David Adjaye is one of the most sought after architects in the world. Maybe most known for projects like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, he’s also designed private homes for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Juergen Teller and Ewan McGregor. But part of what makes Adjaye such a celebrated architect is his flexibility with style and his chameleonic design sense. It seems that agenda never informs his work, and that allows him to adapt to any task, designing by reacting. For NeueJournal, Adjaye sat down with Danielle J. Powell to discuss his creative mentality and the ambitions behind his newest dream project.
DANIELLE J. POWELL: When speaking, writing, or debating David Adjaye, without fail, people point out that you do not have a design signature. Was this a purposeful choice?
DAVID ADJAYE: I think for my generation the idea of a signature feels a bit outdated, only because we believe in an architecture that is responsive. I believe that regional specificity can more effectively negotiate the contemporary needs of society. Every place is unique in its social, historical, and geographic forces. My designs start with these factors as inspiration in an effort to articulate a compelling sense of place and, above all, to have stronger social relevance by finding qualities that will resonate with the user.
DJP: What is the driving emotion behind your work?
DA: I would say the idea of emotional connection drives my work rather than any particular emotion. My favorite architectural works move me, but not necessarily in one direction. I may feel sad, or elated, or contemplative. All of these reactions equally signal a design’s success to me, because it means it has resonated deeply. I believe that architecture should fundamentally contribute to a social change agenda, and to do so it must connect with people and communities; it must provide for, or encourage, agency. Buildings can do nothing without the people who inhabit and respond to them. I believe this connection happens on the emotional level. If a design has captured something nuanced and powerful, it will evoke an emotional response.
DJP: In addition to major projects, you’ve also worked on smaller, community-based projects such as the Sugar Hill Development in Harlem, New York. What commitment do you have to these urban spaces and to the larger community?
DA: I certainly believe that architecture can be an emancipatory form, and with that comes a certain responsibility to politics that have to do with bringing people up; the politics of progression, of the progression of people. That is really the core of my work. When it doesn’t have that, I don’t really do it, or I’m just not interested. So, in the particular case of Sugar Hill, it was about rethinking the way we design social housing so we can move past the limitations of modernist typologies that largely proved isolating and damaging for communities. It was about empowering a community by responding to their actual needs and providing the types of spaces they wanted, rather than following an outdated and prescriptive template.
DJP: You’ve described the design choice to have the MAAHC covered in a bronze mesh in terms of narrative, being based on the story of African-Americans being ironworkers in the South during the 1800s. Does narrative often seep into your design process?
DA: Narrative is essential to my design process. This is part of a building’s relevance and emotional resonance. My materiality and programmatic choices are distinct; they are efforts to layer multiple histories together to emerge something significant about a place or to project the narrative of place into the future. In the case of the MAAHC, this was about showing how a migration of a people has infused American culture with an African sensibility, and that one needs this conceptual lens to fully understand that context. Drawing these connections is about combining different access to paint a full portrait. So the bronze references the ironworkers, while the form of the building references West African art.
DJP: You’ve described the MAAHC commission as your “dream” opportunity—why?
DA: For one, it’s an enormous honor to work on a monumental site and a monumental project; it has taken nearly 200 years to get to this place. This project is also about a history that’s very close to me and very dear to me. But also, it is a building that is able to express very directly a deep emotional and intellectual idea about making a century museum that is dedicated to African-American people and people of African descent. And we are able to build my dream and it will be built on the Mall, and that is still something that I pinch myself over.
Illustration: David Adjaye for NeueJournal