Tobi Ashiru is a lecturer at USC School of Architecture, alumna of the Master in Architecture program, and leads USC Architecture’s singular A-LAB Architecture Development Program that provides pathways to architecture for Los Angeles high school students.

With a mission to change the world through design, Tobi strives to push the boundaries of creativity. Born in Nigeria and raised in South Africa, Tobi seeks to create contextually relevant work that celebrates blackness. She's a multi-hyphenate creative with diverse experiences as an architectural designer, installation artist, forever student, educator, and business owner.

Tobi’s academic career in architecture was profoundly influenced by her observations of the lack of diversity and significant barriers that remained for women in academia and professional practice. “I was inspired not only by the challenges I observed but also by the resilience and success of women close to me,” said Tobi.

“My ambition is not just to contribute to the field of architecture as a scholar, but to actively engage in reshaping the academic and design landscape. By addressing the disparities and championing diversity, I aim to create a more supportive and empowering space for all students, particularly women, curious about and in architecture.”

Now, she not only represents the growing percentage of women in architecture, she is also teaching young students, who are predominately female and underrepresented in the field, paving the way for the new generation of more female and diverse architects.

What is your background and where are you from?

I was born in Nigeria and raised in Durban, South Africa. I spent my formative years in Durban where I earned my Bachelor of Architectural Studies. My passion for architecture and its impact on community and creative problem solving led me to pursue a Master’s of Architecture at USC School of Architecture. After I graduated in 2019, I honed my skills in residential and commercial design at a boutique architecture firm, engaging deeply with the practical aspects of design and its ability to shape environments.

While working in architecture, my best friend from grad school, Morgan Sumner, and I connected on how we could leverage our collective creativity beyond traditional boundaries. This dialogue was the genesis of Poché Design Studio. When I got laid off on the cusp of the pandemic, I pivoted into building Poché full-time.

Poché Design Studio is a mission-driven studio, creating impactful designs for clients and customers. We exist to occupy and amplify the Black space in design. Over the course of nearly four years, we have evolved from a freelance partnership into a team of seven professionals,

delivering over 100 projects that resonate with our mission and values. It’s been interesting to merge my day to day activities as a CEO with my career as an educator.

What led you to an academic career in architecture?

My path to an academic career in architecture was profoundly influenced by my observations and experiences during my undergraduate studies in South Africa. In that environment, I was struck by a notable discrepancy: while the student body in the architecture program was predominantly female, this diversity was not mirrored in the faculty and leadership positions. This imbalance contributed to a disproportionately high drop-off rate among female students, a trend that was both alarming and revealing. It highlighted a broader issue within the field— despite the progress in student demographics, significant barriers remained for women in academia and professional practice.

This realization ignited my determination to pursue an academic career in architecture. I was inspired not only by the challenges I observed but also by the resilience and success of women close to me. A pivotal figure in my journey has been my mother, Dr. Bisi Ashiru, whose experiences in academia deeply resonated with me. Her perseverance in pursuing a Ph.D. in medical microbiology, and her subsequent achievements as a professor and academic specialist, served as a powerful model of female leadership and intellectual ambition. Her journey paralleled the disparities I witnessed in my own field, underscoring the importance of fostering a more inclusive and equitable academic environment.

My ambition is not just to contribute to the field of architecture as a scholar, but to actively engage in reshaping the academic and design landscape. By addressing the disparities and championing diversity, I aim to create a more supportive and empowering space for all students, particularly women, curious about and in architecture.

What has it been like teaching in the A-LAB program?

Leading the A-LAB program has been an enriching journey, notwithstanding the initial adjustment to early mornings. The dynamism and intellect of the students have been a joy. My students push me to stay agile and responsive to their needs. Their eagerness to learn and willingness to step outside their comfort zones have been remarkable to witness. Observing their growth and adaptability has been a testament to the transformative power of empathetic education.

My approach to teaching mirrors the ethos of a design studio, blending structured tutorials with ample time for independent design exploration. This methodology is aimed at fostering an environment where creativity and self-expression can flourish within a guided framework. By setting clear objectives while maintaining flexibility in the learning pathway, I strive to accommodate each student's unique pace and needs. This balance between direction and autonomy is crucial in empowering students to take ownership of their learning journey, encouraging them to explore and iterate their designs with confidence.

Day-to-day, my role extends beyond instruction to mentorship, guiding students through the nuances of design thinking and application. This involves facilitating discussions, providing feedback, and pushing students to critically engage with their work. The goal is to cultivate a collaborative and supportive studio culture where my students feel valued and inspired to push the boundaries of their creative potential pass the classroom and into their own lives.

What are some personal insights and highlights from working with the A-LAB students?

Witnessing the inventive ways students weave their personal interests with the tools they're learning is nothing short of inspiring. I currently have a student who leveraged the gaming platform Roblox as a conceptual sandbox. She utilized it to refine her project ideas, a testament to her ingenuity, before transitioning her work into the architecture software they are learning, Rhino. This approach not only demonstrated her adaptability but also her ability to think outside the conventional bounds of architectural design.

Equally impressive was a project from last semester, after completing the A-Lab program another student brought her architectural project to life within the virtual realms of a Sims game. She crafted a performing arts café and community center, meticulously integrating it into the Sims world. This allowed her digital avatars to interact with a space that was conceptualized and designed in our classroom. Such projects underscore the innovative potential of combining digital worlds with architectural design.

What are you most excited about looking forward?

One of the most exhilarating aspects of leading the A-LAB program is witnessing its tangible impact on students' academic and professional journeys. It's profoundly gratifying to see students transition from participating in A-LAB to becoming students at the University of Southern California (USC). This progression is not just a testament to the students' dedication and talent, but also to the effective leadership and advocacy provided by Program Director Lauren Matchison, who tirelessly works to ensure the program's success each year. We get to expose the students to the many possibilities available to them and that makes me so happy to see and be a part of.


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