Celebrated architect David Adjaye shares his singular design vision
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David Adjaye uses the word “generic” quite frequently in conversation. The gentrification of urban space and architecture is something the British architect is not happy about, as it wipes out cultural differences and geographical specificity, as well as undermining what “good architecture” should be about.
“There is a strong influence of generics in the world right now, that is affordable and fashionable. But we need brave steps, and I believe architectural urbanism is required,” he says. “Some say that architecture is not necessary. I say it is more important than ever before – it is a vision.”
Adjaye, who was in Beirut last September, takes his counter-generic architectural mission seriously, being a “Robin Hood” architect, a metaphor he has used to describe using proceeds from previous commissions to allow him the financial space to design buildings for charities and clients with little money. “It is a slightly Marxist view, to work with rich people to pay for other projects,” he says.
Talking about his seven-volume photographic survey of metropolitan architecture in 53 African cities, the Tanzanian-born architect laments the way the continent is generically referred to as Africa rather than in terms of regions. “It’s about not looking at the continent as a continent but rather as six regions – Sahel architecture, desert architecture, Savanna architecture and so on,” he says. “We need divergent views, not singularity. I prefer a planetary idea, the diaspora of the planet, rather than a singular globalization.”
Such an outlook and Adjaye’s internationalism – his father was a diplomat from Ghana and he lived in several countries as a child, including Lebanon – has made Adjaye one of the world’s most sought-after architects and designers of his generation. Last year he won Design Miami’s Designer of the Year award, and his design of the Nobel Peace Center in Norway garnered him accolades when it opened in 2004.
Currently,Adjaye is overseeing the building of the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC, which is slated for completion in three years. “It’s pretty heavy, very emotional and celebratory,” he says of the project. “It’s about 200 years of history and not just about slavery, but about how African-Americans confronted the United States to modernize; how civil liberties changed the world to face up to discrimination. The issue is how to deal with modernity, and how to talk about identity and narrative, so we are using artifacts in a different way. Before it was about the value of artifacts, but such trophyism, power and colonialism is disturbing for me.”
One of Adjaye’s other projects fits into his interest in urbanism and going against – that word again – generics. He has been commissioned by the Qatari government to design a street in the Dohaland project, which is recreating downtown Doha in a traditional style with a modern edge. “The 21st century is the beginning of Qatar’s urbanism,” he says, and this presents great opportunities for architecture. “It is about geography first, culture second. If this disconnected, it would be very problematic,” he says.
With his design, Abjaye has been able to create a new public realm, while apartments are Qatari-orientated, with male and female spaces, as well as the public and private. “It is on an incredible human scale, a walking city space and a very interesting Art Deco Arabist modern style. It is not generic but culturally specific. A richer architecture that acknowledges culture yet is still modern.”