I am looking at plans of the presidential palace in Libreville, Gabon, as existing and as proposed. The first shows gates, walls, guardhouses, accommodation for the president’s elite soldiers. The second shows public space, welcome zones, trees, landscaping, the elements of enlightened contemporary city planning. It is a diagram of liberalisation, of a new era assisted by design.
I am also looking at an image of a business school in Moscow, an unabashed work of oligarchic bling, that pre-empts its future rediscovery as a piece of ironic-lovable kitsch. There is a cool, white, slatted structure in an idyllic Mediterranean landscape, apartment blocks in Doha, and a composition of 10 inverted cones, to be arranged in a giant circle in Kampala. These are works of a realigned world, where the distribution of money and power ignores former distinctions of third and first worlds. They collectively offer the same reorientation as those world maps that dispense with the Eurocentric bias of Mercator’s projection.
The location is a black-floored, black-walled office on the edge of Marylebone, London, with shelves of black files with small white lettering. Galvanised steel shelves denote work, but a black, oblong pool of water, bright green curtains, and an impressive bunch of lilies suggest more an exclusive club or hotel. Possibly the lair of a Bond villain, only more benign. Architectural models are displayed like artworks, although inopportune beige printers puncture the stylishness. The entrance to the office, as often in David Adjaye’s projects, is barely perceptible.
Adjaye is late, as he often is, but is then generous with his time, as he also often is. He says something nice about my personal life, as I make to sit down in the Eames chair by his desk. “Er, that’s mine,” he then says, directing me to a plywood seat opposite, which turns out to be a touch excruciating, in front of shelves bearing a discriminating selection of architectural books, and opposite a wall of inspirational images – great buildings, beautiful bodies, maps of Africa, the former model Ashley Shaw-Scott, whom he recently married. “Do you mind if I eat?” he asks, as he uncovers a late lunch from a local curry house, “I have to eat.” He is on the move, as usual. Where has he come from? “Just New York.” Diplomacy and charm are at work here and a tiny assertion of status, which have helped get him where is, but the warmth is also genuine.
New York is where he has another office, a more informal, light-filled place above an old bank on Canal Street. He has a third in Accra. This tri-continental practice is not bad for an architect in his 40s who seven years ago, when the credit crunch hit, nearly went bust, but the nature of the commissions is more impressive. He has a knack for projects freighted with significance, the foremost of which is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the highly charged turf of the National Mall in Washington DC, just across from the Washington Memorial. (To be more precise, Adjaye is one of a team of four architectural practices working on the museum, with his role described as “lead designer”.) It is due to open next year, a century after the idea of such a museum was first mooted by some black veterans of the civil war.
He also has a knack for associating with conspicuous and interesting people. In the early years of his practice these tended to be creative types – the artists Jake Chapman, Tom Noble and Sue Webster, Ewan McGregor, Alexander McQueen. Now it is more people like Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, for whom Adjaye has designed a house in Ghana. Or the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, who recently toured Adjaye’s housing development in Sugar Hill, Harlem, or Barack Obama.
He doesn’t want the latter connection to be exaggerated – “I am not on his speed dial” – and he scotches rumours that he is to design Obama’s presidential library: the choice of architect hasn’t been considered yet. But the Smithsonian museum will be the most significant architectural project of Obama’s presidency, and Adjaye has had more contact with the White House than most architects.
Adjaye’s friends praise the range of his influences and interests. “I was incredibly, incredibly inspired by the breadth of his vision,” says Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, of the time she first heard him speak. “There’s Bauhaus in it,” says the artist Lorna Simpson, for whom Adjaye designed a studio building in Brooklyn, “but also the places where he grew up as a child – ornament, pattern, the way light comes in, different things from different places.”
Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, his father a diplomat, so these formative places included parts of Africa, Saudi Arabia, and eventually London. It was in London that he studied architecture, launched his practice, and designed his first projects.
Adjaye himself is weary of people obsessing over his being black in a profession which, in Europe and the United States, is very white. Which is not to say that he regards his heritage is unimportant. “I can’t win with this one,” he says. “Everyone has a view on it. I am an architect first of all, whose background is complex. I use the continent of Africa as a background, But I also grew up in London.” What it does mean is: “I am attracted to projects important to the African diaspora because I am interested.” He says his African-British identity also gives him an altered perspective from others in the profession, in which Mies van der Rohe or Palladio have their place, but so do mud constructions in Mali. “I’m just not always looking at the usual references,” he says.
Golden says that “he sees the full possibilities – social, cultural – of the built environment.” Lorna Simpson says, “He’s very keen on the way architecture serves the people in it.” There is “a bodily sensitivity” to “what people do and experience, the way they operate in a building.” She likes “the way the light fills the building, the way you can see sunsets and the stars, the way the light and the air flows, and shifts in terms of time of day. It’s very meditative. There is a tranquillity which is really amazing.”
As a person, says Golden, “David exists with a deep amount of intellectual intensity and creativity, which he carries with an enormous amount of grace. He always has been that way and always will be.” Simpson says, “I have seen him go through economic upheavals and, because he is of African descent, dismissal by other architects, but he has always maintained a commitment to his work. He is very dedicated.”
The designs for the Smithsonian, which Adjaye calls “a new kind of new museum which is really about a narrative about people and a country”, suggest both the range of influences and the sensory properties of which Simpson speaks. They promise dazzle and glitter, which Adjaye likes to alternate in his work with severity and darkness. There will be a ceiling, subject to budget, in the form of “a shower” of thousands of pieces of split pine, and a black room with a circular oculus above, which admits a glittering cylinder of falling water. There will be light and shadows filtered through filigree bronzework.
Adjaye sees it partly as a monument, like the other museums and the memorials to presidents that occupy the Mall, and like them it has a formal symmetry, but he also wants to be different from them. So it has a distinctive tiered shape, with walls inclining outwards as they rise, which he says is derived from the forms of Yoruba craftsmen in the region of Africa from which slaves were mostly extracted. There is bronze cladding, which “takes on the cast metal architecture of the American south”. One of the first trades adopted by freed slaves was, he tells me, metalwork. Adjaye likes to tell stories about his projects, and this one is no exception.
Inside, a large part of the museum is subterranean, from which you can rise up to a pavilion that is also tree-like, and then to “fantastic vantage points for the city” and for seeing the other “critical monuments that are part of the American story”. The idea of the tree can refer, if you like, to the fact that slaves mostly came from forest regions. However, having suggested various meanings, Adjaye doesn’t want you to take them too far. “People don’t have to get the references. They’re just embedded,” he says. The idea is to make something suggestive of the distinct histories of African Americans, without being too explicit.
A comparison would be with Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, which deliberately represents in built form the complexities and violence of Jewish experience, but Adjaye seems to shudder when I suggest it. Does, for example, the ascent from the underground spaces to the upper pavilion symbolise the escape from slavery and segregation? Absolutely not. “You don’t look at it and say, ‘I get the trauma of slavery’. It should just make you want to inquire.” He would like to “hint at many things. It’s analogous to the way the community has mutated through many things, such as from rural to urban, very rapidly.”
The Museum of African-American History and Culture is plainly a career-defining project. Pending its completion, however, Adjaye’s most significant finished building is his Sugar Hill housing development in Harlem, New York, whose first residents will shortly move in. This is built for low-income and in some cases formerly homeless families, but also includes an early education centre and a Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling. Here, working with the housing specialists SLCE Architects, the aim was to bring pride to this essential use, within the brutal budgets of such projects. At no point, according to Adjaye, did anyone say “that seems like a nice thing, Mr Architect, just do it”. The cost of everything had to be justified.
The building occupies a commanding site in upper Manhattan, in an area rich in the history of the Harlem Renaissance, with some handsome streets of century-old houses. It is one of Adjaye’s tougher buildings, a blocky concrete citadel in charcoal grey, given drama by a cantilevered offset two thirds of the way up. The windows are quite small, because that is what the budgets allow, but the concrete is relieved by a pattern of roses etched into it, which Adjaye says is inspired by the decorations on older buildings in the neighbourhood. There is also a serration in the plan, which derives from the stepped profile of local terraces.
More important are extras somehow worked into it – a shared balcony with wide views, an urban farm on the roof – and the consideration to details usually executed in the most basic possible way, such as coloured lighting in the common area, bamboo floors, brass ironmongery, and tapering the corridors to make them less relentless. Most important is the siting of the children’s facilities on the ground floor, with generous glazed walls. According to Ellen Baxter of Broadway Housing Communities, whose project it is, “in New York children very rarely get prime ground-floor real estate. They’re usually put in the basements. This puts children at the centre.”
The project hasn’t been universally popular in the neighbourhood. Despite the inspirations drawn from historic buildings, some saw it as inappropriate for its context, and a recent review has called it “a dead-eyed guard tower”, its patterns “the result of an evening spent fiddling with Photoshop”. Baxter admits that she was herself “challenged” by some of its aspects, but that “its inherent beauty stands out”. She says that “David doesn’t change his mind. He stays stable. He convinces in a steady way. Clients come around to see his position.” And she did.
She likes the way the building gets “sparkle” from its patterns and they way they change with weather and light, such that the roses appear and disappear. “There’s an older man who sits on a fence and watches it change. He says he wasn’t sure about the exterior, but now realises that it is a jewel.” What the building unquestionably does is make housing for the poor into the most prominent structure in the area. Thelma Golden, who has followed its construction, enthuses: “It represents so much in this neighbourhood. What will it be like for the children moving in there now? For them to say in 20 years’ time, this is where I grew up?”
Myself, I have been following Adjaye’s career ever since I found myself in a Soho noodle bar in the mid-90s, saw something interesting in the design, and asked the manager who the architect was. I have sat on juries that have awarded him commissions. I like the ideas he expounds and his inventiveness with rough and smooth materials. I like the freedom and enjoyment with which he seems to work. But, when I hear he is designing another prestigious building, something gives me pause.
It is partly that, in his early London days, I heard too often from people who had experienced one or another practical shortcoming in his projects. Not that he would be the first ambitious young architect (Richard Rogers was another ) to take a few chances in making his name. It’s also that, in a clutch of public projects he designed in the last decade, there’s a tendency for the story behind the design to outrun the realisation.
Thus, in the Idea Store, a public library in Whitechapel, an escalator that was supposed to draw people up into the building rarely runs, and an overhanging glass wall that was supposed to embrace the pavement makes more a litter trap and dormitory for rough sleepers. A digital screen and information strip don’t run, but ad hoc signs have been added after the event, to tell you it’s a library, because the original design didn’t really do this. The exterior, in stripes of green-and-blue glass, has charm, but the interior is awkward.
In the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham imposing flights of steps seem to have ended up as neglected zones of spare chairs, with the real life of the building squeezed into more peripheral spaces. There’s a similar feeling in the Stephen Lawrence Centre in south-east London, where there is a handsome but not-too-useful entrance hall decorated with a window by Adjaye’s friend Chris Ofili, after which you wonder where the rest of the building has gone. It exists and does its job, but it’s anti-climactic.
All these buildings have qualities and pleasures, and it should be noted that, apart from a problem with changing light bulbs, the facilities manager of the Stephen Lawrence Centre says it has coped well with the demands placed on it. It is just that they could be better if the detail was pushed harder. More importantly there is a disconnect between the parts that speak of public life and interaction, and the less cherished places where stuff actually happens. It is as if he is too easily persuaded by his own eloquence.
So I’m interested when Lorna Simpson professes complete happiness with her studio, which does indeed feel like a space comfortably adapted to its use. Also when both she and Ellen Baxter describe his attention to such things as building codes, and the ways they can be worked to the advantage of a design, and to the very great lengths he goes to, such as travelling to Reggio Emilia, in Italy, to learn from its nursery schools for the Sugar Hill project. Perhaps he has evolved and grown as an architect, and perhaps there’s something about America that helps him flourish when he works there.
Simpson makes a striking observation about Adjaye’s work: the “exterior belies the interior. There is always a barrier between the public skin and the way it opens up inside.” She finds this “quite wonderful”, for the way it creates a secluded inner world, and it’s certainly present in the enigmatic facade of her studio. With this “concealment”, as she calls it, goes a reticence about identifying the front door, which on public projects sometimes leads to someone coming along later, and sticking up a sign saying ENTRANCE. But she’s right: this disjunction of outside and inside adds to the architectural intrigue.
It would be simplistic to say that Adjaye’s personality can be described in the same way. He’s not closed or impermeable, but there is a tendency to glide and smooth, to pass lightly from one subject to another, while leaving a degree of complexity under the surface. He likes to hint, suggest, allude rather than state. These characteristics are a strength, helping him to connect with everyone from Obama and Annan to the poor of Sugar Hill, with artists, oligarchs, and African politicians. They help him encompass a prodigious range of commissions. They are a weakness, to the extent that many of his works are sketches of the great projects they could be.
Now he is expanding into Africa, with a fashion store in Lagos, the masterplan in Kampala, the modifications to the palace in Libreville, housing in Johannesburg that breaks the habit of being gated, a museum near two of the slave castles in Ghana. In Dakar he is designing headquarters for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, which he says will use concrete, earth brick and natural ventilation to create a “geographically driven architecture”. He wants to create a “Sahel architecture”, that learns from both the traditional and the colonial.
This is important work, as for a long time Africa has been a continent architecturally, as in other ways, unto which things have been done, whether by colonial structures or imported styles of corporate modernism. Its chances to develop a modern building culture from within have been limited, which puts Adjaye, half an insider and half an outsider, in a potentially influential position. A city like Lagos, he says, “has a new sense of itself” but “the architecture is still horrible – boxes with no relationship to where they are.”
As always, he describes brilliantly what he might do. I truly hope he achieves a half of what he talks about.
article by Rowan More via theguardian.com