Photo: Steve Castillo

Photo: Steve Castillo

As the 2014 Stanford Presidential Lecturer in the Humanities and Arts, international architect David Adjaye discussed the inspiration behind his works, which include the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, now under construction in Washington, D.C.

Architect David Adjaye tells Stanford audience how he designs civic spaces to create community

Speaking at the annual Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, David Adjaye, the designer of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, described how he sees civic buildings as fulcrums of emotion and memory that engage with the people who use them.

Architect David Adjaye is international both in his heritage and in his career. Between his childhood and his working life he has spent considerable time in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the United States. He has built houses for Kofi Annan and, pro bono, for displaced residents of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward; he also designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and public library branches Washington, D.C.

One of Adjaye’s latest commissions is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, now under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Speaking to an audience at Stanford recently, Adjaye made it clear that he sees the museum as much more than a space to contain objects.

Adjaye, the 2014 Stanford Presidential Lecturer in the Humanities and Arts, said a building that engages with this vital part of America’s history needs to conserve “not just precious artifacts, but emotional and political artifacts.” The museum, he noted, “is really a lens to look at the evolution of America.”

Adjaye’s structures are best known for engaging not only with the environment in which they stand but also with the history and public life of the people who will use them.

The African American History and Culture Museum reflects Adjaye’s humanistic concerns.

“I became moved to create a museum that would not just talk about one people or one moment but by default that people’s contribution to the world,” he said.

The museum’s three-crowned roofline evokes the triple crowns of divinities of West Africa’s Yoruba people, who, Adjaye said, were perhaps the greatest artists during the period in which 11 million Africans were taken into slavery and became the African diaspora.

“There’s a classical black tradition, and had it evolved it might look something like this,” Adjaye said.

At the same time the building celebrates African American history, it fulfills and engages with the 224-year-old plan for the National Mall laid out by Pierre L’Enfant.

“From the museum you can see all the key monuments, the ‘palaces of the mall,’ including the Washington Monument, the National Archives, the Reflecting Pool at which Martin Luther King spoke,” Adjaye said.

“These are lenses that enable you to see the museum’s context.”

Driven by culture and ecology

Adjaye was born in Tanzania to a Ghanaian diplomatic family that lived in several countries before settling in the United Kingdom. His upbringing afforded him unusually wide references and sympathies that inform his work today. His firm, Adjaye Associates, has offices in London; Berlin; Accra, Ghana; and New York City – “on the continents of my engagement,” he said.

For Adjaye’s largest project to date, the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, completed in 2007, he mined the 20th-century Russian Constructivist and Suprematist movements so influential to modern architecture and design. From Konstantin Melnikov’s 1927 home in Moscow, Adjaye took the idea of a disc-shaped building pierced by repeating motifs. From Kazimir Malevich’s 1910s paintings inspired by the then-new discipline of aerial photography, Adjaye decided to work with simple geometric shapes as seen in the landscape from above.

These spatial and ecological considerations informed Adjaye’s final plan of a 460,000-square-foot “superbuilding,” an enormous enclosed dome. The self-contained living and working complex is comfortable and practical during Moscow’s long winters.

“You couldn’t do a Jeffersonian quad in Russia, because you’d be shoveling snow forever,” Adjaye observed, referencing Thomas Jefferson’s iconic plan for the University of Virginia. Yet, as Adjaye pointed out, all of the competing design firms proposed designs reminiscent of the Jefferson quad.

So as to prevent occupants from becoming stir-crazy and to honor the surrounding forest on Moscow’s outskirts, every corridor in the management school ends in glass and a view, “a networking system that the sun would mediate,” he said.

Adjaye also spoke about some of his smaller projects, which engage the same humanistic and sympathies and concerns, including flood-safe houses he designed pro bono in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and bridges and riverside pavilions in New Orleans and Gwangju, South Korea.

The New Orleans project includes a pedestrian overpass that affords residents a stunning view of newly opened public access to the Mississippi River.

“Citizens were excluded from the water’s edge, which was used for industry and walled off. Generations grew up unable to see the waterfront. I was happy to create a building of the soul, a building of memories, a place that enabled people to hear the river, a place for performance and ceremonies.”

As Adjaye explained, his Gwangju pavilion honored Korea’s indigenous tradition of timber architecture in its own interlocking-timber design. It also paid tribute to the “literary heritage of the community” by incorporating a small library, which continues Adjaye’s longtime interest in creating community.

Similarly, in his winning entry for the Smithsonian project, Adjaye said he was careful to recognize that “a museum is no longer a place where you lead someone through the experience, but allow him to reflect.”

An evolving story

It was a great honor, Adjaye said, to win the 2009 international competition for the latest addition to the Smithsonian Institution, whose 28 museums and research centers form, he said, “probably the greatest institution for collecting anywhere in the world.”

It was also a challenge, structurally and politically. The greatest design problem, Adjaye said, was relating the museum visually and in terms of content to the Washington Monument next door. It entailed precisely calibrating the building’s metal skin so as to support a large viewscape that appropriately frames the monument.

This view was critical, he said: The obelisk completed in 1884 celebrates Enlightenment values but also, in its Egyptian origins, the history of the African continent. The viewscape thus sums up a synchronicity of African and Western aspiration. It comes at the end of one of the museum’s history galleries.

“The content of the museum brings you to a moment where you’re faced with the monument,” Adjaye said. “But it was the hardest thing to do.”

Adjaye presented his plan over two years to many members of Congress who wondered about the building’s shape as well as its materials: The museum is the first building with a metal façade on the Mall.

“The Museum of Natural History has a metal dome. So, contextually, the museum is in the family. It’s a four-sided classical form. It works with the setback lines and creates a rhyming relation with the monument, the most complex part. Its narratives are different, but its roots are common,” Adjaye said.

“The Mall is an evolving story,” Adjaye said. “It begins in the Enlightenment. The Mall is about the evolution.”

Learn more about Adjaye’s works on the Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts webpage. Created by the Stanford University Libraries, the page includes an essay, a bibliography, and links to audio and video of Adjaye speaking at other events.