An Architect For the Books

"The book is central," David Adjaye said. (Steven Heller - Steven Heller)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

The D.C. Public Libraries have hired one of London's busiest and most prominent young architects to design replacement buildings for two of the most distressed branches of its system.

David Adjaye, 42, a Tanzanian-born designer who has created homes for such celebrities as Ewan McGregor, will design modern facilities to replace the 1959 Washington Highlands Library in Southwest and the 1961 Francis A. Gregory Library in Southeast. The choice of Adjaye, which came through a competitive process involving library officials and neighborhood representatives, is a remarkable statement of architectural ambition.

Last year, Adjaye finished the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, his first major public project in the United States. But in London, he is something of celebrity, having built controversial and innovative homes, often with severe, minimalist faces, for some of the city's most successful artists and actors. His work includes the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, an adaptation of a 19th-century railway terminal into a high-tech exhibition hall and museum, dramatically framed by a stand-alone aluminum box, thrusting the whole complex into the space age.

But it was his Idea Stores, glamorous neighborhood libraries that include a wide array of community functions, that helped him rise to the top during an open competition, which began in May. Adjaye's firm was selected after a July 19 presentation by the three finalists (out of 17 design teams).

Ginnie Cooper, the chief librarian, says she knew of Adjaye's Idea Stores before she had heard his name.

"In the library world, we paid attention to them," says Cooper, who has since made a study of the architect's work. "They are in what I would describe as rough neighborhoods."

The name "Idea Stores" wasn't Adjaye's, but he embraced the concept: how to make libraries that serve multicultural, 21st-century, Web-hungry communities. His designs brought a level of sleek polish -- one building used vertical ribbons of light blue and green glass that echoed the colored canopies of a local market -- not often seen in small community centers. From the outside, Adjaye's Idea Stores look like they should be selling iPods or designer shoes, rather than housing books, short-term day care, aerobics facilities and Internet access.

Adjaye impressed library officials when he showed up for the design presentation, which encouraged them that a "starchitect" could find time for the lengthy process of public meetings they expect to have in preparation for the design.

"What is exciting to me is that they are not in downtown, they are not grand projects, but are in real family neighborhoods," says Adjaye, who is in town to give a talk at the National Building Museum tonight. "One of the things that attracted me to the projects was touching real communities with design excellence."

Adjaye's fee for both library buildings will come out of the $2.6 million slated for design, which includes money for his local architectural partner, Wiencek + Associates. Each building will cost about $9.5 million, the money for which has already been allocated by the City Council to the libraries' capital budget. The Highlands and Gregory branches are two of six major renovations or new buildings currently underway.

It is a remarkable debut for the architect in the nation's capital, which has had a hard time attracting designers of Adjaye's caliber. In London, Adjaye has already been through at least one full metabolic cycle of the British press's notoriously fast-paced buildup and tear-down critical response.

Adjaye's father was a Ghanaian diplomat, and his childhood was spent traveling. He has been hailed as one of the first architects from an African background to build a successful career in England's mostly white, mostly male profession. His house designs have divided critical opinion, but they have built his reputation both as a chance-taker and a socially well-connected player in the London cultural scene. Almost as fast as he became a prominent -- he already has an OBE after his name, an honor just shy of knighthood -- there was muttering about whether he had risen too far and too fast.

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