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Azu Nwagbogu in Conversation with David Adjaye Banner

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Azu Nwagbogu in Conversation with David Adjaye

WRITTEN BY: Azu Nwagbogu

Architecture Tanzania


David Adjaye (b. Dar es Salaam, 1966) is one of the most acclaimed contemporary architects in the world. His architectural practice ranges in scale from private houses, residential and civic buildings to cultural institutions, master plans, and temporary pavilions in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Adjaye is the founder and principal architect of Adjaye Associates, established in 2000. Adjaye has been awarded Building Design International Breakthrough Architect of the Year in 2013, and also was named as the UK’s most influential black figure in PowerList 2013.

How would you define Adjaye Associates’ architectural practice, and its significance in relation to the global architectural scene? And, how do you feel about the label often appended to your name, 'David Adjaye, the designer of cultural institutions’? 

We have designed a number of cultural institutions, and I very much enjoy working in this sector. Cultural projects include, for example, the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and also current work for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. However, we are working on much else besides, and more recently the work of the practice has diversified to include master planning, housing, commercial developments, hospitals, offices… These projects are unified by their shared sense of civic presence and a strong social resonance, which are qualities that are at the heart of my practice. Of course, they all draw on and communicate the culture of place, so in this sense – that label has relevance.

His architectural practice ranges in scale from private houses, residential and civic buildings to cultural institutions, master plans, and temporary pavilions in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Adjaye is the founder and principal architect of Adjaye Associates, established in 2000. Adjaye has been awarded Building Design International Breakthrough Architect of the Year in 2013, and also was named as the UK’s most influential black figure in PowerList 2013.

What kind of architectural projects is David Adjaye interested in pursuing? What aspect of architectural design you find is the most rewarding? 

I am interested in the broadest possible spectrum of projects, and I am always keen to look at new typologies. Most important is to collaborate with clients who share a sense of inquiry, and to find projects that push me intellectually.

Cultural background of a professional creative is often factored in, while interpreting the meaning and agenda of the design work he creates. People start to look for design clues that symbolically or philosophically tie the designer to his/her ethnic or cultural background. As an architect born in Africa, and the son of a diplomat –which means that you travelled around a lot as a child, but were mostly educated in Europe-, how do you respond to being pigeon holed?

My background certainly shaped my appreciation of space, and of course I draw from Africa – it’s my heritage. But I also draw from many other things; that’s what architects do: we are planetary creatures. When I was awarded the Powerlist title in 2013 (Britain’s most influential black person), I felt quite conflicted. As a means to offer role models to young people of colour, it is very valuable; but it also reminds us that, sadly, we still have to negotiate these issues. What is even more frustrating is the often-made assumption that I can’t be a person who is part of the mainstream, and that I only look to Africa. It is tough and this can really get in the way.

Labelling design or art under a specific nationality, ethnicity or culture is considered to be a convenient way of differentiating a creative community from the rest of the world. On the other hand, this can easily set new cultural stereotypes that are vulnerable to commoditization and rapid consumption. What do you think of the role of design practice in identity politics? And, how do you think a designer’s relationship with tradition and culture can be sustainable and immune to rapid consumption?

There is a specific hierarchy in terms of the way the people see the world, and they overlay that trope over any mechanism of architecture or social construction. That culture creates a particular scenario that I am very careful about. I use the biology term, DNA, and I try to dig deeper than the skin. Cultural rituals need to be repeated, but repetitive symbols or forms become problematic because they lose the agency of their initial power, which is derived in their originality, not in repetition. Representative devices are meant to communicate ubiquity. I am always searching for the essence of those systems, which I’m interested in recalibrating within twenty-first-century mechanisms. When it’s good, it should be clear. For instance, my Moscow School of Management Skolkovo is a search for the essence of the Constructivist diagram, and people say it looks like something they’ve seen before, but there is no similar building in the canon. Rather, it is a collage of painting, strategies by Malevich, and certain thoughts by Tatlin, so it looks familiar. If you simply repeat a trope, you are making a deafened statement; repetition does not communicate authenticity – this is a very misguided approach.

Most of the contemporary designers and architects are identified with signature styles and specific design language or stylistic vocabulary. Do you believe in the relevance of a stylistic vocabulary in architecture?

I am part of a generation of architects, which has moved away from the idea of a signature style. My work is more about the specifics of culture, place, geography and so on. If there is a unifying element – it might perhaps be my approach to light and its treatment as a primary material. But every context is different, and every context has a new scenario. You can actually find differences and specificities within context, which can drive things very powerfully. I seek to find the soft nuances that people disregard. Rather than searching for the universal, I look for the specific. This is what defines my projects and roots them to their context within the city at that time, or the group of people that might be bringing up that project at that time. So I find that even if I may want to, it’s almost impossible to make the same project again and again and again. Each time it mutates, to suit the context that it’s in. That’s the trick, if there is one.

Celebration of difference and diversity through negotiation appears to be a strong theme in your design work. You also mention ‘challenging typologies’ as a means of negotiating and mediating differences. How do you interpret issues of identity, history and memory in the civic spaces that you create?

I am fundamentally humanist in my outlook, and I believe civic spaces should provide access to a collective consciousness while offering the chance for dialogue between different generations and social groupings. The simple act of building forces engagement – you can’t ignore it. Things always happen from that and the question is how we celebrate it or deny it. It is important not to be hampered or intimidated by the idea of difference – but rather to seek to be open, and even speculative about the possibilities it offers. The interpretation of identity, history and memory in my buildings is rooted in research. The starting point for me is always to gain an understanding of exactly these qualities, and to use them as the essential drivers for the form and the materiality of the building.

Following up on this, how do you address issues of collective memory and colonial past, and interpret the African American history in your recent design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington D.C.?

A museum devoted to history is a new concept – it is about who we are and where we came from. This is a defining project for me. My civic projects to date have been libraries and other buildings that try to communicate ideas about how we deal with the world now. I could never have imagined that I would be working on the Washington Mall, which is probably one of the most important public spaces in the world. But I feel like I was programmed to work on this building. I've experienced African History and I have learned that it is impossible to understand American history without an understanding of slavery and the civil war. The American civil rights movement was critical to the way the independence movement happened in Africa and I think this building could provide a model to Africa about the complexity of this history.

In your design process, ‘dialogue’ and ‘collective ideation’ appear as key elements. In this respect, your residential designs for various artists and designers manifest the efficiency of a close dialogue with the client/collaborator. In what scales of communication do you operate while designing civic architectural projects such as the Whitechapel Idea Store, the public libraries namely William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Library and The Francis Gregory Library in Washington D.C., or the Sugar Hill Housing Project in Harlem, Manhattan? 

I think that design can provide a critical inquiry into social responsibility and civic consciousness. I have always sought to work out the aesthetics of this inquiry in my work. At its best, architecture should contribute to a social change agenda. The language of architecture can explicitly talk about social agendas, which is what is brilliant about it. Somehow, that language is not fully understood in terms of the power it really has, what it says to a civilisation about what citizenship is. There is a lot of power that can be had in using architecture to shift political ideas that say that they are moving one way but are in fact moving another. I am always for using architecture as, what I call, a special forces strategy – get it in there, let smart architects build in the strangest places. If you are building architecture, not just making a building, you are actually recoding the notion of the social and the citizen, by default.

Also, many of the projects I have worked on have involved local communities and NGOs – from Sugar Hill in Harlem to the Hackney Fashion Hub in London. This is an essential part of the design process and an invaluable imperative in understanding the cultural nuances and the social context for the project.

You have significant experience in collaborating with artists in architectural projects as well as installation/pavilion design. What is the significance of artistic collaboration in your work? How did you benefit from your collaborations with artists such as Doug Aitken and Olafur Eliasson?

I have always sought to cross creative platforms, collaborating with artists and designers from different disciplines and focusing on the creative discourse surrounding the act of making things. It is the dialogue – the cultural intersection -, which excites me.

Focusing more on the research side of architecture, your photographic survey of African capital cities (1999-2010) compiled in the book series ‘Adjaye, Africa, Architecture’ (I own a copy), and exhibited at the Design Museum with the exhibition ‘Urban Africa’, introduced ‘geography and climate’ as means of understanding the complexities of constructed environment in the African continent. The research also goes beyond the boundaries of national architectural styles and achieves to embrace the whole continent of Africa. Why is it important to transcend the national or socially constructed boundaries?

What the project really opened me up to, was the realization that in my early work, apart from dealing with art, I was focusing on the craft of making. In dealing with the community, I was incorporating the notions of history, place, and patterns. Returning to Africa, I realized that is how I think of geography: it is more than just a school text book; it is really the phenomenon of place, or the way in which it conditions communities, cities, and societies that in turn form a place. When you move around a lot, you start to realize how explicitly those geographies inform the ways of cities and places. There is a very primary geography in Africa, and it was surprising that the diverse cultures of the continent don’t always recognize this. It is very clear in Africa, how neighbouring cultures are so different from one another. These things –history, place, and patterns—are a very important part of the matrix.

Approaching Africa by analysing geography and climate might also suggest a research method that has the potential to branch out, and bring issues of history/memory, culture and social change into the discussion. What would be the further steps in this research within the context of contemporary design and architecture in Africa? 

Moving forward, I believe it is crucial to deconstruct the idea of the nation state, and instead, to discuss the development of urbanism in Africa with reference to regional specificity. Ultimately, it is models and examples that define how a place looks. If you could start to create specific models for each region – you would begin a chain reaction and there would be the foundations for a new, regionally specific vernacular. We recently used a concrete and red earth composite for a villa that we designed in Ghana, for example. The contractors were surprised that it turned out so well, and are now proposing it to other clients.

Ability to adapt to climate and geography is very fundamental, yet complex when interpreted within the context of culturally and ethnically diverse Africa. Specifically in the African continent, how do you think this diversity in adaptation and responsiveness will evolve and negotiate with contemporary needs of the society? 

An architecture that derives inspiration from ‘place’ will articulate a compelling sense of place, and have a stronger social relevance – so absolutely, I do believe that regional specificity can effectively negotiate the contemporary needs of society. I believe there is now an opportunity to create extraordinary architecture that is both the agent and image of positive social change for the continent.

Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Khartoum, Cairo, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Dar es Salaam (your birth-city) are Africa's fastest growing mega cities. What can these cities do to jump ahead of the curve in dealing with the problems that the planet face today: sustainability, ecology, housing while incorporating a strong sense of aesthetic and originality? How do you envision the potential evolution of African cities within the backdrop of shifting economic and political paradigms?

Politics can certainly hinder development. The four year electoral window is often at odds with urban and infrastructure projects – which can require a decade of political commitment. So private investment is crucial – yet is rarely associated with aesthetics and is more focused on profit. It is therefore vital that architects are involved to create the models that will generate the chain reaction of a new, environmentally smart contemporary aesthetic.

In the global architectural scene, the relationship between the locality (urban texture and regional culture) where architectural projects are realized, and the architectural project (mostly realized by star architects or global architectural firms) is a heated debate. How would you explain your approach to the relationship between architecture and urban space, specifically in your Urban Regeneration Project in Kampala, Uganda?

My work avoids monolithic statements, and the use of utility logics to organise urban frameworks. Rather, it is dominated by the experience of transition, the possibility for capturing memory and meaning, and the constant striving for an organic quality that can shift to express the sense of the city as an evolving diagram. In Kampala, I have drawn up a master plan for a 50-acre site for government related buildings. Using Kampala’s landscape and climate as a guide, we have tried to establish a system for storm water management that ties in with the landscaping and the overall environmental strategy.

Even though Africa is still labelled with under-development and poverty, which the humanity projects for the ‘Third World’ like to address, your research introduces a wider image that illustrates the complexities of both the modern world and regional realities. Do you think African art and design will be instrumental in changing how Africa is perceived? How do you envision the role of art and design in catalysing and mediating social change in Africa?

Art, design and architecture can make tangible the momentum of change. For me, design has to work practically but also emotionally and intellectually. The dialogue – the cultural intersection – offers possibilities to mediate social change. For example, when I carried out my research project in Africa, I became absolutely frustrated with the prevalence of a misconceived understanding of the continent. I was born in a metropolitan city; I was born in a cosmopolitan condition among different groups of Africans, Indians and Chinese – that is my beginnings, and it was against a backdrop of metropolitan skylines. The Africa I was born in had towers, was very metropolitan; we knew different cultures and religions – this is how I started my project. I am really perplexed by this dilemma of the dual images, one being projected from the West, and the one that actually exists. Of course, there is poverty and all these things, but at the same time there is this notion of the city and urbanity. I felt the only way I could systematically deal with this was to literally demonstrate it. I used to deal with it in talks, but it needed demonstration.

We know you are often in Lagos, can you share what sort of projects have brought you down to the city?

I am working on a concept store with Reni Folawayo. It is due to complete later this year – which is very exciting.