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A certain swath of the collective museum-going, architecture-loving audience must be endlessly fascinated by the success of David Adjaye. Just forty-one years old, his rise to the top echelon of his profession has happened quickly, and has just as suddenly put his name into the minds of a larger group interested in celebrity homes, industrial design, and the perversely compelling cult of genius prodigies. That Adjaye is arguably the most prominent contemporary (if not twentieth-century) architect of African descent might also be deserving of some scrutiny, and yet Adjaye takes pains to suppress that aspect of his work, perhaps as a preventative or preemptive measure taken against those who might judge his accomplishments through the lens of affirmative action.
Adjaye’s prestige is honestly earned and all his own, and clearly comes as a result of being one of the more thoughtful, articulate, and open-minded architects working before the public today. The projects themselves, on an extended exhibition journey that began at London’s Whitechapel Gallery at the beginning of 2006, are quite subtle and restrained. They generally lack the bombast of Eisenman, Gehry, Koolhaas—architects consumed, respectively, with fashionable theories of Deleuzian folds, Baroque effluvium, or satirical rebuffs to critiques of globalization. Rather, Adjaye’s work foregrounds a delicate relationship to site and program, and to the tectonic properties of materials and light.
The exhibition focuses on a series of public buildings, all in London, all commissioned within a rather concentrated period of the past five years. Extending from the Idea Stores on Chrisp Street (2001–4) and Whitechapel Road (2001–5) to the soon-to-be-completed Bernie Grant Arts Center in Tottenham, one sees a range of tightly controlled projects that conform to the exigencies of economic restraint, spatially restricted sites, expansive programmatic requirements, and the high expectations of the communities in which they rest. In each case, Adjaye deals admirably with these conflicting and difficult conditions, primarily through the innovative and often unexpected use of unusual cladding materials and a strikingly subtle awareness of the effects of light.
Because this is an architecture exhibition held in a series of spaces not usually dedicated to architectural display (with the notable exception of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Maastricht), the presentation at the Studio Museum in Harlem was judiciously arranged so as to give optimum clarity to the arcane logic of sections, elevations, site plans, and volumetric studies. Each project was mounted on a board with models demonstrating the structure at three different scales with regard to the site, several physical examples of cladding materials, and the idiosyncratic inclusion of a single African artifact whose connection to the project remained tantalizingly undeclared.
A series of films and slide shows accompanied the ten projects, comprised of images and footage of the sites populated by citizens circulating in and around the buildings, as well as an extended meditation on African vernacular architecture, the morphologies and techniques of which clearly inform Adjaye’s work, even if the connections are never explicitly drawn. To complete the synaesthetic experience, the museum was awash in an electronic soundscape created for the exhibition by the artist’s brother, musician/composer Peter Adjaye. Again, the connections among these different aesthetic registers was left unresolved, yet one can clearly imagine the intent to have been geared toward provoking a dialogue on the concept of public space—the selfsame dialogue that ties together the buildings on display.
A signal project that catalyzes the binding relationship between community values and aesthetic intervention is Adjaye’s Stephen Lawrence Center in South East London, expected to be finished sometime in 2008. Lawrence was a neighborhood resident who was murdered in 1993 at the age of nineteen. Following Lawrence’s stated desire to become an architect, the building is programmed as a youth center for the provision of mentoring services, continuing education classes, exhibition spaces, and local business support services. The total site area is a generous 1,320 square meters (14,200 square feet), and the structure itself hugs the perimeter in the form of a triangle and a trapezoid connected by a slim, enclosed bridge on the second floor level. The separation of the two volumes preserves the views of the river as seen from the main road, and the elevated bridge allows for circulation around the dual structures as well as passage between them, resulting in the liberation of the ground plane integral to the visibility of a pinwheel-themed drawing by Chris Ofili that forms the pattern of the courtyard.
Ofili’s contribution reappears in the curtain wall of the entrance façade, from which an ethereal, penumbral image seems to emerge from within the glass. This effect was achieved by taking an Ofili drawing (evidently the largest in scale that the artist has ever undertaken) and transferring it to a reflective film that is subsequently sandwiched between sheets of glass and inserted into the concrete frame. The drawing, made up of vaguely arboreal imagery, completes the transformation of the unrelieved urban site into a place of tranquil beauty, as one’s gaze from inside outward would be through the scrim of Ofili’s fragile tendrils.
As the object displayed alongside the Lawrence Center project models, Adjaye chose two Ghanaian dust-boxes in the shape of caskets, presumably used for the ashes of a deceased person. Like miniature mausoleums, the caskets boast graceful supports to hold them triumphantly aloft, as well as geometric walls that easily recall the symmetrical patterns on the Adjaye building. The connection refers to the nobility of death, and the celebration of a continued vitality through honor and remembrance.
The Fairfield Road Housing (also due to be completed in 2008) was the only dwelling included in the show; and insofar as the successful design of shelter is the benchmark of a great architect, its inclusion was necessary. The project was commissioned by Presentation, a social-investment agency that aims to provide low-income residents with the empowerment of home ownership. Residents in such structures pay down a certain percentage of the full cost and are responsible for rent on the remainder. Built on a slim site in a historical quarter replete with traditional brick buildings, Adjaye’s housing block will be clad in weathered brass, bronze, and timber, echoing both the deep crimson and rich ochre of the surrounding structures. A cast-gold Ghanaian weight comprised of two figures with intertwined arms and legs (again, the object chosen by Adjaye to epitomize the spirit of the project) is echoed in the two canted volumes of the housing complex, rising at a nearly imperceptible angle to the street façade. The slot between the two volumes acts to both divide and to bond, as the light shining through shimmers off of the metal cladding while alleviating the monotony of the street front by seeming to bend it into a convex shape, enjoining passersby to nestle into its fold.
Okwui Enwezor, writing in the show’s excellent catalogue, suggests that Adjaye’s work might be located in “an intermediary zone between public space and civil society” (9). One must concur that the delicate negotiations regarding site and community figure definitively into Adjaye’s architectural practice. While his earlier (and best-known) work includes houses for Ofili and the actor Ewan MacGregor, this new series of buildings shifts away from the relative sovereignty of the private commission into the fraught landscape of public utterance. By featuring these works, the exhibition (curated by Andrea Tarsia) succeeded in sidestepping the lurid and facile amusement of the public’s uneclipsable glare into the life of celebrities so as to initiate an important dialogue on the responsibilities of the architect working as a ward of the populace—endowed, to be sure, with a certain autonomy based on skill and prowess, yet loaded with the expectations of once and future users/inhabitants of these modest structures.
Professor, Department of Art History, Bard College
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