Shuffling alongside other would-be audience members in a queue that snaked outside the auditorium entrance, I sensed a quiet building of excitement for the highly-anticipated lecture by David Adjaye. Once inside the 448-seat auditorium, the crowd’s droning chatter was quickly hushed by the arrival of Adjaye. Adjaye’s fashionably-late appearance certainly set the lecture program behind schedule but, what we lost in time, he made up for in a vivid presentation of his work.
Taking us through various architectural projects across scales, geographies, and cultures, Adjaye eloquently demonstrated his versatility and sensitivity in dealing with context and climate. Most impressive to me was the articulation by which Adjaye beautifully communicated the process of his design-thinking from abstraction to architectural form—in this way, inviting us into the intellectual realm from where he operates and creates.
There is a certain kind of ease and confidence, on the one hand, and a humbling sincerity, on the other, which surfaced throughout the lecture as Adjaye reflected on the qualities of time and space represented in/by his works. As a contemporary architect, Adjaye makes it clear that his designs are representative of the moment—the here and now. Yet, many of his works are sited in traditional cities invariably imbued with their own aesthetic norms and subjectivities, making it arguably risqué to introduce an edifice that speaks a different design language and seeks isolation from its surrounding context.
How does a contemporary architect resolve two seemingly extreme ends of the local-global binary while respecting regional and cultural nuances? For Adjaye, abstraction is a way of negotiating contextual information that is then shaped metaphorically into an architectural form. The key to responsive/responsible contemporary architecture is not in making the metaphor so overt that it becomes garish but, rather, in locating the crossroad where subtlety and understanding intersect.
The projects presented in Adjaye’s lecture are evident of his humanist approach to contemporary architecture. Two commissioned works, in particular, spoke of the rigour involved from research and conceptualization to design and implementation.
The Moscow School of Management Skolkovo (Moscow, 2010) is a demonstration of Adjaye’s firm insistence on respecting local climate. Rather than romanticizing the one-quarter of the year during which the site enjoys pleasant summer temperatures, Adjaye shifted the gaze to the remaining three-quarters of the year when the site becomes a harsh winter landscape. The end result is a single volume development with interconnected components arranged on a base in the form of a 150-metre wide and two-storey high disc.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)—with a site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—is one of Adjaye’s current projects (in collaboration with The Freelon Group, Davis Brody Bond, and the SmithGroup). Here, again, the design shows an intuitive respect for geographic specificity. At the macro-level, the NMAAHC site is analyzed in relation to the existing institutional buildings and monuments that line the National Mall—in this way, identifying significant axes/sightlines that are then strategically incorporated into the building’s fenestration to provide visitors inside with carefully framed visual moments of place. Another interesting design feature is the column-free interior spaces which not only expand the functional possibilities for curating but also create a vast feeling of openness on the ground floor that is further enhanced by the infusion of natural lighting. Finally, a the micro-level, precision design is practised in the making of the decorative bronze lattice façade—inspired by African American craftsmanship—that envelops the entire project. [UPDATE: The Architectural Review article on NMAAHC can be read here: the-architectural-review-16-feb-2017.]
The lecture was followed by a Q&A session that, sadly, was very brief (under 5 minutes) due to the late start and time constraints (Adjaye had a flight to catch that evening). While I enjoyed the informative lecture, it was Adjaye’s philosophical responses during the Q&A that provided interesting bits of insights into his view of the world. Needless to say, my curiosity had been piqued, leading me on a hunt for fascinating reports on Adjaye. As a start, The New Yorker 2013 article by Calvin Tomkins provides a revealing read on this international architect, while Thelma Golden’s conversation with Adjaye at the 2014 The New York Conference teases out the complex play of culture in architecture.