Joseph Zeal-Henry on designing inclusive urban spaces

  • Words Ayla Angelos

From the Greater London Authority to the Venice Architecture Biennale, Joseph Zeal-Henry is revolutionising urbanism with a focus on equality, culture and collaboration. Here, we chat to the Boston-based multi-hyphenate about how he’s shaping the future of our built environment

What constitutes good design? Is it purposeful objects that are easy to use, something that looks beautiful and provokes emotion, spaces that reflect diverse communities or pieces that respond to important topics of today? These are just a handful of elements that forge the work of Joseph Zeal-Henry, a designer, urbanist and curator based in Boston. With a portfolio spanning public policy, cultural production and grassroots activism, Zeal-Henry strives to create equitable and impactful built environments, whether that’s through a human-scale system that explores how sound can inspire new ways of thinking; architecture that highlights how rituals from diasporic communities can forge new relationships with space; or a project addressing the challenges of rural living. 

“I build infrastructures that impact the environment around us, convene people together and generate material for publishing,” he says. “My approach is to always respond to issues that I think are urgent and then design the gesture we should make in response to that.”

SUPA System, Malakhai Pearson

Zeal-Henry’s journey from traditional architecture to his current multifaceted role unfolded naturally and gradually, simmering like a pot of water until finally boiling over. "There was a moment of realisation that sticks in my mind," Zeal-Henry recalls, "which is when I started to think about design much more as service provision." This shift in perspective led him to leave conventional architecture practice and embrace public service at the Greater London Authority (GLA), working as capital development manager in the culture and creativities unit. Before this, he led ecological urbanism research, developing the planning policy and guidance on how to embed circular economy principles into London’s planning system. In 2022, Zeal-Henry was selected to co-curate the 2023 British Pavilion at Venice la Bienne alongside Jayden Ali, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham.

“My approach is to always respond to issues that I think are urgent and then design the gesture we should make in response to that.”
Joseph Zeal-Henry

There are also a handful of moments from his upbringing that also steered him onto his current path. Neil Pinder, a teacher at Graveney School in Tooting, encouraged him to think beyond the borders of design. “I might have gone into design of some sort,” Zeal-Henry shares of his impact, “but it wouldn’t have been architecture.” He also grew up in a block of flats in south London until the age of 10, his bedroom window overlooking the urban horizon. Drenched in history, progress and wonder, this view sowed the seeds of his fascination with urbanism. “I’ve always wondered if that experience of watching the city every night before sleeping had some impact on me.”

The British Pavilion, 2023 – Photographer Taran Wilkhu © British Council

At the heart of Zeal-Henry’s work is a mission to create equality in the built environment. To him, this means ensuring that "the built environment feels like a habitat where many people get some sort of refraction of themselves within it”, he says. “I think it’s a programme of pluralism that I’m essentially interested in and making sure that one approach or style doesn’t dominate how we all have to live.” This involves responding to urgent issues and addressing them through design, a process which often requires collaboration. "My instinct is to try and not be the sole author of a project," he explains, "as it’s in the conversation and searching for common ground with people that complexity is unearthed."

One of Zeal-Henry’s proudest projects is the book NOW YOU KNOW, published through Sound Advice, a social enterprise platform exploring music and spatial practice he co-founded alongside Pooja Agrawal. The book helped him build the framework for his practice, emphasising the importance of "convening, publishing and making objects that hold space". Additionally, his tenure at the Mayor of London’s office involved significant projects like the New London Museum and East Bank, which is where he’s felt at his “most impactful”. Working strategically, his role encompassed setting standards and developing principals. “This is why I’m committed to public service as a designer – I could do more on a good day there than I have been able to with 100 good days through my private practice,” he admits. “I think public service and exploration is the side hustle rather than the other way around.”

NOW YOU KNOW, Timi Akindele-Ajani

However, he remains cautious about judging the success of these projects during his time at the Mayor of London’s office until they are fully operational. "Delivery is always the main challenge, from a capital building perspective as well as delivering the social impact," he notes. “I think that cultural institutions still have value and can play such an important role in society-at-large, which is why they should be supported by the public sector. They support the economy and can be a space for people to think about their role in the world, they are places of interpretation. I think societies need a healthy balance of them. I do wish through a project like East Bank we would have been able to create a new institution much like how the Festival of Britain created the Southbank Centre, rather than extend or re-house existing ones. I think that disruption would have been interesting to see within London’s cultural landscape.”

Dancing Before the Moon, Taran Wilkhu

In 2022, Zeal-Henry co-curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 with the exhibition, Dancing Before the Moon. The title of which is drawn from a quote by James Baldwin, reflecting his interests in using social theory to guide the creation of the pavilion, and how they can create a new approach to architecture and space design. Exploring the role of rituals performed by diasporic communities in space production, the pavilion featured objects made by artists such as Mac Collins and Sandra Poulson, each commemorating a series of rituals performed by different communities. The project encouraged conversation around how architecture can be a “cultural act” – rather than a “professional service which is the European association of the word”, he shares. “I remember attending a lecture by Francis Kere, where he talks about there not being a word for architect in Burkina Faso, where he is from, the closest translation would be storyteller or narrator. I always found that quite interesting, in rethinking how the act of making space or building is performed. There are so many different starting points – so why not platform that on the biggest architectural stage?”

"Music is a space of common ground. It is a cultural artefact that can act as a portal into other spaces.”
Joseph Zeal-Henry

Anima_Sound & Solidarity, Humothy; SHUBZ, Arthi Mighty Ruler, Eric Aydin Barberini; SHUBZ, Eric Aydin Barberini

Music also plays a crucial role in Zeal-Henry’s work, particularly through the founding of Sound Advice and the project Sound & Solidarity, a series of listening sessions aimed at exploring how music and sound can challenge colonialism. "Music is a space of common ground," he asserts. “It is a cultural artefact that can act as a portal into other spaces.” Another branch of his sonic explorations is the work produced during his residency at the ArtLab as part of the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University, in which Zeal-Henry launched the SUPA System, a modular sonic infrastructure prototype created in collaboration with Deborah Garcia and Lauren Harewood. The project explores the ideas of “urgency, gesture, convening, documentation and infrastructure” through sound. "I wanted to show that this modular sonic infrastructure could perform and platform so many different practices and stories in and around the Boston area.” 

SUPA System, Malakhai Pearson; SUPA System, Joseph & Deborah, Malakhai Pearson

Looking to the future, Zeal-Henry plans to create a new iteration of the SUPA System and is excited about exploring cultural infrastructure at various scales. He and his wife, Alexandra Paul Zotov, are setting up a practice called DEPARTMENT to pursue different projects, such as the development of a new cultural institution. He’s pioneering in the field of built environments, and for those looking to make a difference through interdisciplinary approaches like Zeal-Henry, he offers this advice: "Work in the public sector or for public institutions and try to stay curious and optimistic – see how different systems of power interlink and the different impacts they can have. All of my work has improved through collaboration that has happened in those spaces.”