Renowned architect David Adjaye was at LACMA last night for a talk with museum Director Michael Govan. The two discussed Adjaye’s work since his controversial London Elektra House (2000), which almost landed the young architect in jail, to his grand project for the National Museum of African American History, the last building to be constructed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Adjaye’s early work, and particularly his residential projects, seem to combine the spare rectilinear forms of Mies van der Rohe-style modernism with the New Subjectivity approach to classicism of Peter Behrens. Like the “Dirty House” in London’s Hackney district, the buildings are often black on the outside and entirely white on the inside, absorbing passing exterior light and revealing subtle variations in surface texture, while capturing light as it passes through windows and filtering it through the interior space. In a collaboration with Olafur Eliasson for the 2005 Venice Biennale, Adjaye focused solely on this filtering of light, designing a structure that created linear light patterns based on the position of the sun.
Born in Tanzania to a Ghanaian diplomat, Adjaye lived in Egypt, Yemen, and Lebanon before settling in London, where he studied at South Bank University and the Royal College of Art. He returned focus to Africa in the early 2000s when he completed an encyclopedic study of African vernacular architecture by region and metropolitan center. This focus on local context, yet on a global scale, is central to his practice. At LACMA, Adjaye said that he derives the forms and textures of his buildings from regionally distinct vernacular architecture, and integrates it into the aesthetic language of global contemporary design, in order to make local buildings both fit into and transcend their immediate context. A public library in a poor black neighborhood of Washington, D.C., for instance, features cubic wings raised on pilotees over the front entrance, mimicking the forms of raised porches in neighborhood homes while creating a public gathering and performance space. The exterior of his National Mall museum is a bronze design derived from the Gothic and Art Deco tracery of Charleston facades that were built by African Americans, while its material embodies a form sacred to the Yoruba and West African cultures whose ancestry most African Americans share.
Adjaye’s insistence on accepting low-budget public commissions like libraries and public housing projects is a welcome change for an internationally known “starchitect.” He repeatedly emphasized the need to build for people, to reinvest in the public sphere, and to make good design accessible for all.