Issue 27 April/May 2015
Planet of the Architects
David Adjaye wants to understand what the planet is, and make architecture a part of it.
Architect David Adjaye has over 50,000 followers on his Instagram account (@adjaye_visual_sketchbook, if you’re curious), eager to see the world through the eyes of the Tanzania-born, London-based architect of Adjaye Associates. His vast, compelling record of details, objects, buildings and landscapes attests to his preoccupation with celebrating the ‘differences’ in humanity and culture, resulting in a multifaceted, multi-textured portfolio. We caught up with Adjaye when he was recently in Singapore as head jury for the OUE Artling ArchiPavilion Design Competition.
You have designed many pavilions in your career, such as the concrete and timber Gwangju Pavilion (2013) in Korea – a memorial-cum-Reading Room that interacts with the tides of the River Gwangju – as well as the snaking Specere Kielder (2009) shelter and viewing point in Scotland. What for you is the attraction of this particular typology?
For me, pavilions in the 21st century are not just fantasies, or follies in the old kind of way, which is a kind of escape. It’s really a moment for an architect to use a scale and a speed and an opportunity to experiment with an idea that could become a bigger idea. And even though they are programmed, a pavilion is slightly freer, because you don’t have to deal with building control, codes and rules; you’re able to interpret and guide the way the program can develop. It’s a very exciting model for young architects.
Art is one of your passions. Do you see art as a luxury product?
(Laughs) You know, some artists say art is for the elite, and some say ‘No! Art is for everyone!’ I just want to say this is a very simplistic discussion because more than a hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp and those guys just ended that conversation. But if you think of art as a market, then you’re thinking about it in a different way. Art itself can exist without the market. To me, art is a way in which us as the human species expresses our humanity, but how we choose to validate it is up to
On your website, it is mentioned that the firm “believes that architecture presents opportunities for transformation – materially, conceptually and socially”. You have designed homes for artists, celebrities, museums but also libraries (or what you call Idea Stores), as well as an affordable housing development in Harlem, New York called Sugar Hill. How do you bridge the luxury and the commonplace in your practice of architecture?
As an architect, I think the great privilege is that we have to work in all classes, that we really see the whole [spectrum of] society. I never wanted to be an architect that specialises in one thing; to not be offended by wealth, and not be offended by poverty either. Obviously one has got the budget, sure. But even if it didn’t, if there’s a great client, I do it. For instance, Soba was that. The client had no money; he didn’t even really understand what design was. We kind of met in a bar. He said ‘I’ve got this restaurant, I’m just going to paint it…” We sort of hustled him – “We want to do it! We know what to do!” (Laughs) The idea was to make a series of [abstract] elevations of vernacular Kyoto. At the same time, actor Ewan McGregor, whose house we did, was an incredible guy who more or less allowed anything to happen, and was cultured enough to allow us to explore.
How do you approach the design of luxury retail space – for instance, Roksanda Ilincic’s London shop – without the obvious elements of ostentation?
You know retail has gotten to the point where they’re like early 20th century banks. Before the 20th century, people were very nervous about giving them their money. So banks said, ‘you know what we do? We need to make the people realise that we’re not going anywhere.’ So they built marble ‘temples’ – temples of permanence so that when you put your money there, you feel [secure]. The classical world was referenced, and it worked! Until we all realised it was all just branding. (Laughs) I think it’s funny that fashion has entered into this world. So in my retail projects I’m always slightly playing with perception. Every project you notice there’s some kind of game. Like in the Roksanda Ilincic store, I put this really fine terrazzo next to what is actually London paving, but I cut the paving with a grinder to make it look like fine stone. People go ‘this stone is amazing!’ and I’m sniggering away – it’s under your feet everyday! So it’s a theatre, when I do fashion brands, it’s a bit playful for me, and I really enjoy it.
Your Alara Concept Store in Lagos, Africa has just been completed. Does luxury retail take on a different meaning and form in Africa, and do you approach its architecture differently in that context?
That’s a great question. Africa is different because it has no retail culture. So in a weird way, I see [retail design] in Africa like a new institution – a space for people to do what I call a new kind of socialising. The owner told me people came and just hung out, gawking. They’ve never seen anything like that before. In Africa, spectacle is only reverential if it happens in a church or state building. So I turned shopping into a spectacle. What Africa needs right now is an acceleration into what the contemporary culture could look like. And it doesn’t need to wait for some modern civic institution to make it happen. That’s also coming but it’s going to take time, infrastructure, etc. You can start small; it just needs to be orchestrated moments.
Your house designs have garnered attention for the way they turned inwards from the street but created experiential worlds within. They redefine what luxury could be for a home: privacy in its most extreme forms, light as an element for crafting and materials such as concrete and copper juxtaposed with more expensive material like glass in very refined marriages and compositions that make them appear more like contemporary abstract sculptures than conventional domestic notions of a house. What were your thought processes in approaching house design in such a manner?
They were a way for me to test some thoughts, a kind of way to think about the city. In my projects, I have two design strategies: all public buildings would be porous and diaphanous and open, and all private projects would be introverted and immersive. For me, it is to create a dialectic between the two systems, so when you go from a house, you engage the world; when you return into the house, you recuperate from the world. And the device that recuperates you is light. So how the light crafts the retreat is really critical. I want the perception of light to overwhelm the sense of yourself. In a way I’m trying to connect you back to nature. And one of the tricks was the light court and the way that captured and created zen moments.
The architecture profession is a long one – most don’t get a solid build portfolio until they are past middle age but Adjaye Associates already has an impressive body of built works that include the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo (2005), and now the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. What is your reflection on this journey?
I’ve been practicing nearly twenty years on my own. Ironically it’s only in the last six years that I got to the point where clients come to me and say ‘David, we want you to do David. We get what you’ve been doing.’ and that’s a really wonderful moment for me because it has validated all the resistance that I’ve made [previously]. It’s hard saying no when you’re young and hungry. But it’s better than if you have to force yourself into something that is actually not you.
Or just to pick the right person at the bar.
(Laughs) that is the hungry young architect. I totally endorse that.
Whether you like it or not, you are labelled as a ‘starchitect’. The association with this label is that starchitects are usually commissioned to build products of luxury, to create icons, whether public or for the private client. What is your response to this?
I think every architect has a kind of talent that helps the profession. Unfortunately the starchitect label has been used on the form makers [with a distinct style] very much. I don’t know why it landed on me. I don’t have two buildings that look the same and I’m proud of that. I hope to get through without ever repeating because that’s the moment of creative loss. I think I constantly re-contextualise my work in a way that forces it not to become just a kind of thing that is going around the world. I don’t want you to recognise my buildings. I want them to genuinely belong in a certain place.
Why is this important?
I know architects who say ‘my building is an autonomous system, independent of anything’. I understand that; Roman architecture is that, Mogul architecture is like that. It’s like a way of imperialising power and also to organise their society. But I think that now is a different time. We communicate our identity through other mediums and so architecture is free from that burden and can then actually become much more specific. And this is amazing – you can have diversity in the world, not homogeneity because if you accelerate the latter, the whole world looks exactly the same, then what’s the point of actually going anywhere? Some believe that is the world we are heading into; I romantically believe that it’s not there yet, or it mustn’t be. So it’s very important we create what I call a planetary architecture. Not even a global architecture. A global architecture is a common understanding. A planetary architecture is a responsive architecture – that is, understanding what the planet is and making architecture a part of it.