In 2015, on the 5-acre site across the street from the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., a regal structure to celebrate the rich legacy of African-Americans will stand. It will be the new home of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The desire to create an African-American presence on the National Mall goes back to 1913, but legislation to establish the NMAAHC didn’t pass until 2003. In 2006, the Smithsonian Board of Regents selected a site on the Mall for the construction of the museum; and last spring, they awarded the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup as the architectural team to design the $500 million museum.
The moving presentation by the team of The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroup beat out six architectural teams who were invited to submit a design concept. The Freelon Group is the Architect of Record, making sure the design reflects the values and priorities of the museum and the Smithsonian; British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye the lead designer.
“There are jobs in one’s career in which you can’t imagine will happen, and when they do you can only wish that you’d be the one to do it. Those two things happened; this is one of those jobs for me. It’s a very important symbolic building, and a very important culture,” says the soft-spoken Adjaye.
The NMAACH will be among the distinguishable structures the London-based architect has created in his meteoric rise in the world of architecture. Adjaye has designed the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway; Rivington Place, an educational space for visual arts and photography in the U.K.; the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, in Colorado; and two Idea Stores in London. He is one of the handful of architects chosen by the Make It Right project to design Green, affordable housing in the Lower Ninth Ward for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He is also working on two libraries in Washington, D.C., and Faith Ringgold’s Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling in New York’s historic Harlem. Without question, he is a busy man.
Adjaye has a gentlemanly aura. Although his demeanor seems reserved and he talks in a quiet emphatic manner, he often speaks in a rapid-fire tone, particularly when he’s discussing the role of modern-day architecture. He’s very interested in ways of taking the context of architecture of years ago and seeing how to translate them to fit designs now. “I can’t speak for every architect, but my role and aim as an architect is to form spaces around a program of ideas that open up new possibilities for visitors to a building, or its inhabitants,” says Adjaye. “The key thing, however, is the context in which the space is being animated.”
Whether it’s for a public space or a private residence, Adjaye explores the manner in which geometric shapes, natural light, measurement, scale and the use of materials come together to create a new space. “My earliest projects sought to kind of recycle and reuse existing fabric and structure of an existing building and re-cloak them in a new form. It’s what I mean when I talk about recycling, reconfiguring and rebuilding (the title of one of his books),” he says.
Adjaye’s maiden works provided him a chance to reuse existing parts of the city, so to speak, to make a new space. The Elektra House, for example, comes off the base and structure of an existing building. Dirty House, one of his most famous projects, is an old furniture factory that was converted into a residence and studio for two artists. And when it came time to design Ed’s Shed, a house for a photographer who is as environmentally conscientious as Adjaye, it gave him the opportunity to think about the possibility — considering the times we live in — to make houses that have a neutral carbon footprint as much as possible, using timber because it’s a reusable resource.
Adjaye says most of his projects present “a way of really talking strategically about how architecture has to kind of switch the way we think, whether we need to destroy to rebuild; or whether we can work in a different way to find new possibilities of making new ideas.” And it’s those new ideas he’s concerned about — ideas about trying to use less energy, trying to be more responsible about material use, trying to be more responsible about the business of making. “When planning, they [his projects] all have a dimensionality of responsibility; for me it’s about responsibility with a huge shift toward the planet. That’s the kind of conceptual basis behind most of the work we do,” he says.
Adjaye, 43, was born in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, to Ghanaian parents; his father was a diplomat. When the family moved to London, he developed an interest in architecture and attended the Royal College of Art, where he received a master’s degree in architecture. Before stepping out on his own, he worked for David Chipperfield Architects in London and Eduardo Souto de Moura Architects in Portugal. His time at these firms gave him instrumental knowledge about how a practice operates. In 1994, he started an architectural business, Adjaye/Russell, with William Russell. He was getting small, domestic commissions and teaching at a few universities, which enabled him to set up a small studio practice. In 2000, he branched out and formed what is now Adjaye/Associates.
Adjaye is a rising star in the world of contemporary visionary architecture, a world that is dominated by older, white men. He points out that his path took careful mapping out. “For me, as a young minority architect, I just decided early on that I wasn’t interested in working through a corporation to get to the place that I wanted to be … And that I was going to try to set it [a business] up my own way and find my own clients. It was a strategic decision after working for several firms that I wanted to apply this route to getting to my dream position of fulfilling my own career and endgame.
“As with any profession there are always challenges. What is interesting about architects is that we are trained to be creators, we create. But we are not trained to be businessmen. No MBA, here. We don’t even study how to do a business plan. We study the business of making architecture. So stepping out to make a business is a big deal for a young architect. You can get so obsessed with the idea of being an architect that you can forget about the business acumen that is required to steer in the world. It’s at once exciting and slightly nebulous.”
Adjaye has since expanded his London headquarters to include offices in Berlin and in New York City. Though his career has been met with its share of challenges, the internationally known architect has managed to prevail. A few years back there was a falling out with a client that left him feeling as if he “wanted the earth to swallow me.” Earlier in 2009, The Independent, a U.K. newspaper, reported that Adjaye/Associates was about to face liquidation as a result of the cancellation or postponement of several projects that stemmed from the current recession in Britain and abroad. “It was difficult last year due to the crisis, but we’re through it now. We have enough work on our books and we’re repaying our CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement) very well, so we’re in a good place,” Adjaye commented about the situation.
From the unique private homes to the distinctive public and retail spaces he’s designed, Adjaye doesn’t adhere to a “signature style.” Minimalism and modernism, however, stand out in his work. Some of the buildings, in fact, are tucked unassumingly within a neighborhood. When asked about his philosophy of architectural design, he says, “Private houses are about respite and retreat, and public buildings are about open access and the ability to empower each individual who enters. With my public work, I look to address people’s disengagement with buildings. I seek to take it out of the realms of elitism and offer it as an everyday experience that has the capacity to empower each person,” says Adjaye. “I don’t think simplistically. My education and formal training as an architect is in Europe and I’ve learned European sensibilities. But what I use and bring as a point of reference is deeply personal to each project, and what I’m trying to refer to is my attitude. And I have a culturally African attitude.”
Adjaye’s attitude — and perhaps the focus of the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup — was an intrinsic element in the conceptual design of the African-American museum. “I was looking at this Yoruban sculpture tradition and making a relationship between how one makes an architecture for the African-American community whereby one could reference some geometrical or some architectural kind of qualities, which I thought could be inherent to the kind of roots of where most of the African-American Diaspora came from, which is really Central and West Africa,” he says. “I was very inspired by certain architecture of columns and pillars in West Africa, and how that can evolve to become something for a new civilization. Also, the imagery of the sculpture I was looking at is that of a crown.” In Yoruban art and architecture, the column or wooden post was usually crafted with a capital resembling a crown. This crown or corona form is the central idea that has driven the design of the museum.
“When we were considering the designs, we wanted something that would sing — add to the architectural and creative presence of Washington, D.C.,” says Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the NMAAHC and chair of the 10-member design competition committee. “The bronze corona of the design is spiritual; it’s as if it’s looking up to the heavens. It speaks volumes about making visible people who are often invisible. People have waited too long to have African-American history told on the Mall. After going through the museum, everyone, regardless of who they are, will see that this story is the story that shapes all of us,” he says.
Recently, a critique in The New York Times commented on the end of the construction of sprawling cultural complexes during economic hard times. As for the NMAAHC, there are no concerns. Bunch says there’s been no change in the budget, noting that Congress and donors have been great supporters. Adjaye believes the project gives confidence about the future.
The NMAAHC will be the first Green building on the Mall and the last new major Smithsonian building to go up there. It’s the largest project yet for Adjaye. Architects and architecture should be concerned with being responsive to communities and offering inventive solutions for the energy and cash-strapped world we live in, he muses. “I like public buildings to be approachable and nonelitist with a sense of open access and informality. I would like people to see my buildings as a retreat from what is going on around them,” he says.