WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
This is a defining time for architect David Adjaye. He's been widely tipped as one of the country's most promising and original architectural talents but this will be the year - thanks to a quartet of high profile commissions completing this autumn - that we find out if Adjaye can really translate promise into achievement and begin to compete with the global starchitects.
Three of Adjaye's new projects are high profile cultural and educational projects for London, which suggest that Adjaye certainly has much more to offer than the ultra-sophisticated, houses - beloved of property porn editors - for which he's been best known up to now. The fourth is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Denver which has to be the job that will attract the most attention and whose success is key for Adjaye's push into America, where he will be opening a New York office by the end of 2007.
'It's really the culmination of the first five years of my own practice,' says Adjaye, who founded Adjaye/Associates in 2000, after seven years of joint practice with William Russell, now at Pentagram. 'My office was really established by winning these projects and so for us it's the first yield of civic, public projects. It's a new position, which has global implications - working in America and getting interested in projects in Asia and elsewhere.'
The $15m MCA in Denver, which opens in October, is a four storey new building coated in etched grey, milky glass with interior walls of a special textured, translucent plastic enveloping five core galleries - each a distinct chamber accessed by an internal pathway. There will also be three education spaces, offices and a bookshop plus a rooftop garden, that will help insulate the Museum, a purposefully green building with high sustainability targets. Curated and directed by Cydney Payton, there will be no permanent collection. Instead the gallery rooms will be handed over to individual artists.
'We developed a model of flexibility with Cydney,' says Adjaye, ' with artists being given one of the five rooms and then in dialogue with her creating a work or set of works. The building is like a mini city in itself, with galleries like houses entered from a street. I'm very pleased with it and excited about it. Yes, we have to make some compromises along the way but they won't be visible and the Museum is getting a lot of value for its money. I hope it returns the delight to visiting an arts space, something beyond the spectacle of the building itself or the sheer verve of a show - it's trying to do something between the two. It's suddenly become a project that everyone is talking about even though it's actually quite a small building in real terms.'
The Museum reinforces Adjaye's close and ongoing relationship with the art world, which has seen collaborations with Chris Offili and others, as well as houses for artists like Tim Noble, Sue Webster and Jake Chapman. But more importantly, perhaps, it fits with Adjaye's current preoccupation with what actually turns a civic building into something public, democratic and accessible, as well as ideas of how architecture can help in the development of new urban thinking and hybrid concepts, like Adjaye's own Idea Store in Whitechapel completed eighteen months ago. This was a new kind of library, shortlisted for the 2006 Stirling Prize, a flagship for a wave of public information centres that hold not only books and computer access but walk-in access to a range of educational courses.
'These projects all come under the umbrella of something which I describe as being to do with the question of what is a public building in the 21st century and how do we create these buildings?' says Adjaye. 'The fortune of having this range of projects at once has meant that I could explore those concerns across a number of different buildings. These are buildings that look both backwards and forwards, to the past and future, and all strive to deal with notions of access, the environment and the social.'
In London, Adjaye's new projects include the £5m Stephen Lawrence Centre in Lewisham, an educational building designed as a memorial to Lawrence - himself an architectural student - but also as a place of inspiration, study and support for the area's college age population. Then there's the Bernie Grant Centre for performing arts and education in Tottenham, an ambitious £9m project with a triptych of structures, two of them new and a third converted from an existing Victorian building, devoted to a theatre, a new education space and a training space designed around the idea of an 'urban campus'.
'These buildings are incredible things, landing in places which would never, traditionally, have seen things like this,' says Adjaye, an erudite speaker, who has also presented architecture shows for the BBC. 'A theatre in Tottenham would once have been ridiculous because you always went to the centre of London to go to the theatre. To get a theatre in Tottenham is a big deal and speaks to a community which is incredibly lively in the performing arts and the music industry. These have been such stimulating places to work because they don't get that much public patronage.'
They have been designed, not just with vibrant architectural originality, but by drawing upon a rich source bank of images from Adjaye's own mind. The Lawrence Centre drew upon decorated caskets from Ghana, a straw thread mat was brought into the mix for the Bernie Grant building, while a Sowei mask from Sierra Leone - with a geometric lattice pattern - helped inform the facade of Adjaye's new £3m building at Rivington Place, London, for the Institute for International Visual Arts, also opening in the autumn.
'They are not inspirations in the normal sense and it's not as though these artefacts 'become' a building,' says Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania, his father a Ghanaian diplomat. 'It's not like looking at a radio and saying I want to design a building that looks like a radio. It's more that I am implicitly interested in African models as a kind of DNA of aesthetics. I'm interested in mining them in the same way that the Cubist or Expressionists mined them, as a source pool for thinking freshly about quite complex concerns. It's my personal interest, it's what I like to look at. They are like butterflies, sometimes, that I use as guides. I see an image and want to work through that image as a thinking mechanism.'
Adjaye and his family moved to London when he was nine years old, and he later studied architecture at the Royal College of Art, but deep rooted memories of Africa remain with him, as well as an ongoing fascination. Currently Adjaye is working on a book documenting every major African capital and has already visited a dozen or so. These fascinations, one way or another, feed every piece of work from Denver to Tottenham, as part of a global, cosmopolitan and intellectual system of thinking.
'My roots are on that Continent so my aesthetics are also shaped by Africa, as well as being shaped by my education in Britain and my global education. It's all a matter of choices. Someone like Tadao Ando might say that he looks at Shinto Temples or someone else might say they look at Italian hill towns. I am deeply interested in the continent of Africa, as a project that will occupy my life.'
David Adjaye first made his name with a series of original houses for artists and actors, including Chris Offili, Jake Chapman and Ewan McGregor. House projects continue alongside larger scale public projects, with new residential commissions across the world, including New York, China, Morocco and Germany. Adjaye's houses help clarify his ongoing preoccupations with light, materials, texture and colour and are big on various kinds of contrast between light and dark. The three best known Adjaye houses - which are all poetically named by the architect - are:
1) The Elektra House, 2000, Whitechapel.
A new house replacing an existing workshop with a building conceived as a large light box with no visible windows to the front facade. An enigmatic building - dark on the outside, light but minimal on the inside.
2) The Dirty House, 2002, Shoreditch.
A house and studio for artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble, formed from the conversion of a factory building. The original brick work is painted a dark grey, offset with a geometric series of windows and a 'floating' roof that appears to hover over an upper level of glazing and recessed decks.
3) The Lost House, 2004, King's Cross.
A single storey house for fashion industry clients, integrated into a former goods yard. The house includes a lap pool and a series of rich spaces formed from a combination of dark materials and shafts of natural light via light wells.