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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.

I always battle my clients.

His clients put it differently.

"As a client I was adamant about a few things," says Karl Kister, who was president of the board when the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver was building an Adjaye-designed home that opened in 2007. "David was equally adamant about his ideas and the product is a great building." Kister cites an example: an educational space that was supposed to cantilever out from the building. It would have been cheaper to lower it, but lowering it would have broken the clean line of the roof. Adjaye insisted, Kister relented.

"I didn't think it was that important, but in the end it is a big idea and I'm glad we did it," Kister says.

Some completely get it, some are all about security, security, security.

Adjaye faces a severe test with this one. In London, one of his most successful buildings is a little library in the bustling and diverse East End neighborhood of Whitechapel. It is known as the "Idea Store," a clever bit of branding that remakes the library with the clean, appealing, consumer-friendly chic of an Apple emporium or a mod cafe. The Idea Store is a box of lightly shaded blue-and-green glass, with an escalator meant to scoop up people from the teeming streets and deliver them to the second floor, where they can find literature in Urdu, or the third floor, where they can access large print and talking books.

But one day last month, the escalator wasn't working, although it normally does, says Mark George, a supervisor, dressed in a black short-sleeve shirt with an Idea Store logo that recalls the uniform of a retail chain. But by accessing both the second and third floors, the escalator requires security at three places. It's an architecturally appealing idea -- a building of glass that draws people straight off the street -- but not always a feasible one. Nonetheless, George says, the building has been a remarkable success.

"We get about 12,000-plus footfall a week," he says, making it a very busy, very successful building. So successful that after visiting it, D.C. chief librarian Ginnie Cooper was inspired by it when she started thinking about revamping the district's library system.

Public buildings need to offer an opportunity to become like a park.

Here one senses the contours of Adjaye's mental map. Architecture is a deeply thought, deeply theorized discipline for Adjaye, connected to history and philosophy and urbanism. He resists the idea of having an architectural style, and talks instead in terms of "maneuvers," as if every new building is a technical problem in a society that is constantly evolving new forms and ideas. Public buildings are meant to "delight," Adjaye says, which makes them very different from houses, which are meant to "regenerate."

In another neighborhood of East London, Adjaye has built a home he calls "Sunken House," a box of wood that is almost blank from the street, but filled with light from the back and the top. It nestles into a deep garden walled in with dark, weathered wood. When you're in it, the surrounding neighborhood disappears. The house turns its back on a city filled with houses that often feel like a parade of middle-class men in business suits, all toeing the street line as if on inspection. Adjaye's house is like a void in the conformist world, hiding a private spa.

But if a house is a place to turn your back on the pressures of conformity and public life, public buildings are about vivacity and display and mingling. They are like Hyde Park on a sunny day in autumn.


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