David Adjaye’s Art of Architecture

Published November 12, 2015

At age 49, David Adjaye is the architecture world’s rising star. The Dar es Salaam, Tanzania-born, London-based architect has constructed nearly 50 projects in 15 years around the world, including London’s “Dirty House,” Oslo’s Nobel Peace Center, Lagos’ “Alara Concept Shop,” and Harlem’s “Sugar Hill Development.” In 2007, for his contributions to British architecture, the Queen of England knighted Adjaye. He also designed the Arena at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and has built homes for late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, fashion photographer Juergen Teller, artist Chris Ofili, and actor Ewan McGregor. Currently, Adjaye is designing the new Studio Museum in Harlem set to open in 2017, and Adjaye Associates, the architect’s design studio, is mentioned in every conversation held about who will design President Obama’s legacy-fortifying future Presidential Library.

With the Adjaye-advised inaugural edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennale in full swing, a mid-career survey of the architect’s global practice, Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition, which Adjaye Associates designed, explores the theories behind the environment Adjaye has wrought and points to the fact that Adjaye has built nearly every kind of building imaginable. Unlike Zaha Hadid’s obsession with neo-futurism or Frank Gehry‘s signature bending steel structures, Adjaye’s architectural practice is expansive, ever changing, and intimately connected to the people, materials, and histories found within his structures’ locations.

Opening next year is Adjaye’s largest and perhaps most important American building to date: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C., which, as an institution, was founded in 2003, but until now has never been housed. The ornamental bronze-wrapped structure—an allusion to the history of black craftsmanship in American—is being constructed on the National Mall, across from the Washington Monument, and upon its reopening, is set to join the Smithsonian system of national museums.

After listening to Adjaye speak for an hour and half about “designing global cities” at the Art Institute of Chicago, we sat down with the architect to talk about the art of his practice, from the very beginning to end.

ANTWAN SARGENT: Why did you decide to build buildings?

DAVID ADJAYE: I got into architecture because I was searching for a way to produce in the world. I went to art school and thought I would do it through art, but I realized very quickly that I was interested in the social ramifications of form making. So buildings became the vehicle and fulfilled that thing. That satisfied me when I produced them. I decided this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

SARGENT: What does “building” mean for you right now?

ADJAYE: Buildings for me represent opportunities of agency, transformation, and storytelling. They are not just artifacts. There is this big tradition of buildings-as-artifacts—constructed artifacts—but for me they are these incredible sites of negotiation.

SARGENT: Thinking about the first series of houses you designed in London, what was the impulse behind those projects?

ADJAYE: The houses were reactions to the condition of the city and my frustrations with the norms that were being played out. In a way they were slightly subconscious but reactions to that condition and a way to posit new possibilities within certain pervasive norms.

SARGENT: Now, with nearly 50 completed projects, have you seen those impulses change?

ADJAYE: No. The thing about architecture is that it’s an art [you] simply learn more by doing more. It’s one of those things that is really not an art about thinking, but doing. So in a way, what it has done is greatly intensify the way that I build. The first 10 years, I was just building just to understand what I was doing and I didn’t trust my intuition to just produce. Then, in the last five years, I have really been reflecting on what I am producing and what it is doing. In a way, I feel I have enough tools and knowledge now that when I build it has a very specific agency that’s very conscious. It’s no longer speculative; it’s really constructed. I’m very interested in how that consciousness, about how I am producing, is working within different conditions. It’s like growing up. [laughs]

SARGENT: You have also made very public buildings. One is the forthcoming Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. For me, that building is a monument to black history, but will also be a place where that history will be explored for generations to come. Was that a difficult building to design given those considerations?

ADJAYE: It’s probably the most complex, yet rewarding building I have ever worked on. Ironically, for me, it came at a time where all the things I was doing in periphery were brought to the center. All the things I was thinking about—remaking monuments, rethinking democratic space, and looking at the condition in the urban city again—are all brought into that project. It forced me to think through the lessons I had learned and what I wanted to produce moving forward.

SARGENT: What did you want that building to achieve?

ADJAYE: I want it to be a memorial but also a live place; I want it to be a place that engages the widest discussion and also a place that cements and creates a condition of never forgetting the past but always exploring the future. In a way, I want it to place a marker in the condition of what it means to be African-American and where it comes from.

SARGENT: You’re also building the new Studio Museum in Harlem. What informed the design of that museum?

ADJAYE: The museum in D.C. is really a narrative museum—the nature of a people and how you represent that story. Whereas the Studio Museum is really a contemporary art museum that happens to be about the diaspora and a particular body of contemporary artists ignored by the mainstream. The Studio Museum has championed that and brought into the mainstream. So the museums are like brothers, but different.

SARGENT: Do you feel there is a theme in your architecture?

ADJAYE: What I resist is techniques. I find techniques very problematic. So when critics talk about my work in those terms, I find that they miss the condition. I am comfortable with the notion of pattern and ornament as a system of organization, [but] for me it acts as a textile. So it’s not about pattern, but the notion of architecture through the lens of textile, rather than architecture through the lens of brick and mortar. In some conditions, the architecture of textile is more relevant than in other conditions or the opacity of the material form. Pattern in the world of scarce materiality and a hybridity becomes a way of creating a new authenticity. Sometimes there is a certain kind of nobility of a group of materials literally of the earth, which had a certain nobility of presence, but is very different from the materials we have now.

SARGENT: You have also famously visited over 50 cities in Africa. How have those cities influenced your practice?

ADJAYE: It has allowed me to look at the condition of the city in different ways. It forces a different reading of the city. If you just live in New York and you only know New York, you know a certain kind of condition of formality and informality. By being able to go to another context and to be able to use that as a counter foil to the context you know, you are about to see a wider range. In a way, going to Africa allowed me to see possibilities that sometimes seem impossible in certain conditions. It also allowed me to see opportunities for material strategies. I hate it when people think I went and got something [from Africa] and brought it here. It’s more about how it affects the way in which I work and affects [my] creativity.

“MAKING PLACE: THE ARCHITECTURE OF DAVID ADJAYE” IS ON VIEW AT THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO THROUGH JANUARY 3, 2016. FOR MORE ON THE ARCHITECT, VISIT HIS WEBSITE HERE.