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More Than Form, Heft, and Material: History and Culture in the Architecture of David Adjaye

03/26/2015 06:23 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015


David Adjaye: Form, Gewicht, Material, Installation view, Haus der Kunst, 2015. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

Okwui Enwezor begins the essay for "David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material" without equivocation. It opens with the image of a slave ship and a teeming slum, squarely placing Adjaye's work within the frame of reference of the dialectics of postcolonialism. The slave ship and the Antillean slum come courtesy of the two epigraphs Enwezor introduces, the first from Paul Gilroy's landmark 1993 study of the African diaspora, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, the other from Aimé Césaire's historic poem Notebook of a Return to the Nativeland. "The image of the ship--a living, microcultural, micro-political system in motion," as Gilroy describes it, abuts Césaire's vivid and startling characterization of the profuse and prolific Caribbean community, "this throng detoured / from its cry of hunger, of poverty, of revolt, of hatred, / this throng so strangely chattering and mute." These powerful images serve to introduce the importance of the social and political dimensions of Adjaye's work, investing further nuance to the concepts of "form, heft, and material" than might otherwise be suggested by the exhibition's title.

David Adjaye, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Plaza, Washington D.C., Freelon Adjaye Bond & Smith Group. Photo: Adjaye Associates, Smithsonian.

This survey of David Adjaye's work, curated by Enwezor, Director of Munich's Haus der Kunst, where it is currently on view, and Zoë Ryan, the Art Institute of Chicago's Curator of Architecture and Design, comes at a significant juncture in the architect's career, while he is in the midst of constructing two important museums dedicated to the history of the African Diaspora. The Adjaye-designed Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), slated to open in 2016, will occupy the last available space on the National Mall, symbolically recognizing the cultural contributions of African Americans to the nation's history. This important and iconic monument comes at long last (petitions and appeals for a national museum dedicated to African-American history had been lodged starting in 1915) and so, too, does the Cape Coast Slavery Museum, currently under construction and sited at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a fortification formerly used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Adjaye's work on these long overdue monuments constitutes a sensitive appraisal of what Enwezor identifies as "'gestures of affiliation': modes of belonging that reconceive the scattered trajectories of migrant lives and selves, within seemingly monolithic cultural landscapes."

David Adjaye: Form, Gewicht, Material, Installation view, Haus der Kunst, 2015. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian diplomats, and lived in Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia before moving to London at the age of nine. His multicultural, migratory background contributes a unique, cosmopolitan sensibility to his architecture, one that demonstrates an awareness and sensitivity to the complexities of communities and histories. Adjaye also conducts extensive and ongoing research into the understudied field of African architecture; his decade-long project, African Metropolitan Architecture, surveys the architectural heritage of each of Africa's capital cities. Enwezor--born in Nigeria, educated in the United States, director of a German museum--shares this multinational, multicultural perspective, with a particular interest in the African continent, and emphasizes the necessity of the inclusion of African and postcolonial voices within the context of the global art and architectural discourse. "It is indeed extremely fortuitous--appropriate, even," Enwezor writes, "that these two buildings, each of which will contain and carry the weight and power of the testimonies of African slaves and their descendants, as well as the burden of the memories left behind, should be designed by Adjaye."

David Adjaye, Oflection (Landscape), Stephen Lawrence Centre, London, 2007. Photo: Lyndon Douglas.

So how do these philosophies, sensitivities, and sensibilities translate to the architectural vocabulary of form, heft, and material? The Stephen Lawrence Centre in London provides an apt example: opened in 2007, the building is dedicated to the memory of a young black student and architecture aspirant who became victim to a racially motivated murder in 1993. While serving as a kind of memorial, the building does not dwell in tragedy, but rather welcomes its disadvantaged youth constituents with a translucent, light-filled foyer. An intricate, organic or crystalline-like pattern overlaid on the windows casts delicate shadows over the walls, shifting and glancing as the sun travels through the sky. Adjaye's interest in patterning and texture is evidenced in many of his projects, including the design for the NMAAHC, whose façade is modeled after the sculpture of the Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise. These public buildings demonstrate openness and ease, transparency and permeability, serving as containers for reflection while acknowledging the multiplicity of perspectives in intricate patterns, materials, and textures.

David Adjaye, Elektra House (front and back), London, 2000. Photo: Lyndon Douglas.

Over 45 projects are on display at Haus der Kunst, divided into six sections: drawings and sketches; small-scale projects, furniture and monoforms; private dwellings, such as Adjaye's early critical successes like Elektra House and Dirty House in London; public buildings and museums; urban buildings, schools, public housing; urban studies and planning; and a section presenting his research into African architecture. Throughout, one is impressed by the sense that Adjaye is an avid and voracious consumer of ideas, concepts, histories, narratives, geographies, and philosophies, which he then deploys in various forms, in turns transcendent, exalting, and humble. Each project evolves out of and responds to its own context, site, and function, whether it's a private home or a massive public monument. His practice encompasses both time and space, the system in motion and the specificity of place, the great ship traversing the ocean and the cacophony of the many voices of the city.

David Adjaye, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Plaza, Washington D.C., Freelon Adjaye Bond & Smith Group. Photo: Adjaye Associates.

"David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material" is accompanied by a new documentary film by Oliver Hardt, entitled "David Adjaye - Collaborations." On April 9, Adjaye will be presenting a lecture, followed by a half-day seminar with Okwui Enwezor on April 10. The exhibition runs until May 31, 2015, and subsequently travels to Chicago, where it will be on view from September 19 to February 7, 2016 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

--Natalie Hegert