David Adjaye, principal of London-based Adjaye Associates, is the subject of a mid-career survey, Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 3, 2016. The exhibition, which its co-curator, Zoë Ryan, said highlights “A critical moment to consider the possibilities of where David’s practice is headed,” debuted at the Haus der Kunst in Munich earlier this year. In Chicago, it features his new design for the Studio Museum in Harlem. Adjaye is also providing personal commentary on select works of African art from the Art Institute’s permanent collection, through new object labels. He is the focus of an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York through February 14, 2016 that features 14 West and Central African textiles he selected from the museum’s permanent collection.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How did Making Place come about?
Adjaye: I had been talking to both Zoë and Okwui [Enwezor, the show’s co-curator] about the possibility of an exhibition, and they were really encouraging me that it was the right time for a retrospective. I was hesitant at first, as I feel I am very much in the middle of my career—in a way it felt premature. But they convinced me that it could be a great opportunity to draw together some of the themes that run through my work: themes of social edification as well as typological and material experimentation in the pursuit of making buildings that improve public life, that uplift.
What objects have you chosen from the Art Institute’s African art collection for commentary?
It’s an eclectic mix of artifacts from across the continent—ranging from Yoruban textiles to Congolese basketry to Ethiopian weaponry. They were objects that inspired me for their capacity, through unique combinations of geometry and form, to speak about the particular moment and place of their origin. They’re all examples of great design, because they work as mediators between people and their world.
The Art Institute of Chicago says it’s “highlighting a critical moment to consider the possibilities of where David’s practice is headed.” How do you define what this critical moment is?
Many of my works are in urban settings. Cities are growing faster than ever. I think that how we interact with each other, how we tolerate each other, and how architecture mediates these sorts of things will become more important than just how well you can build structures and what sorts of techniques and tools you have at your disposal. My projects have always sought to be experimental—to test out new typologies that might prepare us for the new conditions of the near future, like the increased density this urban population will bring. This is a moment of investigation into what makes a city and what communities need now to sustain an urban life and how can we better provide those resources.
How do you choose references from beyond the Western canon for your projects?
The reference points are determined by the specificities of the projects, of the specific histories and cultural context of that place. I have a research team who digs into this for me; these are not architects—they’re sociologists, political economists, and development theorists—and they brief me on everything from historical context to climate and geography. Usually something I learn, whether about a cultural artifact or about the unique climate, resonates with the narrative of the building, with how I want the project to relate to its surroundings. This is how I come to incorporate, for instance, forms inspired by the art of Imigongo in my Cancer Centre in Rwanda, or the rose petal motif on my Sugar Hill project in Harlem.
How do your buildings address local concerns and conditions through an understanding of historical context and a flexible application of global modernism, as the Art Institute says?
I strive always in my work to create architecture that is responsive, that speaks to the needs of local communities, that feels empowering and part of the cultural narrative of that place. This involves a serious engagement, both directly with the communities I’m serving and with the cultural, historical, and geographic specificities of the context. The starting point for me is always to gain an understanding of exactly these qualities—what I call the cultural DNA of a place—and to use them as the essential drivers for the form and the materiality of the building. But I want to reinterpret them through twenty-first-century mechanisms—to defamiliarize them and re-present them as something that is both recognizable but ultimately new.