BLOOD, SWEAT and TEARS
“There is an immense responsibility inherent in this building, to do justice to a complex and significant history of a people whose stories are still too rarely told”
Sir DAVID A Djaye OBE is regarded as one of the leading architects of his generation. He founded Adjaye Associates in 2000 as Principal Architect. Receiving ever-increasing worldwide attention, the firm has opened offices in London and New York and has completed projects in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Two of the practice’s largest commissions to date are the design of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and the Moscow School of Management. Further projects range in scale from private houses, exhibitions and temporary
pavilions to major arts centres, civic buildings and masterplans.
Renowned for an eclectic material and colour palette and a capacity to offer a rich civic experience, the buildings differ in form and style, yet are unified by their ability to generate new typologies and to reference a wide cultural discourse.
Completed works include: the regenerative Morning Lane Arches retail corridor in Hackney, London (2016); Sugar Hill museum and housing development in Harlem, New York (2015); the Aishti Foundation arts and shopping complex in Beirut, Lebanon (2015); Alara Concept Store in Lagos, Nigeria (2014); Marian Goodman Gallery, London (2014); the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at the Hutchins Centre, Harvard University (2014); two neighbourhood libraries in Washington DC (2012); the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London (2007); the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver (2007); Rivington Place Gallery in London (2007); and The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo (2005). Highlights of an exclusive interview with the architect:
FIRST OF ALL, CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR KNIGHTHOOD ANNOUNCED IN THE NEW YEAR’S HONOURS LIST. HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU HEARD THE NEWS?
I feel deeply honoured and humbled to receive a knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen. I see this not as a personal achievement, but as a celebration of the vast potential of architecture to effect positive social change, a reminder that we as architects have the power and responsibility to bring something positive to the world.
THE SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE OPENED IN SEPTEMBER 2016 AFTER EIGHT YEARS OF WORK. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THE PROJECT?
The museum in Washington D.C. is a monumental project and arguably the defining moment of
my career. Every square foot of this project has been a massive investment of blood, sweat, and tears - eight years of intensive work. There is an immense responsibility inherent in this building, to do justice to a complex and significant history of a people whose stories are still too rarely told. This project means so much to so many people. It is the culmination of a 100-year fight and is truly so much bigger than a building. That was weighty and challenging, but also invigorating.
There were so many attacks on our design that it felt like a bloodbath at times. But we ended up with a building that has 90 percent of what we wanted, which for architecture is a pretty good result.
WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO GAIN MOST OUT OF THE MUSEUM?
For me, it has always been about creating a museum that has a specific narrative alongside a universal message. The African American story is about one culture having empathy with another. My hope is that the museum will transcend the uneasy fact of the marginalised African American experience though an open exploration of history, culture and society - thereby addressing profound aspects of the human condition and the positive value inherent in creating a forum for multiple interpretations of America’s history and demography - however uncomfortable those may be.
I intentionally layered different access points - materials that mirror the iconic Washington Monument; a form derived from Yoruban art - to make a very specific point about how the migration of a group of people fundamentally changed a nation. America cannot be fully understood without this conceptual lens. It is a representation of African American heritage in a global context, as one that is in fact about the beginning of modernism and about global cultural engagement.
This is what the museum’s design is about: about honouring African Americans’ contributions to culture and a struggle that has given America so much; about rethinking the connection between Africa and America; about recognising that African American history is American history. It stands with and against the other institutions on the Mall with exactly this purpose: to say that this too is American history; this too is America.
YOU HAVE BUILT HOMES FOR CELEBRITIES LIKE EWAN MCGREGOR, AMONG OTHERS. HOW INVOLVED ARE THE CLIENTS IN THE WHOLE PROCESS? HOW MUCH CREATIVE CONTROL DO YOU HAVE AS AN ARCHITECT?
It is a process of creative dialogue… that applies not only to the private homes I design, but also to the public buildings, pavilions and exhibitions. There is always a broader responsibility, no matter how personal a project becomes. Whether public or private, all of my buildings engage with the urban fabric and the urban condition in the widest sense.
YOU HAVE SEVERAL UPCOMING PROJECTS, INCLUDING IN HARLEM AND MANHATTAN. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THEM?
Our next big project is the new home for the Studio Museum in Harlem, a major arts institution, headed by Thelma Golden - one of the most visionary curatorial arts leaders I’ve experienced in my lifetime. We’re full steam ahead on that, just going into construction.
There’s also a tower on Willian Street (in downtown Manhattan) that will be unveiled in June. It is my first tower and something I’ve been working on for a long time. I’m very excited about it. It’s a tower that really attempts to achieve a mixed pricing belt, and to bring more affordability to the downtown pocket of towers, which are all about high benchmarking.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE YOUR PROJECTS?
It’s really important to me that I have a kind of ethical pride in my work. The first question I ask myself when approached with a new opportunity is what kind of contribution can this project make to its context, how can it continue the narrative of place, uplift its community and offer new modes of engagement that prepare for the changes of the future? These are essential questions for me.
HOW DID YOU DISCOVER YOUR TALENT AND PASSION FOR DESIGN?
I was always interested in drawing and using my imagination as a kid, and I was encouraged by a teacher to do an art foundation course. It was during that time that my preoccupation with space came to the fore and I realised that I wanted to study architecture. I wanted an art form that was in service to the public, in service to our idea of our civilisation and our idea of our collective.
Architecture provides me with the opportunity to produce art that has this kind of direct impact, that capacity for social edification.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SIGNATURE STYLE AND AESTHETIC?
I am part of a generation of architects that has moved away from the idea of a signature style. My work is more about the specifics of culture, place, geography and so on. If there is a unifying element - it might perhaps be my approach to light and its treatment as a primary material. But every context is different, and every context has a new scenario. You can actually find differences and specificities within context, which can drive things very powerfully. I seek to find the soft nuances that people disregard.
clockwise from left: SIR DAVID ADJAYE; THE UNDERGOUND CONTEMPLATIVE COURT ; THE MUSEUM SPIRALING STAIRCASE
MOSCOW SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT BY ED REEVE