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The global textures of architect David Adjaye showcased in Art Institute exhibition

Architect David Adjaye might not be a household name in Chicago — yet. But at 48, this son of a Ghanaian diplomat, who grew up in Tanzania and the Middle East before moving to Britain at the age of nine, has garnered an international reputation. And his major projects — some completed, others “in the works” — speak volumes.

Adjaye has designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (opening in 2016); the vast addition to the Studio Museum in Harlem (opening 2017). He has devised plans for the Cape Coast Slavery Museum in Ghana, and the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO) on Britain’s Isle of Portland (a monument to the world’s extinct species and adjacent biodiversity education center). And there is the already much-visited Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway (converted from a grand old railway station); the dynamic Moscow School of Management Skolkovo; and Rivington Place, a visual arts center in London.

Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library, Washington, DC, 2012. ©Jeff Sauers, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.
Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library, Washington, DC, 2012. ©Jeff Sauers, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

In addition, there is considerable buzz suggesting Adjaye is among the top candidates to design of the Obama Presidential Library on Chicago’s South Side. (The only questions left unanswered in our email interview dealt with that project.)

All this makes the timing of the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition, “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye,” especially fortuitous. The show, which opens Sept. 19 (it began in Munich, Germany, but Chicago is its only North American venue to date), will feature an innovative installation of this mid-career master, exploring Adjaye’s distinctive approach to design, his influential visual language, and his global significance. Covering furniture, housing, public buildings, and master plans, the exhibition (co-curated by Zoe Ryanfills, the Art Institute John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design), will fill the first-floor Abbott Galleries and the second-floor Architecture and Design galleries in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing with drawings, sketches, models, and building mock-ups.

A specially commissioned film featuring Adjaye’s collaborators — an international roster of influential art world figures —will help bring his projects alive. In addition, in a special collaboration with the Art Institute, Adjaye (who has offices in London, New York, Berlin and Accra) has provided personal commentary on select works of African Art from the museum’s permanent collection.

‘MAKING PLACE: THE ARCHITECTURE OF DAVID ADJAYE’

When: Sept. 19, 2015 – Jan. 3, 2016

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

Tickets: $20-$25 (free Thursdays, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.)

Info: (312) 443-3600; www.artic.edu

Here is what Adjaye (who is slated for public appearances here on Sept. 16, 18 and 19) had to say about his influences, philosophy and approach:

Q: What was your initial fascination with architecture? Was it a particular building?

A: I was always good at drawing and I was advised to do an Art Foundation course in school. It was this that changed the trajectory for me. It set me on the path to becoming an architect. Also, my upbringing certainly shaped my appreciation of space. I am of West African heritage and yet was born in East Africa [Tanzania] – so already there is a dual cultural influence. Nairobi was extremely cosmopolitan — a real melting pot of different cultures with its exciting skyline and urban energy. So very early on, I came into contact with different ways of living in space, and a highly eclectic spatial appreciation. As a child, you move seamlessly through all of this and it wasn’t until I came to London that I appreciated how privileged I had been to be able to sample so many spatial conditions.

Q: One of the most alluring features of all your buildings are their surfaces — their unique textures and subtle colors. How did that notion develop for you?

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, current. (Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing)
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, current. (Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing)

A: It is possible to understand my buildings from the inside out, although they don’t necessarily follow the convention of how inside and outside are usually expressed. The relationship between interior and exterior is conveyed through a mediator – or “climate moderator” (a Robert Smithson term I love). It means that between the body [of the building] and the world there is a device working. It is either measuring, tempering, framing, or allowing you to understand something about the world. An example is the museum we have designed for the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.: You see the volume of what I call the “treasure box” of the 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 the articulation – or perhaps you could call it the skin. It is the moment where you mediate the outside world in relationship to the body.

Q: Many of your projects are libraries or cultural institutions. Is that because one such project leads to the next, or because such places hold a particular appeal for you?

A: It is certainly by design. Public buildings are my passion, they are the core of my work. I believe the primary act of public architecture is to be socially edifying, and socially liberating; it’s an emancipatory form. It is an opportunity to offer a moment of a physically actualized dream or desire within a common collective memory within society, that is concretized in bricks and mortar and steel and glass. This is what excites me – so to work in the public domain is incredibly compelling. Nevertheless, my practice is quite varied and I very much enjoy exploring new typologies. In a sense, every project has a wider discourse – an urban engagement and a discourse about the public realm.

Q: What will be the greatest issues facing architects in the next decade or two?

A: I think the greatest challenge ahead is preparing for the changing densities that the current urban population explosion will effect. Cities are growing faster than ever. How we interact with each other, how we tolerate each other, and how architecture mediates these things, will become more important than how well you can build structures and what techniques and tools you have.

Q: How do you go about devising the most preliminary ideas for your buildings?

A: My designs are rooted in their context – they very much emerge from a rigorous investigation of the specificities of place. So the very first step, before I sketch, before I design, is to send my research team into the field. These are not architects – they’re sociologists, political economists and development theorists – and they brief me on everything from historical context to climate and geography. Usually something I learn, whether about a cultural artifact or about the unique climate – sparks my creativity, and then I sketch.

Q: Do you have some thoughts about Chicago’s architectural heritage?

A: Chicago is fascinating because it established paradigms for the modern city and framed everything we’ve come to know about vertical responses to density. It features large in every architect’s education and is a place of pilgrimage.

David Adjaye: Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo, Russia, 2010. |©Ed Reeve, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.
David Adjaye: Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo, Russia, 2010. |©Ed Reeve, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.