎nd for us, that concept of regenerative design really has to be pretty pervasive in terms of how does this improve the lives of the people who are going to use these spaces, homes and the public realm?鈥

Looking to the future

The practice started off working on the types of domestic extensions and private dwellings that form the bread and butter of many small architecture studios.

鈥淚t has been a bit of a journey,鈥 Lanre explains, 鈥渋n terms of building up a range of work to be able to sustain a practice in those early years before we got to that point where we were able to draw a salary.鈥


Source: Gbolade Design Studio

Hermitage Mews

As the practice matures, so it has been commissioned to deliver larger multi-unit schemes. One example is Hermitage Mews, comprising eight net-zero townhouses. Located on a long, narrow gap-site in Croydon, the development includes a mix of three and four-bedroom homes, featuring dual-aspect designs and street-facing entrances, fostering a sense of community and enhancing natural surveillance.

Gbolade Design Studio now has four members of staff and a burgeoning portfolio of work. A key strand is engagement and codesign.

鈥淓ngagement is not a standalone,鈥 says Lanre. 鈥淚t鈥檚 very much part of our process 鈥 and that includes engagement with our clients, as well as with the local communities who we are developing for and designing for.

鈥淲e want to make sure that there is some element of custodianship 鈥 the community are very much coming alongside the journey of the team, to deliver an environment and a place that will work for them, but also not just them now, but for future generations as well.鈥

GDS-GrahamePark-East Street Elevation_cropped

Source: Gbolade Design Studio

Elevations of Grahame Park housing scheme

One of the projects the practice is currently enthused by is Graham Park in Edgware, north-west London. Gbolade Design Studio was engaged to deliver some townhouses on the edge of a wider 2,000-home masterplan led by Patel Taylor for Notting Hill Genesis.

鈥淲e really looked at who uses the site and then how the how we respond,鈥 says Tara. 鈥淥ur analysis found that 63% of the people who use the site are women and children. Therefore we wanted to ask, how do we best respond to them?鈥

As part of the original masterplan, there was a route for vehicles. 鈥淲e proposed that actually this should become a pedestrianised street and that idea was adopted,鈥 she explains. 鈥淭he concept was about how we made the space in front of those homes safe and secure for the maximum amount of time. And so, for us, that鈥檚 what we feel we really added to the scheme.鈥

The Gbolades鈥 practice is a striking example of how a new generation are seeking to put their ethics at the forefront of their work. 鈥淚t has definitely been a steep learning curve,鈥 says Lanre.

鈥淏usiness is tough. It is challenging, especially when you鈥檙e starting out. You鈥檙e having to learn about a lot of things in a very short space of time.鈥

Team GDS on site at Hermitage Mews_漏GboladeDesignStudio_cropped

Source: Gbolade Design Studio

The Gbolade Design Studio team at Hermitage Mews (from left: Sara Ara煤jo Barbado, Lanre Gbolade, Tara Gbolade and Sylvia Kowalczyk)

Their key advice for others starting out in the profession? 鈥淲e don鈥檛 necessarily believe that architecture school sets you up for what it means to be a business,鈥 says Lanre. 鈥淚n fact, it definitely doesn鈥檛 do that.

鈥淪o, one of the key things that we learnt very early on is actually the importance of people 鈥 the importance of employing the right people, and good people from a cultural perspective.

鈥淭he person with the right kind of mindset, the right kind of culture, the right kind of behaviours and the right kind of willingness and drive to learn and to develop and to be self-motivated鈥

鈥淭hat is probably more important than maybe them having all of the understanding about the process of being a great architect, because that鈥檚 something which very much you develop.鈥

In a challenging industry, Lanre and Tara Gbolade are forging an innovative path that blends their rich shared experiences and embraces new forms of practice. Their ability to combine an ethics-driven approach with a striking focus on business and client-focused delivery is a model that should influence and inspire many more young aspiring practitioners.