Harlem Architect David Adjaye’s Global View

November 7, 2013

BN-AC681_mag111_G_20131023134745The new affordable apartment complex going up at the corner of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in the uppermost reaches of Manhattan cuts an unlikely figure.

This is Sugar Hill, after all, so named in the early 20th century by African Americans who flocked to what they considered the sweet spot of Harlem—now an area of 100-year-old brownstones and stately apartment buildings. In outline, the high-rise, which will also provide housing for the homeless, is a big, chunky block with a serrated upper story; its bulk, along with its ridged panels of graphite-cast concrete, give it more than its share of grit and brawn. Yet look closer at those panels: Visible from the right angle and in the right light, the cladding bears the traces of a floral pattern, enormous roses etched into the rough surface.

For all its scale and strength, the building has a rapport with its urban environs: The blooms reference the decorative motifs on some of the nearby apartments, while the jagged mass echoes the angled row houses along St. Nicholas Avenue. This is a structure that doesn’t attempt to blend in, but instead establishes an unusual type of architectural dialogue, speaking to its surroundings with a forthrightness and intimacy that’s rare for any building, much less an affordable housing development in an underprivileged neighborhood. Few architects could have pulled it off—but for David Adjaye, the ability to speak to experiences and to people outside the norms of his profession has become a hallmark. It’s what has led the designer to the crowning moment of his career: the commission for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Adjaye, 47, talks to just about everybody. On-site in Harlem, he breaks his stride to show a job applicant to the foreman’s office. In the car en route to a construction site, over lunch or coffee, his phone rings with near metronomic regularity. Since his practice now has branches in four cities on three continents (London, New York, Berlin and the Ghanaian capital of Accra), it’s almost always office hours somewhere. But it’s not just his employees on the line. In the midst of a riff on West African history, the protocol team for the president of Gabon rings him to schedule a meeting. Not two minutes later, the phone goes off again, this time on even more pressing business. “It’s my fiancée,” says Adjaye, who’s been engaged to business consultant and former model Ashley Shaw Scott since last year. “We’ve got a wedding to plan.

“Half the world thinks we’re already married,” jokes the architect, hanging up. “It says so on my Wikipedia page, which is a mistake.” As a result, along with the challenges of guiding a major global design firm, Adjaye now has to field inquiries from friends and relatives wondering why they weren’t invited. Of course, a mastery of logistical multitasking is de rigueur for anyone at the helm of a 70-employee firm that’s won multiple awards from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Institute of Architects. But Adjaye has had to acquire a high degree of managerial savvy in record time. “It’s just the last five years or so that all this stuff started to happen with the practice,” he says—eliding, with that “stuff,” a half-decade of career developments that have produced some of the most compelling architecture of the 21st century.

The UK-based designer has been an object of interest to architectural cognoscenti since establishing his own practice in 2000, building up a substantial catalogue of residential projects in and around London for high-profile clients like actor Ewan McGregor and artist Chris Ofili. His early houses set the basic aesthetic parameters of his practice: a penchant for simple, bold form-making, combined with a distaste for preciousness in materials.

The promise of those first projects attracted major institutional commissions—including the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2005, and Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art two years later—but it was the 2008 economic crisis that obliged Adjaye to look still further afield and set up satellite offices in Germany and the U.S. “The catalyst for us was the downturn,” says Adjaye. “We had to undergo a total restructuring. Basically we had to go big or go home.” Remaking his firm as a truly global practice has led to bigger projects overseas and a furniture line with famed design house Knoll. More importantly, it’s revealed a new and startlingly original cultural agenda, one that connects Adjaye’s intrepid design approach to his background and outlook.

Adjaye was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His father was a globe-trotting diplomat who entered the foreign service of his native Ghana shortly after independence. In the early days of leader Kwame Nkrumah’s republic, the elder Adjaye was one of a cadre of energetic, educated young men who were poised to transform Africa after centuries of colonial repression. The Pan-African movement that Nkrumah inspired sought to weave the continent together in a shared political and social fabric—one that looked beyond individual borders to forge a broader sense of African identity. Postings took the family as far away as Egypt and Lebanon, so the Adjaye boys (three in all, David the eldest) had a multinational upbringing that seemed, for a while at least, to be an extension of the Pan-African project. It was a time, and a spirit, that remains a touchstone for the architect. “My father articulated a set of ideals to me, always very softly,” recalls Adjaye. “Just certain points about being strong about your identity, about who you are and not being intimidated by other cultures. And to understand that there’s a world that exists beyond national boundaries.”

Those ideals have reemerged in Adjaye’s design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., expected to open in 2015. Beating out a number of larger, more senior firms, such as Foster + Partners and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Adjaye and his collaborators won the job four years ago with a proposal that will look unlike anything on the Mall today. It is a building replete with African motifs. As seen in digital renderings, the structure appears as stacked inverted pyramids, a silhouette inspired, says Adjaye, by Yoruban sculpture. The patterning of the decorative bronze grilles on the museum’s façade, reminiscent of African metalwork, will allow light to filter into the building in a beguiling pattern, just as with the thatched lattices of some traditional African dwellings. The museum’s very form, squatting massively on the last real buildable plot near to the Washington Monument, seems to suggest the earthy monumentality of such ancient African sites as Timbuktu and Great Zimbabwe. As he puts it, Adjaye’s objective is to establish a kind of “classical” African sensibility, an architecture capable of forging a link between African American cultural traditions and their common roots in Africa itself.

But what makes the museum, and Adjaye’s whole oeuvre, so refreshing isn’t merely the way it suggests a general feeling of “African-ness.” Okwui Enwezor, a critic and director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, is a longtime friend, and as he observes, Adjaye “is looking at the complexity of African design not in order to appropriate an ethnographic or anthropological sensibility but to reintegrate it.” In other words, Adjaye wants to make some of the features of African design culture a normal, fluid part of the language of contemporary architecture.

His recent work shows him tying together a dense bundle of cultural strands: The graphic abstraction and layered, textural quality of the Smithsonian project not only echo traditional African design but also the 20th-century urban architecture of Africa that Adjaye saw as a boy; that architecture, in turn, drew on European precedents, which themselves had been informed by the art of Africa that had inspired so many early modernists.

The vectors of influence point in every direction—”meshed,” as Enwezor puts it, in the web of Adjaye’s work. Rough in their materiality, muscular in their forms, Adjaye’s buildings communicate in a new cosmopolitan idiom, creating a conversation that draws in Lagos and Washington, the East End and Harlem.

ADJAYE’S PURSUIT of intercultural dialogue is a natural choice for someone whose upbringing and schooling left him to fill in the blanks for himself. Being from every place and no place, and with parents whose education had come at the hands of European-trained teachers, Adjaye has had to spend years cobbling together the artistic and technical knowledge he relies on in his work. “I’ve had to teach myself pretty much everything I know about African history,” he says—and much of what he knows about architecture, as well.

The decline of Nkrumah’s political project in the mid-’60s marked the end of the original Pan-African dream, and though the Adjaye family remained in the diplomatic corps for years, they rarely returned to Ghana. When Adjaye’s youngest brother was struck with an illness that left him severely brain damaged, the Adjaye family gave up the roving life for a new and more stable one in England. The change took some getting used to. “It was my first cold climate,” says Adjaye, who was 13 at the time. “I remember the first time I saw snow. I was screaming at my brother to look outside—we’d only seen it in cartoons before.” The move affected the designer’s spatial sensibility, too: Accustomed to open doors and sunny courtyards, Adjaye suddenly found himself confined to the stuffy quarters of London townhouses. In warmer cities, he notes, “there’s this blurred relationship between inside and outside. It strengthens the connections between neighbors, creating more of an extended sense of community.” Finding a new way of mediating that interior-exterior divide has been a major preoccupation of his work ever since, as in the Harlem apartments, where a forecourt and interior playground space for the complex’s on-site child-care center give it a village-ish feel at the ground level.

Adjaye’s early interest in problems of space and planning didn’t exactly translate into any ambition to become a designer. “The architecture happened really late,” he says, and almost by accident. Adjaye’s first love, and his true calling, in a sense, was art; in a family of scientists, civil servants and accountants, he chose to enroll in an art program at Middlesex University. While there, a group of acquaintances asked him and a classmate to design a London café. The project was a surprise hit, appearing in the pages of an English design publication, and soon Adjaye found himself fielding offers from architecture firms.

Leaving behind his purely artistic ambitions, he worked for years with prominent London offices like Chassay + Last and Pentagram. Remarkably, where most architects spend years pursuing a studio degree, Adjaye’s formal education amounted to only one year at London South Bank University (whose faculty deemed his professional experience to be education enough) followed by a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. During the latter two-year interval, he spent much of his time traveling—to East Asia, to the Mediterranean—looking at buildings rather than sitting in a classroom thinking about them. “I think that most architectural training trajectories are really about coming under the tutelage of specific schools, specific teaching trajectories,” says Adjaye. Unencumbered by that kind of baggage, Adjaye has been free to find his own path in a way few of his contemporaries can.

“David’s very instinctive, and very expressive about what he loves,” says fashion designer Duro Olowu, another close friend. Adjaye’s architectural method, though always informed by his research into the art and history of Africa and elsewhere, is more intuitive than analytical, and this may explain why he counts so many artists as friends and clients. Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic installation artist, shares with Adjaye what he feels is a decidedly artistic investment in the experiential quality of space: “What we’re interested in is the psychosocial tension of a surface, a material, how one creates an atmosphere,” he says. “David just uses a different toolbox.”

The architect’s active, creative temperament (combined with the natural garrulousness that keeps him constantly chatting with construction workers and waitresses) makes him well suited to the business of opening up new offices in foreign countries and jetting off to client meetings in Trinidad and Shanghai. Still, the growth of Adjaye’s practice isn’t just a matter of expanding his business, but a key part of his broader cultural project. Particularly important are the host of new commissions afoot in Africa, and the Accra office he recently opened to pursue them. “The growth of African countries”— between 8 and 15 percent of GDP in some economies, he notes—”has created a new confidence on the continent,” and Adjaye is looking to tap into it. Adjaye sees the continent as fertile soil for exactly the kind of high-design, iconic new architecture he’s creating in Washington, and with no other “starchitect”-caliber office between Johannesburg and Cairo, he’s effectively first on the scene. Adjaye isn’t just bringing Africa to the world—he’s bringing the world to Africa.

Africa, it seems, is ready. “Already, you find that people are sort of looking outward a little more, wanting more than they’ve had previously,” says interior designer Reni Folawiyo. She recently commissioned the architect to design her new concept store, Alara, set to debut later this year in Lagos, Nigeria. The building’s translucent screens seem a nod to the brises soleils of African modernist buildings, like those of British architect Maxwell Fry, while their patterning plainly connotes the geometries of African textiles. Configured as a series of open volumes, the building suggests the same clustered, communal feel as one of Adjaye’s new public libraries in Washington, D.C. And the concept store is only the beginning. Among his ongoing projects in sub-Saharan Africa is the master plan for a new 500,000-square-foot resort in Princes Town, Ghana, only a couple miles from the seaside fortifications where Europeans once traded for slaves bound for the New World.

The sheer volume of Adjaye’s current workload reinforces the appearance of a designer determined to bring his message to everyone: from the visitors to the weaving facility he’s designing for Maiyet in Varanasi, India, to the fashionistas who will flock to his new boutique for Proenza Schouler in New York’s Soho, to the families who will find homes in the striking tower rising dozens of blocks to the north. His eagerness to connect with so many different people on so many different levels is essential to understanding his work. “I think making space is also about expressing yourself and verbalizing your feelings,” says Eliasson. “When David is talking or thinking, he’s actually building.” For the architect, the way forward remains a matter of “unpacking my instincts,” of going from project to project, idea to idea. But what he’s moving toward bears a striking resemblance to a new architecture for a global age.


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