Amplified Architecture

This mid-career survey explores one of architecture’s youngest and most prolific innovators, who has set the bar for construction worldwide.

Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and raised in Africa, the Middle East and England, architect David Adjaye OBE (b. 1966) has rapidly become recognised as a leading gure within contemporary architecture who has a unique “Afropolitan” view of the global landscape. Adjaye’s projects are not tied together by a common style but instead consistently address the e ects of their culture and location, a sensitivity which he developed early on having lived in several countries as a child, before settling in London.

Another aspect which sets Adjaye’s work apart from many of his contemporaries is his close connection to the art world: having studied at the Royal College of Art and with many of his first projects including live-work studios for artists including Jake Chapman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and Chris Ofili – whom he has also collaborated with repeatedly, most notably on the Stephen Lawrence Centre, which opened in 2008 to house the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. The building itself stands as a great white block, a suitable memorial, with Ofili’s trademark African-inspired patterns running across its ivory walls and vast windowpanes.

This mid-career survey of Adjaye’s work, which travels from Munich’s Haus der Kunst to The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) in September 2015, will include a 12ft tall fragment of the Centre’s windows as well as examples of Adjaye and Ofili’s several other joint projects, such as the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo (2005), and, to house Ofili’s own paintings, Tate Britain’s church-like installation The Upper Room (2002). Adjaye’s close relationship with artists such as Ofili, Noble and Webster came about during the 1980-1990s, the advent of the Young British Artists (better known as the YBAs), many of whom he had come to know through his studies.

As curator of the Munich and Chicago exhibition, Zoë Ryan, explains: “David is grounded in art practice and working alongside artists. Having grown up with artists such as the YBAs who were making their careers at the same time as him, David was lucky that they had an influx of cash in the 1990s and 2000s so that he was able to work with them.”

These works have included transforming a Huguenot silk weaver’s house into Ofili’s home and painting studio, and Dirty House (2002) for Noble and Webster, an enormous black warehouse in Shoreditch which precedes the duo’s current project with Adjaye, nicknamed “Mole House” due to the previous owner having dug a maze of tunnels beneath it. The majority of these projects exist in the East End of London, which, as Ryan asserts, “we now take for granted” as a creative hub; however, at the time these areas were still a maze of derelict properties and textile warehouses. In this way, many of Adjaye’s early projects have set a precedent for much of the development in the Shoreditch and Hackney areas. While Noble and Webster’s project Dirty House may look monolithic and in keeping with the trendy surroundings it enjoys nowadays, its namesake actually derives from the then-necessary anti-graffiti paint slathered over the frontage.

These artists “took a chance on Adjaye” during the beginnings of their careers; however, 15-20 years later they are coming back to the architect for personal projects – which he continues to fulfill despite his firm simultaneously working on residential, civic, retail and specialist projects worldwide.

Adjaye shares an affinity with the YBAs as the issues that they were dealing with in their works in the 1990s, and even now, are similar to those that Adjaye intends to tackle through his approach to architecture. As Ryan explains, “he is much more aligned with architects who are interested in using architecture as a way to negotiate and understand our place in the world, and how we got here – with a critical eye.”

Like that of an artist, Adjaye’s practice is a critical commentary on contemporary life and culture, and he is unafraid of tackling challenging issues such as race and identity while working in the universal medium of building.

While Adjaye’s work was already informed by his own experiences of travel, and of coming to the UK as a teenager from Africa in the turbulent 1980s, in order to win his most prestigious commission to date in 2009, for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC, he embarked on a 10-year research project on the capital cities of the great African continent. Urban Africa: David Adjaye’s Photographic Survey saw the architect photograph every capital city of Africa in detail to portray the Modernism of Africa as well as the rural, vernacular architecture a Western eye might expect.

While the extensive research project toured globally, the resulting museum in Washington DC is a light, free- owing space comprising glass, wood, water and stone, opening in 2016 as a venue for ceremonies and performances, and an exhibition space dedicated to African-American history and culture. The fact that Adjaye has won this project, alongside the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London and current projects such as the scorched earth Cape Coast Slavery Museum, makes clear his deep understanding of the museum as an inclusive, educational memorial. Adjaye’s projects encourage their visitors to touch, explore and take in their materiality, while monolithic on the exterior, their interiors are tactile and function on a human scale – an aspect critical for buildings such as The NMAAHC whose aim is to promote healing.

This use of natural and man-made materials, colour and the transparency of public spaces versus very private residential projects, are de ning features of Adjaye’s work. According to Ryan, it is only “over time, with a large body of work that you start to see key elements that link [Adjaye’s] work together” as he is informed by each individual project’s function and locality. Even nearby spaces with similar seeming uses such as Shoreditch’s Rivington Place arts centre and Tower Hamlets’ “Idea Store” libraries in London, are poles apart – the former dark and opaque, intended to blend in with local warehouses, and the latter light and transparent since the project set out to make the library space more accessible.

While the two Idea Stores built by the Tower Hamlets council, nished by 2005, may be among his lesser-known works, they are in fact Adjaye’s earliest public projects and “instrumental in his career” as they required him to rethink previous personal projects and look to a di erent, much wider public. Located in an incredibly urban and multicultural area, the projects required a reworking of the traditional British library in order to create spaces for neighbourhoods which remain culturally rich and vastly developing.

As Ryan explains, “David had to create a new typology” by identifying what makes retail environments successful, and incorporate this into an educational project; the de ning feature of this being a floating escalator which brings visitors up into the space as they would enter a department store.

The strategy has been clearly proved successful, with 33 languages now being spoken inside the two Idea Stores.

As Ryan notes: “David is interested in creating projects that are very unique typologies but are everyday in terms of their place in public life such as libraries, cultural centres and in tackling working and living in London.” This “tackling” of living in certain city spaces is not restricted to London but also exempli ed by residential projects in Johannesburg and Doha, with a focus upon wellness. The homes of Adjaye’s Mshreib Downtown project for example, fuse Qatari architecture with a high-tech approach to sustainability and reducing car use and congestion, and is also concerned with maximising the efficient use of water and energy.

The Adjaye Associates firm has an interesting and innovative attitude towards the idea of “sustainability”, recognising that this can often be seen as an add-on, with many contemporary building projects only taking it into account as a secondary aspect, after creating a comfortable temperature and condition-neutral space. Adjaye’s architectural style – for example, incorporating shaded courtyards into the Mshreib Downtown project by exaggerating each upper storey to create overhangs – aims, instead, to make it possible to enjoy variations in climate without the need for the constant expenditure of huge amounts of energy to achieve it.

The most striking example of this, however, is the Moscow School of Management (2010) that was designed to deal with the severe six-month Russian winter; therefore its “buildings” are in fact four separate wings of the same structure, joined by a central, glass-walled “outdoor” space. The building is geared towards having all of its facilities under a single roof but speckled with skylights to avoid becoming oppressive, while its expansive windows give views of the surrounding Skolkovo forest land to root the building in situ. Although it may not appear to share its aesthetics with Russia’s architectural history at first, on closer inspection its tessellated glass panes reveal their resemblance to the patterned church domes of Moscow. Ryan affirms the architect’s clear intent: “Adjaye is playing with motifs which are very contextual and culturally defined by Russia; in many ways the building would make no sense elsewhere.”

While the building may look much like a spaceship that has somehow landed in the surrounding parkland, Ryan explains that Adjaye’s works “needn’t look like their surroundings but do need to speak to their context.” In buildings such as this, the influence of projects such as Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, whose glass sails give views of the Bois de Boulogne, becomes apparent, while Adjaye’s enormous residential project in Doha or even his Cape Coast Slavery Museum combine local architecture with extremely modern leanings, reminding the viewer of projects such as Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka.

Like Gehry and Kahn before him, Adjaye’s projects are rooted in Modernism; however, they break free from many of these conventions in order to speak to the specific time and place in which they are made – whether this be an educational space in East London or a public memorial in Washington. Adjaye is not interested in a one-size-fits-all aesthetic; his prolific projects often transcend categorisation and create new typologies. As curator Zoë Ryan notes, as she considers the many aspects of a creative talent who is in mid-career, “the challenge of David Adjaye’s work is that he doesn’t have a signature style, only a signature approach.”

Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye. Art Institute Chicago. 19 September – 3 January.

Chloe Hodge