TOP TALENT: David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates is every bit the superstar architect he is made out to be with his engaging optimism, conceptual design sense and a reference point rooted in culturewith
David Adjaye, principal architect of Adjaye Associates has all the makings of a 21st century starchitect. Armed with a passion for architecture and design that resonate with the culture of the place, even the tall order of running the practice in three major Europe countries — in London and Berlin, New York in the United States and Accra in West Africa — overseeing a staff strength of 70 people are all in a day’s work. Traversing cities and countries come naturally to Adjaye, as his childhood years were spent travelling the globe, him being the son of a diplomat.
The founder of Adjaye Associates is every bit as grounded as his practice, if first impressions are anything to go by. As Adjaye was saying his goodbyes to the organizer of the International Architectural Conference in Datum KL: 2012 the previous Sunday, a casual introduction saw a gracious Adjaye spontaneously extending the offer to have the interview conducted on the journey to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Eloquent, charming, witty and warm, all questions posed were answered thoughtfully and straight-to-the-point, revealing his passionate interest that covers just about every square inch of the work that he has done. Adjaye’s winning personality also revealed itself in the way he would laugh heartily every now and then, punctuating the air with a certain sense of vibrancy in what would otherwise be a lackluster long distance journey to the airport.
The founder of Adjaye Associates clearly has a way of putting one at ease. Not surprisingly, his eloquent words and works have placed Adjaye in the big boys’ league, attracting worldwide attention with an envious body of work to show for. Ranging in scale from private residences, cafes and bars, exhibitions and temporary pavilions to major arts centres and civic buildings, the firm’s work also includes masterplans in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Not bad at all for a firm that was established in June of 2000. And, for Adjaye who will turn a youthful 46 this year. After all, architects are usually considered to have matured in their profession and in their prime when they are after 50 years of age.
“I think that one part of my practice right now is to think about roots and identity and the meaning of place. “Roots” (as in) the meaning of place and the projects (in which) I showed the modern interpretation of roots without being literal but you can take elements of popular culture even and translate them into 21st century ideas without being literal,” shares Adjaye relating his interpretation of the theme “Roots: Looking back, to look forward” for this year’s Datum: KL 2012.
Organised by the Malaysian Institute of Architects or Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM), this year’s annual conference that concluded last Saturday witnessed a gathering of illustrious architects from countries as diverse as the United States, Britain, Norway, Spain, Australia, Japan and China taking to stage.
National Museum of African American Culture and History: “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Drawing inspiration from this quote extracted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous speech “I have a dream”, Adjaye’s ability to translate an ideal or idea into an inspiring conceptual, contemporary design interpreted in a dramatic fashion for posterity speaks volumes about his talent for creating places that evoke a sense of identity and memory of space that serve to immortalise the struggles of a people.
This idea is reflected in a generous space with its circular configuration raining down inspiration as seen in his design that is currently being built for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American Culture and History, a competition winning project on a prominent site on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
“The spaces that were segregated, galleries and an important sequence that develops end in a room where we have a giant acrylic lamp that is completely transparent (representing) a kind of moment of reflection of the history.
“We articulated the light around the building. The circulation happens on the edge of the parameters, enabling air to come through the porch,” reflects Adjaye.
“The wood becomes a stalactite to connect you to the room to make this material relationship an identity that makes the place, but not like a space you have encountered before,” he says of the exhibition gallery that comes equipped with the high technology workings of holograms and digital artifacts.
Adjaye shares that the important museum gives tribute “to a particular group of people” as in African-American and the concept was taken from the “identity of the people in Africa, primarily of their experiences and transformations.”
“Various clues were taken from different parts of the history. Architecture is like a story… In a way, the various parts make the story that makes the project,” shares Adjaye with a disarming smile.
“In terms of materials, a lot of timber was used at the entrance. This is a very important material for the community because it speaks of the vessels that they (the slaves) were brought in from Africa to the US, through slavery. And then (molten) bronze is (used) on the outside of the building that speaks of the incredible success they have made and the way the community’s trials have made America better.
“Their struggles created the arbitration of slavery and also created the rights for the minority and old people. Their struggles created civil rights that are being copied throughout the world and in a way created for the first time (the opportunity for) someone from their community to become the president (in Barack Obama). So in 200 years, this community has radically transformed America so that’s why the story and the museum are important. Most people don’t see it and don’t know that,” shares Adjaye.
When quizzed about his vision for the profession, for someone who has been practising architecture for 18 years, he says he is not so interested in what he “fantasises about what architecture could be” but more in “the vision for the future”.
“(An) architect is a servant (and) needs a strong private sector vision to really rise to the challenge,” reflects Adjaye.
Moscow School of Management: “One more project that talks about identity is the Moscow School of Management. The government decided it had no Russian school to stop the brain drain as managerial excellence was leaking from the country. Students were going to Harvard and not coming back to the country,” elaborates Adjaye.
“The school is a response to make architecture respond specifically to the climate and the culture of Moscow. (In the) beginning (of the) 21st century, a lot of Moscow intellectuals dreamt about a very specific architecture for their modernism and modernity. As they became wealthier and modern, they yearned for an architecture that would be appropriate for their culture and their people.”
Built with the purpose of attracting people from all over the world, the school with the picturesque centre overlooking the Moscow River speaks much about “the vision of architecture for this century.”
“The school of management (is) about the vision of architecture for the 21st century. It is a good time to look again at what could be done. To me, the architecture should also respond to the snowfall three quarters of the year and a very intense spring/summer (that last) three months.
“It tries to break its largeness down with a form on top, almost like a sculpture. And, in the way the school inhabits the plinth in which you live and look after yourself in the buildings that are above the plinth. It has a conference centre connected to the school that would bring the world directly to the school. As you do your business course, you will connect with people from the industries you are interested in who will be doing debates and conferences there, so the school is like a network.”
Adjaye’s firm had won the project competition for this school in 2006 as his entry had “showed the relationship (of the building) with Russia.”
“What is fascinating to me is that Russia has this (rich) history but has built very little. The imagery is all really about ideas — it seems like something is lost there but also, this is Russia. The post war area saw these residential blocks that became part of the horrible legacy.
“The proposition was how to fuse and make a Russian school that would also serve to invent a new typology. A new Russian typology of a building (that would) take a massive scale and make it (into) a new series of pavilions that would articulate the school as a place.
“For me, it is about light (representing) enlightenment. It’s basically like the school. It’s really like a compass of light,” adds Adjaye.
In one of the earlier studies of the landscape of the school, the typology of the site revealed “no beginning or end” with a “constant migration into different directions of endless systems”. Counteracting this, Adjaye chose to look at the school much like a “drawing of life” which acknowledges the “movement of life”.
Designing a series of pavilions that sit above the landscape for the benefit of students and visitors who are attending conferences at the school, the school also comes with an Olympic swimming pool, gymnasium and massage area.
“Glass tiling was used as cladding that covers the solid walls of the entire building because glass is very resilient and is a transparent material that is very durable. It was used as tiling rather than glass walls as it captures light very well. The structure is concrete but the skin surface of the material is glass,” he says of this building project that he won in an invited international design competition.
Quick takes with David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates: Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, David Adjaye’s privileged upbringing, being the son of a Ghanaian diplomat had exposed him to different cities and cultures from a young age. Having lived in Tanzania, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon, Adjaye at the age of nine moved to Britain and was privately educated. Having spent ten years photographing “the geography of the incredible density” as well as building typology and cities in all of Africa, this alumni of the London South Bank University who graduated with a MA from the Royal College of Art in London is inspired by the culture and the identity of a place that he tries to infuse in his designs.
Adjaye who currently holds a Visiting Professor post at Princeton University School of Architecture is also a RIBA Chartered Member, an AIA Honorary Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Awarded the OBE for services to architecture in 2007, he also received the Design Miami/Year of the Artist title in 2011 in recognition of his talent, dedication and passion in furthering the cause of architecture.
The most significant project you’ve designed and the approach to your work.
I’m very proud of all the projects I do. My work responds to climate, work and place and my pleasure is to help (better) the social culture of any place. Culture and society are very important to me. Any project that empowers society is special to me.
Besides materials, what other elements and factors need to be considered in architecture for it to be relevant to a particular place?
I work with a whole range of materials. Materials have to respond to climate and space. Overriding the potential of “Roots” is to carefully understand climate and the environment. So it’s not only (about) providing sunshade. That gives really strong clues to making architecture that is specific to its place.
How do you manage your international practice?
I think there is the kind of beauty of technology now that I am able to use mobile devices to communicate with my team between different offices. I am the design director to all my designers. It’s not about a corporate vision but a studio vision of architecture, so crafting architecture and all the concepts are conceived by me.
What other impact have emerged with the advances in technology?
What it (technology) does is that for the first time there’s a lot of information about ways people can live in the world and so what you find is that people ask for more choices about things that are available.
What are your thoughts about progress in the 21st century?
Knowledge was always the difficult thing but 21st century knowledge is available to everyone. But in the 21st century, the goal is to make better quality environments and responsive architecture.
What are your goals, five years down the road? Looking ahead to 20 years?
20 years is too far. Five years is really (about) consolidating and working in any market that is open to questioning its identity and the nature of its modernity. And that could be anywhere from Malaysia to South America.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
From travelling and being in the world. I very much believe in being educated by the global phenomena, to learn about places and to solve problems as well as to be able to get different perspectives to problems which may seem complicated where you are but when viewed from a different country or perspective, they can seem obvious and provide clarity.
How do you relax in your spare time?
(With) more travelling… (laughs).
Having travelled extensively, which country fascinates you the most and what do you find the most fascinating bits about architecture?
(There’s) no particular country… I’m lucky enough (to have travelled the world). I’m fascinated by how human nature develops space, how they make monuments and express their civilization. I’m also inspired by the qualities of nature around the world… I’m a big fan of nature.
What philosophies do you hold close to your practice?
Sticking to your values (and) not just being taken by commercial whims but understanding technology and progress and understanding it in a way that it doesn’t control you, but you control it. You don’t become a slave to fashion but you use fashion and technology to further consolidate your vision of how the urban environment should be because it’s different in every place. The problem with technology and style is that it comes from everywhere else in the world but not from your place so you have to be careful how you import and use it.
Is this your first visit to Malaysia and what are your impressions of the country?
This is my first time (to Malaysia and I feel that it is) grappling with modernity – the idea of what is new. What the country’s identity (is), you can see with architecture whether it is high-rise or low-rise and I think this is also a global phenomena with rising modern cities. You can build modern infrastructure but architecture and the nature of the city is a big puzzle but not many places get it right. When a country is capable of building its modern image, it’s very important that a lot of care and debate are taken to understand the meaning of what is being done as it’s being done in the name of the nation. Because once it’s done, it’s the image of Malaysia. It’s done, finished.
How do you handle tough clients? Have you had to deal with any such clients?
Clients are a mixed bag but generally, we’ve had really good clients. We don’t work with people who don’t want us to deliver our vision. You come to us when you want to do something that is more than what you see around you.
Who are your role models and why?
I am a big fan of Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect because he was very instrumental in building the image of Brazil. When he came back from Brazil, he built Brazilian buildings for the capital city. He invented a style for Brazil that fitted its progress (and) its modernity. (Also) Egyptian (architect) Hassan Fathy because he went back to the roots of Islamic and Egyptian architecture and he developed an architecture for the working class (and) the poor which would not be generic but which would recall the history and the sort of past (they had gone through), but reinterpreted in a new way (as in developing) a language for the communities.
How do you make the narrative to drive the sense of the building?
I think that as architects, we take narratives and make abstraction — we are very good at that. What I think is very pertinent to note now, especially in this globalised world is (the emergence of) a sort of generic (architecture) that we are trying to avoid.
Pics courtesy of Adjaye Associates.