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.
Adjaye's public buildings have helped allay those concerns. The Contemporary Art Museum in Denver, a striking box of gray glass, was built on a shoestring budget of $15.9 million but to rigorous environmental standards. The success of that project persuaded Adjaye to open up a U.S. office, and he is now engaged in a community housing project in Harlem and an arts institution in Texas (which he won't identify because it's early in the process).
Adjaye won't reveal what he's planning in the District at this point.
"We want to know who we're working for, and what their concerns are, before we start clicking on our mouses and drawing in our notebooks," says Adjaye. He is excited about the green setting of the Gregory location. The existing libraries -- undistinguished, brick-faced structures that have not evolved to serve their community's needs -- will be torn down.
Laura Gonzales, the Highlands branch manager, points to two oversize basement community rooms that are constantly in demand, and a parking lot with a rear entrance that makes it hard to prevent theft of library materials. The facility smells like mildew, and cables for the library's seven functioning public computers hang from the ceiling.
Adjaye is sensitive to concerns that the new facilities must still be libraries, rather than community centers. "The book is central, part of the DNA of this whole story," he says.
But the grand, classical designs of libraries built a century ago -- "palaces" for the people, he says -- were part of a strategy of public elevation that is no longer relevant. What matters more is access, and options.
"Architecture is almost like a telephone book," he says, filled with possibilities.
Libraries are already morphing into all-purpose structures, and Adjaye's challenge will be to participate in that transformation without making them look like generic community centers.
Good buildings, he says, "tell people that they are not neglected and marginalized but part of the civic realm."