Interview with Sean Leonard—Tilting Axis/HNI Research Fellowship 2020

Here are excerpts from Trinidadian architect Sean Leonard’s interview with the Het Nieuwe Instituut at the close of his Tilting Axis Fellowship.

Het Nieuwe Instituut caught up with Tilting Axis fellow Sean Leonard inviting him to reflect on his 2020-2021 experience including reflections on his research methodology, his decision to work with a specific Maroon community in Suriname, and future projects he has in the pipeline.

HNI: What inspired you to apply for the Fellowship?

Sean Leonard: I would say that my applying for the Fellowship was prompted more by obligation than inspiration.

This was an open invitation, rarely (if ever) offered to practitioners of architecture and design here in the Caribbean. By obligation, I mean that responsibility felt as a long-practicing architect in the region, to invest in this opportunity as a worthwhile challenge; that responsibility to simply act on opportunities that befall you and therefore challenge your commitment to the evolution of your profession and practice.

It was one of those opportunities that I’d typically encourage the generation after me to take on board, so I suppose the Fellowship invitation was now testing my ability to guide by example. I was completely preoccupied with the act of applying as opposed to the prospect of actually winning the Research Fellowship.

This was a space in which I also had never personally ventured, so there was a measure of accomplishment by simply being able to press ‘SEND’.

HNI: Why did you choose a maroon community on the Tapanahoni River in Suriname as your research project instead of the original submitted project on The Caroni swamp in Trinidad and Tobago?

SL: I’d visited the three Guianas before and they’ve always held a special allure for me. This might be due to their evoking (for me) a peculiar sense of being Caribbean sociologically and continental in its geomorphic character; a combination of qualities which intrigues me.

This would certainly account for my reference to them in my application when I wrote, ‘…however the Caribbean coastline of the Guianas (as well as their riverine communities) are very compelling’

It is interesting for me to now observe that at that time, though undecided, the rivers of the Guianas were beginning to enter my imagination around this research. On learning that I’d been shortlisted, I began to think of how I could stretch the potential novelty of the research experience and so recognised that this would be the opportunity to attempt to access more unfamiliar landscapes in order to enrich that experience.

The wonderful coincidence of a long-imagined collaboration with Marcel Pinas (artist of Maroon heritage) and my curious attraction to the waters of the Guianas, seemed to provide cultural and environmental reference points for staging a journey of intellectual and experiential discovery. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://tiltingaxis.org/news/2021/5/17/interview-with-sean-leonard-tilting-axis-het-nieuwe-instituut-research-fellowship-2020

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