Profile of Washington Architect David Adjaye

Architect David Adjaye is making his mark on Washington with the designs of two libraries and the commission of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
By Philip Kennicott,
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

David Adjaye is a soft-spoken man and when he addresses a small crowd gathered in a Southeast Washington library, he forgets that microphones don't work so well if you don't hold them up to your mouth.

The 43-year-old Ghanaian architect, who has been commissioned to design two new libraries in the District, is in Washington to get feedback on his plans to build a replacement for the aging Francis A. Gregory Library on Alabama Avenue. The old building is standard institutional fare from the early 1960s: cinderblocks, ceiling tiles and narrow bands of windows that give you almost no sense of the lush park behind it.

If Adjaye's ideas prevail, the new structure will be a shining box, with a lattice of diamond-shaped windows and reflective glass, and a large overhanging roof cut open to allow light to flood in. It will be a bold assertion of contemporary architecture by one of the world's most prominent young architects, in a neighborhood that time and style seem to have forgotten.

But first, he must face the people. They are concerned about off-street parking and whether the basement will flood. One neighborhood resident would like a rooftop garden. But the main point of contention is a ramp for wheelchair access to the second floor. Adjaye has included an elevator, but in the old library the elevator often broke.

Adjaye answers each point gently and methodically. The basement will be secured against flooding. Parking is problematic because the National Park Service owns the land around the library. A rooftop garden would be very nice but expensive. As for the ramp, if it were built according to code, it would be so long as to wrap around the building.

"People with disabilities pay taxes, too," one woman fires back, unconvinced and angry. Adjaye, who is famous enough in London to be regular fodder for the love-hate cycles of the popular media, has more work to do in a sleepy corner of the District.

This is a small prelude to what Adjaye will face over the coming years as a much bigger Washington project goes forward. In April, the Smithsonian Institution announced that the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup team had won the competition to design what should be the last major building on the Mall: the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The $500 million project will be one of the largest of Adjaye's meteoric career and, if he can bring it to fruition, he will jump into the highest league of world architects. But he will also be playing on a rough-and-tumble field, fighting the complex array of government forces (and private opinion) that control every detail of what can be done on the nation's front yard. Not to mention the people who still question the necessity of an African American museum, and others who still resent locating it on the Mall.

Is he ready? The question might be turned around: Is Washington ready? Because, for all his dutiful participation in public meetings such as the library gathering last month, Adjaye is a progressive architect and he views architecture as transformative.

With two libraries and the most prominent building to be erected on the Mall in almost a generation, Adjaye will be one of the most influential architects in the nation's capital, and it's clear from what he has proposed that he does not speak the usual, desultory language of Washington design: context, history, accommodation.

"I always battle my clients," says Adjaye. "Some completely get it, some are all about security, security, security. But public buildings need to offer an opportunity to become like a park; they should offer places for people to see beautiful things, be inspired, just exist, engage or just do their own thing. Public buildings are very much inside out. They are very, very porous to the landscape."

This is Adjaye-speak, a mix of theory and vernacular, delivered rapid-fire with an English accent picked up from his long years as a London resident. It is punctuated with little giggles that deflate his sincerity when it verges on pomposity. To get a sense of who Adjaye is, read his words carefully.

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