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A curatorial architect: Sir David Adjaye

The architectural career of new British Knight of the Realm Sir David Adjaye has seen him develop a special relationship with museums – his design for the Smithsonian’s recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture being a special standout.

He was very much at home then speaking to a full capacity audience at Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS/ Powerhouse) last week at the tail-end of a brief speaking tour of Australia that began in Melbourne.

Surprisingly perhaps, Adjaye chose to fall back on that most rudimentary path for architectural presentations by slowly unfolding a selection of four recent key works from the portfolio of Adjaye Associates, founded in 2000: one in Ghana, one in New York City, and two in Washington, D.C.

An audience attention-getter for the first project, in Adjaye’s home country Ghana, just happened to be that the client was former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. (Adjaye might have noted that his father was also a Ghanaian diplomat, but this was all about the work not personal asides). This project was about building a home base for Annan, not a single residence but a set of nine small and discrete, single room buildings with no corridors that would speak volumes about being a place “for engagement and dialogue and respite as much as a house”.

Part of the brief was to have “no visibility of wealth or usual trappings of a decorated space”. With the non-architectural forms and basic structures found locally in mind, Adjaye focused on “reducing down the manufactured world”. Buildings were placed with a conscious regard to cross winds, and a curatorial aspect was the use of obliquely different pigments in the concrete for each structure.

Curating with concrete was also a feature of the medium-rise community housing project in Sugar Hill, Harlem that Adjaye Associates completed in 2012 and that has been lauded as a new typology for affordable housing. The tinted precast exterior, as chosen by the community, is coloured black and a local history of rose growing was borrowed from as a pattern of rose-like indentations on the outside walls to give a subtle light-shifting texture.

Adjaye explained that his approach to this multi-use vertical village for people at risk of homelessness was both site-specific but also a form of inclusive “city making”. Without a lot of leeway on placement of windows or a lot of money, one workaround solution was to opt for a “jazz, staccato” arrangement of windows so that they would “dissipate in a rhythmic manner”.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

And, returning to museums, the basement of the Sugar Hill project, coinciding with a children’s crèche, is the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling. As understatedly presented by Adjaye this one project – while “muted and stoic” from the outside – showed what turning things upside down and right side up can look like, and how social housing can exist as a hub, not a periphery.

Adjaye’s next trick of magic was the Francis Gregory Library in Washington, D.C. on the edge of a dense, native forest. The ‘trick’ he revealed was a mixture of cantilevered canopy for the library and a matrix exterior fabric of horizontal diamond-shaped portals that alternated between glass and mirror claddings.

Chuckling out loud, Adjaye admitted that the “moments of transparency” intended with the design had gone beyond the expectations. “This photo is real,” he enjoined as a slide flashed up where the library building had literally dissolved between the mirroring of the forest and the reflections off the windows. “It disappears.”

Lastly Adjaye presented a building that also has that same trait or hallmark of his work in being present but not overbearing, this time on the grandest stage of all – the National Mall of the United States.

Adjaye’s part in steering the National Museum of African American History and Culture into place was an obvious labour of cultural and curatorial commitment as well as a professional triumph.

Only two specifications for the building – a wooden ceiling in a grand foyer, the substitution of bronze-coloured aluminium for actual bronze (“because bronze couldn’t be guaranteed for 50 years!”) – did not come into fruition, and Adjaye’s tour by slides lingered lovingly over all of the working elements, in isolation and in toto.

At the beginning of this talk MAAS director Dolla Merrillees had suggested that this ode to the history and culture of African-Americans wouldn’t have been possible under the new administration in Washington.

For Adjaye all of the devil of this museum is in its researched detail, and in the uniquely “panoptic views” it offers across all corners of the Mall, including the White House. Points of pride expressed by Adjaye in the multi-level interior include a huge free-standing spiral staircase, angular window framing to lean into and fit with the iconic landscape outside at certain points, coupled with a measured use of transparent façade material and moments that connect back to an external façade which strongly references a history of industry and craft and iron work.

In sum, Adjaye’s ascendancy – and he must sometimes tire of being told that turning 50 makes him young – shows no sign of slowing and augurs a long career that is somewhat reminiscent in its ambitious potential of an earlier global architect who was namechecked by Adjaye: Louis Kahn.

This was a low key presentation yet evidence of Adjaye’s popularity was given by a long and loud round of rapturous applause for this curatorial architect.

His last remark in talking about the remarkable vistas of the National Museum of African American History and Culture was that in the evening it provides a “gentle lantern”. And the same could be said of Sir David Adjaye. 

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