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Why David Adjaye Is the Best Bet to Design President Obama’s Library

The public's appetite for starchitects has made the competition for President Obama's library an ongoing, glamorous story, and on December 21 seven firms made the shortlist to present their vision of the library and foundation

The public’s appetite for starchitects has made the competition for President Obama’s library an ongoing, glamorous story, and on December 21 seven firms made the shortlist to present their vision of the library and foundation to the President and the First Lady. This embodiment of Obama’s legacy will be enshrined on Chicago’s South Side, a place with a rich, and fraught, history for black Americans.


Many architectural blogs including Metropolis Magazine, Dezeen, curbed.com and Architectural Record tout unsubstantiated rumors and vague declarations that “Adjaye has been referred to as Obama’s favorite architect” or “Adjaye is seen as the front runner.” Robert A.M. Stern, the architect for the George Bush Library, provided this comment in Architect Magazine: “Everybody says it’s going to be David Adjaye. He’s a great architect so that’s great.” The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin wrote, “The rumor mill already has the job going to Adjaye, whose projects include the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.”


If Adjaye wins the premiere US commission to design the Obama Presidential Library, this would be the final jewel to an impending Triple Crown. Adjaye has extensive experience designing museums and art spaces. Recent projects include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.


As an internationally acclaimed architect and innovator, how has visiting 52 African capital cities helped inspire creativity within your work?

The project opened me up to the realization that 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 neighboring cultures are so different from one another. These things –history, place and patterns—are a very important part of the matrix.


How do you see the future of urban development and infrastructure growth in African cities? I think we need to eschew the idea of the nation-state, and instead 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.


You were born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents. How has this influenced your identity? My upbringing certainly shaped my appreciation of space. I am of West African heritage and yet was born in East Africa – so already there is a dual cultural influence. Very early on, I came into contact with different ways of living in space and a highly eclectic spatial appreciation. As a child, you move seamlessly through all of this and it wasn’t until I came to London that I appreciated how privileged I had been to be able to sample so many spatial conditions. My father very consciously wanted to be a diplomat so that his family could travel and see the world – the modern world. The relationship between modern and ancient is consequently very present in my work, as is the negotiation between different social and cultural contexts. That is intrinsic to my approach toward design, which always seeks to be highly sensitive to the cultural framework of different peoples. Most of my work has always been in cosmopolitan, metropolitan cities or places where differences are being negotiated all of the time.

You have also made a huge impact in Great Britain. What did receiving the OBE award from the Queen in 2007 for services in British architecture mean to you? It is a huge honour – of course I was incredibly grateful to have my work recognized in this way.


When did you realize your passion and knack for form and architect? I was always interested in drawing and using my imagination as a kid, and I was encouraged by a teacher to do an art foundation course. It was during that time that my preoccupation with space came to the fore and I realised that I wanted to study architecture.


How did you connect with A-list clients like Alexander McQueen, Brad Pitt and Ewan McGregor? What made you relevant to these in-demand clients? I do not draw a distinction between the world of art and architecture. For me, design has to work practically but also emotionally and intellectually. 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. Perhaps it is this instinct that has been recognised by the art world, and which makes collaborating with artists and curators so engaging.


How did your firm gain a competitive edge in winning the $500 million contract for the building of the National Museum of African American History in DC? I think perhaps it was the fact that I have always understood this project to be about people of one culture understanding the experience of people from a different culture. It is a specific story with a universal application. It is about African American history within the context of the American and global narrative. It is an important story for everyone – this has always been central to the design concept for the building.


What do you forecast will be the trends over the next decades in urbanization and urban planning in cities like New York? New York is dense and multi-layered, with a strong sense of history that somehow combines with a bold forward momentum and a sense of ‘can do.’ I think recent decades offer extremely good models of reinvention – the High Line is a great example. The next decades will surely continue this recent trajectory of using the existing resources, infrastructure and materials to offer a contemporary experience that has meaning and articulates a highly specific sense of place and history.



What’s your definition and philosophy of urbanism for humanity? I think any urban plan or vision should be an attempt to capture a collective consciousness and to offer a civic experience that is about difference – or specifics – rather than universality. Talk about your latest project for affordable housing in Harlem’s up and coming neighborhood, Sugar Hill. Sugar Hill is my first civic project in New York, it is a new typology of affordable housing, combined with a children’s museum and early education center. The client, Broadway Housing Communities, has a longstanding commitment to a wider urban and cultural responsibility – which has resonated with my own interests, so the collaboration has been very exciting. It is a thirteen-story, 124-apartment complex on W. 155th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue. We worked closely with the local community to ensure the design is tied to its history, practical and aesthetic requirements, through a series of workshops and planning meetings. The cladding, for example, is achieved with rose embossed graphite tinted pre-cast panels, which create an ornamental effect, paying tribute to the rich culture and history of Harlem. Abstractly referencing the intricate masonry ornament and the articulation of the row-house bays of the neighboring buildings, the cladding also resonates with the fact that the site falls within the “heritage rose” district. The roses on the building façade are set to varying sizes and depths to enhance the play of light across the surface.


What are some of the exciting global projects in the works at Adjaye firm, particularly on the African continent? We are lucky to be working on a diverse range of projects – so I’ll mention just a few. In the US, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is still on site, we are working with the University of Colgate on a new arts centre and the Four Seasons on the reinvention of the West Heating plant in Washington DC. In London, we have designed a fashion hub in Hackney and a large residential project in Piccadilly is at the early design stages. In Lagos, we have the Alara Concept store which is due to open in the next few months. In Ghana, we are working on a masterplan, a school campus and residential projects. We are creating a new headquarters building for the IFC in Dakar, Senegal and residential developments in Johannesburg.

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