Too many public futures are decided in private rooms

Caleb FemiOnkar Kular

On 25 August 2022, Caleb Femi was invited to Göteborgs Litteraturhus to take part in a public reading and conversation around his widely acclaimed publication Poor (2020). The event focused on how the combined practices of reading, documenting and writing can provide new ways, new forms and new visibilities for understanding how our designed urban environments profoundly shape individual and collective experiences at different scales. To coincide with the event, a summer study circle was organised through an open call and invitations to spoken-word and poetry groups in Gothenburg. The study circle was led brilliantly by writer and editor Meri Alarcon, with Caleb Femi joining the circle for the final discussion session.

We came to Caleb’s work through Poor, released by Penguin. The book has been somewhat of a revelation, as it documents and catalogues the black boyhood experience of growing up on a London estate and situates these experiences in direct dialogue within the shape of the spaces, objects and materials where this growing up takes place. The political theorist Langdon Winner asked the question, “Do artifacts have politics?” In his work, he exposes how the infrastructure of roads and bridges, buses and bus timetables in parts of the US have been purposefully designed to enable racial segregation. In focusing in and on the spaces, estates and roads, staircases and rooms, concrete and detergent, smell and temperature, tracksuits and trainers and weaving these into lived experience, Caleb’s book answers this question with an emphatic “Yes!” And, given our times and what we see and experience around us, how can our public spaces, buildings, objects, materials, sounds and smells not be political? They are what power is both materialised and exercised through.

As such, Poor provides an alternative template for writing and reading about our built environments. It shows that our designed environments can be expressed, and subsequently thought differently, through the engagement of broader experiences, voices and formats. We would suggest that Poor also situates a larger, more critical question of how and where these voices can be heard and genuinely influence the shaping of better, more equitable environments. As Caleb has outlined, “too many public futures are decided in private rooms”. And as we cruelly witnessed with the Grenfell Tower (West London) fire tragedy on 14 June 2017, in which 72 people died because of the “value engineering” of a building’s cladding, this is not just a question of taste, but about who literarily gets to live and die.

Poor is a generous book; it provides a valuable contribution by testing ideas in public, and even though it is pocket-sized it urgently asks us to think about how our living environments are designed and who they are built for. If we had a book to recommend to designers, architects, city planners and policy-makers right now, Poor would be it.

The Right to Design, 2023


Caleb Femi

Caleb Femi is a Poet and Director who grew up on North Peckham Estate in Southeast London. Working with film, photography and music, he pushes the boundaries of poetry and the written word on the page, in performance and in digital mediums. He has written and directed short films for the BBC and Channel 4 and poems for Tate Modern, The Royal Society for Literature, St Paul’s Cathedral and many other organisation. Between 2016 and 2018, Caleb was the Young People’s Laureate for London. As a recognition of his important and timely work, the writer has won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2021) with feature recent articles in the Guardian and London Review of Books.


Onkar Kular

Onkar Kular is Professor of Design at HDK Valand, Academy of Art & Design and Programme coordinator for PLACE (Public Life, Arts, Critical Engagement) at the Artistic Faculty, University of Gothenburg. His research is disseminated internationally through commissions, exhibitions, education, and publications. His work is in the collection of the CNAP, France, and Crafts Council, UK. He has guest-curated exhibitions for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, Karachi, and the Crafts Council, UK. He was Stanley Picker Fellow 2016 and Artistic Director of Gothenburg Design Festival, Open Week 2017 and Co-Artistic Director of Luleå Art Biennial 2022.