David Adjaye discusses the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the importance of place.
By Spencer Bailey
Portraits by Nathan Perkel
September 22, 2016
Seven years ago, David Adjaye was awarded the project of a lifetime: to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.—likely the last building to be constructed on the National Mall. Opening on September 24th, the museum will be not just an architectural landmark, but also a social one, a roughly $360-million building with worldly implications. Situated on a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument, the screen-wrapped structure both stands out and blends in, evoking the complex and often contrasting subjects that will be explored inside its walls.
Adjaye, whose firm had around 80 employees by the time it turned 15 last year, operates studios in London, New York, and Accra, Ghana. An architect who deftly shifts between designing everything from high-end boutiques to social-housing developments, the Tanzanian-born 50-year-old has become one of today’s most global-minded practitioners. Typically, he’s at work on 20 projects at any one time, from textiles and furniture to large-scale master plans. Recent completions include the Roksanda Ilincic boutique in London’s Mayfair neighborhood; the concept shop Alara in Lagos, Nigeria; and the Sugar Hill housing complex in Upper Manhattan. This fall, his art complex for the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut will finish construction, and the Studio Museum of Harlem recently chose him as the architect of its new building, scheduled to break ground in 2017.
Last year, Surface’seditor-in-chief, Spencer Bailey, met with Adjaye in a trailer next to the construction site of the Smithsonian building. We spoke with him about his firm’s ongoing evolution, how African culture informs his design work, and why projects in America have been transformative to his career.
This year marks several milestones for you. Fifteen years ago, you launched your firm, Adjaye Associates. Ten years ago, you won the commission to design the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. You’re embarking on the final year of construction for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. So much is coalescing. What does it all mean to you? How do you feel about this span of time and the architecture you’ve created during it?
What’s become clear in the 15 years—if you think about Elektra House, which was the first house I ever built, this mute monolithic form with a light back, and then you go back to the MCA Denver, this other monolithic form that’s somehow also luminous, and then you come to this [the Smithsonian], there’s a confidence that’s been built. What’s come out of it is that I’m now clear about what I want to do and how I want to do it, and this has been the most public stage that I could possibly do it on. But what has also happened to the practice is that it now has this commitment to public work. In the beginning, it was much more intuitive, and now I’m able to articulate what the strategic decisions are and how the results are made.
Do you think that sense of confidence gets reflected in your architecture?
Confidence allows you to become much more restrained. When you’re starting out, you tend to put in a lot of things, trying to show skills. I think as you mature in the business, honing in on one idea and doing it extremely well becomes satisfying. You see a much stronger singularity happening in the work, and a focus on something that becomes the driving force.
What are some of those “somethings”?
Well, just look at the skin of the [Smithsonian] building. It’s one of the most complex drawing, cartography, and casting processes you could make. This isn’t something you make on a computer, laser cut, and send out here. These are handmade casts, digitally designed, using algorithms to develop the patterns. It’s a whole process to get to that level of texture—I call it texture; some people might call it “ornament,” but it’s texture. It’s performing environmentally, symbolically, and contextually.
Run me through the process of how a single panel for the building gets made.
Basically, they’re sand casts. The files are sent to the foundry. They’re turned into a timber or plastic former of some sort. It’s then put into the sand to make a negative. Then there’s molten aluminum poured into it. Sand casting is probably the oldest way of casting metal into shapes. Then it’s rubbed down and is finished with the bronze paint alloy that gets coated. It’s 30 or 40 coats. There are nine panels of different densities. We spent a lot of time pixelating the panels. It’s a pixelated facade. When the lights are on, you’ll see silhouettes of people moving inside.
Were these panels your starting point for the project?
Yeah.This motif is really important because it’s a very West African–Yoruban form. The form of the building started with two things: an Olowe of Ise sculpture and the Washington Monument. The angle is the same as the tip of the monument’s: 17 and a half degrees. Between both we have something very powerful: the context and the cultural roots. When you get to the ornament, you think about the freed slaves, the ironworkers of the South. The building is a narrative—it speaks about the museum. All of the form-making outside is absolutely analogous to the storytelling inside. I don’t know a single museum that does this. This project is reading history, reading Washington, reading the narrative of the African-American story, and making from that form.
Much of what kids in U.S. classrooms learn about African-American history has to do with slavery and the South, not Africa. But what this building seems to do through its architecture is start with this African past. What made you look back to Africa?
It’s because what is really clear now is that evidence shows that 99 percent of the African-American community comes from Western and Central Africa. A little bit from South Africa and Mauritius. Most of them are from Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. This area is where the 400,000 slaves who landed in America came from. They were the most important kingdoms—because there were kingdoms in that time, before the colonization of the continent. In our culture, we don’t talk about Africa before slavery.
What happened before the slave ships is too often ignored.
Yeah, there was a world before! They weren’t living in the trees. It was a whole civilization that was decimated in the conquest. They’re just fragments now in museums. If you’re looking for evidence, you look for it in artifacts. That story was really important to me.
You spent 11 years traveling to every country in Africa, the result of which was published in a book, African Metropolitan Architecture (Rizzoli). How did that inform what you ended up doing?
Traveling throughout Africa allowed me to get rid of any mythology I had about the continent. I’d traveled around it before that journey—I’d been to eight or so countries—and I thought, “I know Africa so well.” But there are 54 countries. It’s no joke. That taught me about the confidence of these regions. The idea of 54 countries is a modern construct; it was done in 1874. It’s an invention. Before that, the best way to understand the continent was through the geographic terrain.
Through that immersion, were you discovering a new world, a new side of Africa, even a new side of yourself?
I was definitely discovering a new side of myself. It forced me to question some of my own assumptions—and some of the assumptions I’d been given through my parents. You debunk it. You realize our cultural formation is formed by our specific relationships to the soil of our place and what that place is about.
In the process of creating your design for this Smithsonian project, did you study African-American history?
Totally. I’m African-born, but was educated in Britain, so you may see me as a diaspora to the history of African Americans. But what you don’t realize is that that history—African-American history—is black cultural history. We all learn through that lens, because the struggles that were happening in America were the struggles for all of us. Even though it’s African American, it’s black culture. I call it “black modernity.”
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An African visual language—seen in the textiles of your “Selects” show at the Cooper Hewitt—seems to permeate a lot of your projects, including the line of textiles you just did for Knoll.
I’ve started to realize, even with textiles, whether they’re from the jungle, the river, or the desert, there’s a clear narrative about how these things were being done. You see why the colors, patterns, and geometries exist. I wanted [the Cooper Hewitt show] to speak to that.
I’ve done this with furniture, artifacts, andnow textiles. For me, it’s confirming what I already knew, but also giving me a lot of strength in my own design pursuits.
It’s a very democratic approach.
Our cities and our civilizations are so complicated. It behooves the architect to interpret that for people. Architecture, for me, is like literature. The buildings have to weave stories. An architect has a social contract with society to explain the context you’re living in.
Let’s talk about the new Sugar Hill social-housing complex you designed in Harlem. That’s a project that really fits into this idea of seeking to create architecture that inspires and elevates. What’s interesting is that it’s a populist project, yet you brought to it the same sort of thoughtfulness and design integrity as you would to high-end residences. Grimshaw and Dattner’s Via Verde complex in the Bronx is similar in that sense. But very few of these kinds of buildings exist.
It’s a political project, but it’s also an architectural one. The construction of architecture is part of elevating and edifying communities. Social housing, or poor peoples’ housing, was part of that big project, but has become very left out in this capitalism-obsessed world we live in. The whole idea of a housing project was initially about elevating the poor from the slums. It was about making dignified housing for people who had nothing.
What I love about the Sugar Hill group—Ellen Baxter’s Broadway Housing Communities—is that they’re committed to getting as many people off the street as they can, and to give them dignified living. It’s kind of crazy that this is not on the radar of architects. The kind of people who were getting those jobs, it was as if they were doing them a favor.
When I started, people were like, “Can you make it look like a classical building?” I thought, “This is ridiculous. These people don’t want it mimicking something. They want their own dignity, and the architecture has to find the dignity.” That was the project: We have to find the dignity that’s specific—and that specificity empowers those people. Make it unique so that it’s a unique experience for the person there. This is why a young kid living there doesn’t think, “Oh, I’m living in a cheap version of your place.” No, you want the rich kid going, “Shit, I could live here, too.”
Running an architectural practice, at least a financially sound one, is largely about having a balanced portfolio. Yes, there are certain hugely successful architects who are rather specialized—like David Chipperfield, who’s known for his cultural projects, or Peter Marino, for his retail work—but when youbuild a firm that connects all of these circles, that’s when you’re running a healthy, sustainable office.
Ultimately, there’s the balanced portfolio, but more than that the greatest pleasure is public projects. For some people, it’s not. But for me, and for architects I’ve admired, the public project is the thing. You want more than 50 percent of your projects to be public—that’s the ideal. The problem is, there’s not that much public work. You have to find it. And you have to really fight for it.
What’s beautiful about that is, yes, there’s this Smithsonian project on the National Mall, which happens once every generation. But there are small monuments every day, like Sugar Hill. These are public moments. One can make them monumental. It’s searching for that way in which you reemerge the public all the time. It’s asking, How do you reconstruct the public?
Tell me about your approach to the opposite end of this spectrum: high-end retail. These are still technically public projects, but they’re definitely serving a different social purpose than a museum or housing for the poor. You recently designed the concept shop Alara in Lagos, Nigeria, and the new Roksanda Ilincic boutique in London’s Mayfair neighborhood.
With Alara, yes, it’s a concept store, but it’s designed like a museum. I said, “We’re not gonna do a shop; it’s not gonna be about square footage. It’s gonna be about display, about engagement, about curiosity.” If you look at Nigeria right now, it’s starting to emerge and become a very powerful nation. But it’s just starting out. We’ve created a little museum that just happens to be a store.
What about the Roksanda Ilincic space?
If you look at that store, it’s a little game about what you think luxury is. Essentially, it’s in Mayfair, the most expensive part of London, but it’s made out of everyday materials from the street. What looks like an incredible stonewall is made of typical London concrete pavement; I just sliced it and polished it. It’s not made in Italy. It’s made in some factory in Deptford. It’s the cheapest, shittiest thing. I love this idea of playing with peoples’ perception of luxury. The terrazzo floor makes you think the concrete wall is this lush material even though it’s actually not.
When I’m working in luxury environments, I like to question what values are. It’s like exercising the relationship between when you think something is actually special and something’s not. For me, that’s an important design trope. I’ve gotten quite good at it. I’ll do something to crappy plywood, and people will go, “Oh! What is that?” And I’m like, “It’s crappy plywood.” That’s important. That’s my way of saying, “Don’t underestimate the ordinary.” The ordinary can be made extraordinary, depending on how you frame it.
You have a long history of designing art galleries and artists’ private homes. How do you view the connection between art and architecture, and what’s it like to have artists as clients?
I went to art school. I loved my architecture professors, but I loved my contemporary art teachers even more. I just found a rigor and methodology in the way in which they analyzed what the contemporary could be and how you made it. I found that conversation was lacking in architecture. It was more about formal issues—this style versus that style—and, for me, those issues were redundant.
People always say I’ve done artists’ “houses.” I actually haven’t. I’ve done artists’ studios, which they live in. We call them houses because we don’t know what else to call them. [Laughs] This idea of working with artists has been a very clarifying game because an artist is somebody who’s very opinionated about what they want and don’t want. My whole point is that if you can create something with somebody so strongly opinionated—and still get something authorial—it’s a great test. Artists’ houses are like creative little tests for me. Gallerists are very deferential to their artists. If an artist rejects you, the gallery is going to stay away. Then if the gallery stays well away from you, the institution might, too. It’s a layering system. In a way, by being able to work with these two worlds, it’s allowed me to move into the museum world. Obviously, [the Smithsonian] is the most important museum project, but we have four other museums we’re working on.
There’s Linda Pace’s foundation museum and Colgate University. There are two others you’ll find out about very soon. I can’t say yet. [Editor’s note: One of the projects, the design for the Studio Museum in Harlem, was announced about a month after this interview took place.]
One consistent thing I find fascinating about your buildings is this idea of rethinking the skin. Why do you think you have this focus on the facade? And why do you think so many architects and developers continue to build projects of little exterior distinction? It seems like many of your buildings are done from the outside in.
My buildings are actually from the inside out. But they don’t follow the convention of how you express the inside and outside. What is interesting now is that the inside and outside is through the mediation of a “climate moderator.” That’s a Robert Smithson term I love. It means that between the body and the world there’s a device working. It’s either measuring, tempering, framing, or allowing you to understand something about the world. Take the Smithsonian: Here, you see the volume of what I call the “treasure box” of this museum; you see the way light is hitting it; you see the system is tempering it before it hits the content. That, for me, is the moment of that articulation. If there’s one motif that’s recurring, it’s that. You might call it the skin, but once you go into all the projects, you see that it’s more—it’s this thickness, how you mediate the outside world in relationship to the body.
How do you bring atmosphere into your own life, and by reason of that, into your projects?
Atmosphere is critical. It has to do with the temperament that the building sets for you. It creates something that shakes you out of the ordinary that you usually know. For me, that’s the beginning of the atmosphere. And the magic of the material composition adds to what I call the “color” of that atmosphere. That’s the second part of this game. Once those two come into play, I think people sense it. No matter how functional you get, you can’t get away from atmosphere.
From the looks of your Instagram feed, you travel a lot. What’s the relationship between your experiences traveling and the work being produced?
They’re totally connected, like twins. I’ve always moved around. My sense of home is not a place; my sense of home is my family, wherever they are. I’m very much unit-based. My creativity is stimulated by context. When I’m moving and seeing different things, that’s what’s energizing me. When I’m static and alone, I’m totally switched off. Actually, when I’m with my family, I don’t think about architecture at all. It’s really weird. It only comes when I start to move.
What do you think about when you don’t think about architecture?
My mind is blank. [Laughs] I become obsessed with other things, like my baby boy.
Your staff has grown significantly over the past few years. Has that changed your role in how you practice and manage your teams?
Fifteen years ago, I was drawing half the things I was building. Now I don’t really draw the things I’m building. But I sketch and conceptualize everything. My office is very much a single-studio authorship. That’s my capacity right now. If I can do it, we’ll do it; if I can’t, we won’t. What’s been amazing on the journey is that I have several people who have been with me all 15 years, some of them for 20 years, even before I started Adjaye Associates. They’ve become very critical to allow me to be much more global. We talk, I give them the genesis of what I want to do—I even draw the
details I want—and it comes back to me really quickly. I don’t need to know how to filter through somebody who doesn’t know how to communicate with me. They’ve become my filter. They’re very important to me. They’re my core. To anybody who wants to poach them from me: I’ll be really angry. It’s like you’re messing with my infrastructure. I have 80 on staff. A few of them are my generals.
What are some of the projects you’re currently at work on?
I’m doing more furniture and design now; I just launched a line of textiles with Knoll. I’m working on installations. We’re doing museums, cultural projects, education projects, master planning. It has become very wide, and that’s stimulating to me, not because of the breadth, but because the projects have different speeds. [The Smithsonian] will have been seven, eight years by the time it’s finished. And I’m working on another project in Washington, D.C., right now that’s already had three years and is still evolving; it’s such a complicated project. When I do a chair or a textile range, that’s a year. Doing furniture is a way to explore ideas immediately. Doing sculpture is a way to explore at the next speed. I always do these sculptural projects—when I’m asked to make a pavilion or an installation—as a way to test the scale between an object and architecture. They’re prototypes that can actually become buildings.
You recently designed a line of furniture with Italian brand Sawaya & Moroni. Why?
I love Sawaya & Moroni because they are great one-off furniture designers. I wanted to explore a finish that looks like slate—you apply it to metal, and when you touch it, you think it’s stone.
A new exhibition of your work showed at the Haus der Kunst in Germany earlier this year, and in September it will open at the Art Institute of Chicago. You’re friends with one of its curators, Okwui Enwezor, director of the Haus der Kunst. Is that how the exhibition came about? It’s a very major show to have as a mid-career architect.
It’s not to do with friendship at all. Zoë [Ryan at the Art Institute] has been tracking me for a few years, since around that time she did the Jeanne Gang show [“Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects” in 2012]. Almost directly, when I was there for the opening, she said, “I want to do a show on you. Are you interested?” So we started talking about it. Then Okwui, who is somebody I’ve worked with and know, said he wanted to do a show.
I told them, “The two of you are saying the same thing to me. Can we join you two together?” So I introduced them. What’s amazing about the Haus der Kunst is that it has the kinds of spaces you can’t find at any other institution. I was able to prototype one-to-one buildings. We’re able to put full-scale buildings, fragments, and details inside a gallery, which is very important. It was really a collaboration between Zoë and Okwui—Zoë’s design sensibility and Okwui’s art history trajectory.
It’s really funny. Most architects have shows at architectural institutions; I’ve never had one at an architectural institution. I only have the art museums calling me. I don’t know what that really means. Either the architects really hate me or I don’t know what it is. I don’t care. [Laughs] What’s nice is after Chicago it’s going to travel to other venues in Europe and the U.S. on a full tour.
You’ve got a lot of projects happening in U.S. How do you view your relationship to this country and the opportunities you’ve had here?
America has been amazing to me. My career has really evolved because of my engagement with America. I’m super grateful. I love this place. In fact, I love it so much I married an American. [Laughs]
How much are you actually in the studio?
I’m in the studio when I need to be. I’m not the kind of architect who has a nine-to-five life behind a desk. I gave that up about six years ago. I move through sites, and I communicate through technology to my teams. Then when we’re building something, I go to the studio for sessions.
Usually when it’s with the concepts, I’m alone. I just book time to be alone and develop. What’s interesting is that I feel like I’m alone when I’m working, but I’m using technology with my team to communicate.
You’re one of few architects of your stature who’s young enough to have embraced technology but old enough to know the pre-Internet world. Bjarke Ingels is another who comes to mind. You’re both particularly adept at Instagram.
I totally took to Instagram! [Laughs]
How does Instagram inform your practice?
I was always taking those photos. I have massive photo files. But a friend once said, “Have you thought about sharing them?” At first I was like, “No, no, they’re mine.” Then I just thought I’d see. I posted a couple, and I couldn’t believe the reaction. I suddenly realized that I could communicate my ideas more directly, without print media.
Instagram is like your personal “climate moderator.”