David Adjaye: The visible man

4 June 2012

Work has started on the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Phin Foster meets David Adjaye to discuss the importance of social agenda, architecture as a political act and the art of disappearance.

David Adjaye is a 'starchitect'. He will not thank me for saying so, in fact he'll most likely reject the notion entirely, but the man is as close as architecture gets to an international pin-up. Photogenic, outspoken, hip, mediasavvy and - a rare characteristic in the world of Western architecture - non-white, the Tanzania-born 45-year-old has spent the best part of his professional career in the public eye. He must love the attention.

But appearances can be deceiving. Adjaye is one of the most vocal critics of a previous generation of 'celebrity architects'; those who, in his eyes, became overly associated with building corporate temples to excess, creating buildings that struggle to resonate beyond the iconic. He, on the other hand, has never shied away from having, as he puts it, "an agenda". Adjaye may have first made his name designing townhouses for London's artistic set, but the work that truly established his reputation is based firmly in the public realm: libraries in unfashionable postcodes; publicly funded exhibition spaces; a community college founded in honour of murdered architectural student Stephen Lawrence.

"There is now a real confidence to talk about agenda, to insist that design needs purpose."

The defining aspect of this work is an outright rejection of icon. Adjaye's buildings do not demand to be looked at; they are participatory, engaged and plugged into their milieu. The best examples, such as his Idea Stores in London's east end, are thrust into the beating heart of their community and yet camouflaged from view, so seamless is the nature of their interaction. A very visible architect, he is adroit at the design of invisible buildings.

Disappearance impossible

But this could only ever remain the case for so long. Adjaye Associates now has high-profile commissions on its books that could never scream subtlety. Chief among these is the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, set in the shadow of the Washington Monument and arguably the most politically charged US development in a generation.

It's been a long time coming: African-American veterans of the Civil War were the first to call for its formation. At the groundbreaking ceremony in Washington DC's National Mall back in February 2012, President Obama observed: "What we build here will not just be an achievement for our time; it will be a monument for all time". Due for completion in 2015, invisibility is no longer an option.

"It's becoming harder to disappear," Adjaye, sitting in his New York office, says with a hearty laugh. "I'm suddenly aware of being extremely visible and have never done anything more public in my life. We're dealing with federal money, the National Mall, the Smithsonian. It doesn't get more accountable than this and I can't run away from the fact that this is a political monument that symbolises both history and change.Politically charged projects of this type come around perhaps ever 30 to 40 years. It's both a great honour and a tremendous undertaking."

"I’m suddenly aware of being extremely visible."

Adjaye likens the experience to "working inside a bubble" and his forced removal from mainstream discourse has seen the architect delve further back into history for precedents and counsel. "I recently met with Oscar Niemeyer and had the most compelling conversation about building Brasilia when he was just 35 years old," he explains. "Struggling with these social and political ideas about creating a nation and how form helps make that image, it was extremely powerful. I also spent a bit of time with Charles Correa, discussing his relationship with Nehru in the early years. Connecting with people who have engaged in these sorts of discussions has been invaluable."

Upon winning the commission in 2009, a visit was also made to IM Pei, the most recent architect to build a museum on the mall - it looks as though Adjaye will be the last, completing the Mall master plan. "In a way I felt as though I was making a bookend to his building and it was important that I hear his thoughts," he explains. There were clearly no hard feelings: Pei, alongside other stellar names such as Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie, had lost out to Adjaye at the final hurdle.

Concept of history

It was a unanimous decision. The concept behind the design sounds simple enough - a square building held by four columns, with an open first floor contained in a porchlike design - but where Adjaye's proposal stands apart is through its evocation of something that reaches back through hundreds of years to West Africa, while at the same time engaging in a historical dialogue with its surrounding environment.

"There is a duality of the political and the social running throughout the project," he explains. "I felt we needed to tell the story of a people who emanate from the African continent, specifically the West African horn, and have become hybridised through American culture to become this unique group.

"The site is also on hallowed ground where the high Greek style is used in a neo classical way to extort the idea of democracy and a new empire. But you also have a Pharaonic needle, the Washington memorial, which is really one of the needles of Karnak.

"It was those classical African roots that I felt allowed me to find a trajectory to the roots of West Africa, which shares a very dynamic relationship with ancient Egypt," Adjaye recalls.

"There is a duality of the political and the social running throughout the project."

The 'corona' or inverted zigurrat shell; a perforated bronze filigree envelope that serves as a paean to African-American craftsmanship; Corinthian-esque central columns that are actually inspired by the verandas of Yaruba shrine houses: all of these come together in an amalgamation of cultures and influences that blurs the lines between African and classical, serving both to tell a story and evoke a people. That story is direct and linear, while at the same time wide-ranging and complex; this is a celebratory narrative of progress and heritage rather than a sober retrospective on hardship.

"We wanted to create an architecture that begins to chronicle its contents and its context before visitors have even come to look at an artefact," Adjaye explains. "The tale is transformational; how a people came to change the very nature of a world superpower."

A personal odyssey

It is also a dialogue that tells us much of Adjaye's own journey. Extensive travels in Africa - first as the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, prior to settling in London aged 13, and later the undertaking of a personal odyssey that encompassed 52 African capitals, culminating in last year's publication of the seven volume photographic survey Adjaye - Africa - Architecture - have helped shape his world view and create a distinctly political architect.

"It's given me the confidence to reference Africa in a way that is not exotic," Adjaye believes. "We're talking about somewhere that has been urbanised for as long as Europe, if not longer, yet has this reputation as being a landscape continent. There is a tendency to project onto Africa rather than learn from it and so much that claims to be inspired by 'the African experience' is mere pastiche."

At the time of our conversation, Adjaye is only just back from Gabon, where his practice is working on several administration-backed commissions, and is shortly off to a Future Cities conference in Lagos, where he will address delegates from across the continent. The story he tells is of a region undergoing urban and social transformation at an unprecedented rate, a development that both excites and concerns.

"The incredible influx of commodity money has seen a growing awareness of national image," he says. "It seems almost ridiculous to discuss national identity when these countries are no more than 50 years old and one is often dealing with a generation that believes in that somewhat Soviet notion of symbolic constructs, which are nothing more than simplistic image making.

"Others look to the Middle East because they see it as the closest tangible model of modernity to copy. That scares me. We're seeing lots of corporate American and European practices who struggle to find work at home coming into the continent and trying to offer these solutions. They'll always go where the money is."

But Adjaye also sees an emerging generation of political leaders, planners and architects as offering plenty of hope for the future in expressing the distinct characteristics of different parts of the continent. "Suddenly there's money and ideas and people are waking up to the potential of architecture," he says.

Adjaye is benefiting from this awakening, but he is no opportunist. You will not find examples of his work in Dubai and, despite plenty of offers, the practice has refused to cash in on the Chinese architectural boom. "It has never felt that comfortable," he explains.

Road to Russia

One fast-growing economy where Adjaye has made his mark is Russia, still something of an uncharted territory for Western architects. The Moscow School of Management opened last year, another commission where a fundamental part of the brief was being visible. Located beyond Moscow's outer ring road, four buildings precariously cantilever over a large circular base sat in abstract isolation, demanding to be looked at.

"It's an unusual brief," the architect observes, "designing a public building in a field. The area is set to become Moscow's new industrial belt, but there wasn't an audience to speak to in the traditional sense of a neighbourhood. That is quite a challenge, making a building that is anticipatory and must provide enough precedent and possibility for what is to follow. That is why it is in two parts. The top, which is almost like a still life, predicts a landscape that is yet to form and awaits a dialogue with that landscape. The base, the incubator containing the main work spaces, is a more generic form that looks to observe rather than interact."

"I think our building has given Moscow an incredible confidence that it can do great buildings."

They do things differently in Russia and for an architect so used to public discourse and debate this might have proved a challenge. Adjaye does not see things changing overnight, but what he has witnessed goes some way in supporting his claim that architecture is a political act.

"I think our building has given Moscow an incredible confidence that it can do great buildings that both look back to their history as well as the rest of the world," says Adjaye, who made repeated reference to Russian avant garde artist Kazimir Malevich throughout the design process. "They can't believe that this work by an outsider takes reference points from their culture and it's interesting to see domestic architects make reference to how the building was put together. The project has given them the confidence to appreciate Russianness."

Future highlights

Operating out of London, New York and Berlin, the practice is now exporting this agenda of education and change on an unprecedented scale. Upcoming highlights include two community libraries in Washington DC that, in terms of size and profile, couldn't be further removed from events taking place a few miles away on the mall and which Adjaye cites as further exploration in creating participatory buildings. "I think they'll surprise a few people," he says.

A community park in New Orleans, where Adjaye has been very active building terraced houses pro bono for Brad Pitt's Make it Right foundation, is also nearing completion and, prior to our meeting, plans were revealed for a vast 'Kulturecampus' in Frankfurt, grouping nine institutions on a single 16.5-hectare site. "It will take a few more years to get off the ground, but the city really wants it," says Adjaye. "We've had incredible support and the wonderful thing about Frankfurt is how porous, mutable and giving a town it is. They really are open to new ideas and I'm so excited about this project."

In terms of acreage, it will be the practice's largest commission to date, something Adjaye believes is indicative of a fundamental change in mindset directly attributable to the fallout from the economic crisis. With excess out of fashion, the architectural dialogue is changing. He talks of "an end to psychobabble": simplifying language without dumbing down concepts.

"Where previously these issues might have been more softly spoken," he observes, "there is now a real confidence, both among architects and clients, to talk about agenda, to insist that design needs purpose. Architecture is not just the sum of a fantastic piece of technical performance, nor is it the sum of solving the brief well. When you can do so much, it's not enough to merely look good.

"I believe there's an emerging generation that sees the world differently. The previous generation also felt they were the harbingers of change; it's natural, but look at what has happened 20 years later. We now distrust the engines that were meant to make us all rich and so defined the architectural agenda forged in an environment of incredible wealth. We are turning to questions of social responsibility and change is very much in the air."

He is in the vanguard of that movement, one of its highestprofile ambassadors. This may be a generation that eschews the very notion of starchitects, but, like it or not, Adjaye is now very visible indeed.

The LEAF Review

This article was first published in our sister publication The LEAF Review.

Nouakchott, Mauritania; taken by Adjaye during his travels through Africa.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, seen through the eyes of Adjaye.
Adjaye has built his reputation working in the public realm.

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