Sir David Adjaye revisits his finest designs at A’18

Sir David Adjaye at A'18

Sir David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, explains the genesis of a pavilion project in Gwangju, South Korea.

In his Day 1 keynote at Radio City Music Hall, the influential architect discussed prominent projects from a storied career.

From the famous stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Sir David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, provided AIA Conference on Architecture 2018 attendees with unparalleled insight into the thought processes and methodologies behind his most acclaimed designs. In his keynote on Day 1 of A’18, Adjaye presented a series of projects that illustrate how his firm, Adjaye Associates, reinvents itself as it goes.

“Each project, for us, is a restart and a reinvestigation into the power of architecture,” he said.

He began with one of his smaller projects: a pavilion in Gwangju, South Korea. Adjaye explained that the city hosts a biennale where the architecture is created locally and becomes a permanent part of the local fabric. In collaboration with writer Taiye Selasi, he designed a reading room by the river, a “library without walls” in a community where books are revered.

“I wanted to see if we could work within the mundane,” he said, “and transform it into a moment that enhances the public life.”

Adjaye also discussed two public libraries he designed in Washington, DC; the Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library, in particular, takes advantage of its proximity to nearby Fort Davis Park by “recalling the notion of a treehouse” while using its glass as a mirror to both bring the forest into the building and reflect the city on the other side.

“The building is trying to understand what’s behind it and in front of it,” he says, “and, in a way, make a place where the community can come to.”

Redesigning New York

When it comes to Sugar Hill, the mixed-use development featuring affordable housing in Harlem, Adjaye saw an opportunity to start to fix the failures of 20th-century New York development. Specifically, the “ghettoization of communities” and the way poverty and poor infrastructure almost permanently separate residents of the same city.

“This works against the way in which a city can be generous for everyone,” he said. “We need to find strategies to resolve this division, not just further communities of rich, poor, or middle class.”

“I wanted to see if we could work within the mundane and transform it into a moment that enhances the public life.” - Sir David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA

In response, Sugar Hill offers urban farming on the roof, a public plaza on the ground floor, and subtle design elements—like roses as ‘ornaments’ indented into the concrete exterior, paying homage to the rose gardens of Upper Harlem—that make residents take notice of unique intricacies that make their home even more special.

“I wanted to see if we could make a building that understood the rich history of the area,” he said. “To make a building that, when it hits the ground, invites the public in, and lets the residents create relationships with the city.”

History and hope

Adjaye’s current crowning achievement is the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, designed by a collaborative group dubbed Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup JJR that included Philip Freelon, FAIA, and the late Max Bond.

“There are over 200 museums in America celebrating African Americans, most prominently the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, but nothing on a national level like this,” he said.

This museum is a narrative one, Adjaye stressed, not about precious artifacts but stories that have affected generations.

“How do you make a building of stories?” he asked, noting that Bond asked the team to operate like a jazz quartet, where “everyone has their own unique role, and the expertise to make the collaboration as seamless as possible.”

Contrast that with the Studio Museum in Harlem. Adjaye was commissioned in 2015 to design a permanent home for the museum, which was the first of its kind dedicated to supporting and incubating artists of color.

“The brief from Thelma Golden [the museum’s director] was astonishing,” he said. “She asked for me to capture three qualities: the theatricality of Harlem, the spiritual spaces of Harlem, and the street. And then she left me to work.”

Though each museum stands alone, both projects asked Adjaye to convey their programming and message in a manner that suited the setting and surroundings. And the Studio Museum was certainly inspired by his work in Washington, where the design is already award-winning and revered.

“It was a great inspiration,” he said, “to make a building not just about slavery but hope and optimism.”

Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with a focus on architecture and design.

Image credits

Sir David Adjaye at A'18

Todd Winters

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