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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.

Public buildings are very much inside out.

Adjaye loves thinking in paradoxes and even claims to be "very postmodern in the way I read things." By which he doesn't mean postmodern in the usual architectural sense. Rather, he likes to make spaces that contradict expectations, that play games with materials and introduce ideas only to subvert them.

His library design for Alabama Avenue looks like a thin skin of glass on the outside. But from the inside, the window cuts feel thick and three-dimensional (a technique he also employs in the Idea Store), which he says is a maneuver that contrasts the idea of thickness and depth in ancient architecture with the cheapness and lightness of modern, industrial architecture.

When he says his public buildings are "inside out," he seems to mean that they become places that people go into in order to situate themselves in the external world. A window is never just a window, but "a device, a lens, a mechanism," which makes buildings "porous."

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This is dense rhetoric, and it's not clear whether it will be an asset or a hindrance in Washington. Already, Adjaye has run into strong opposition for his second library design -- the Washington Highlands branch -- which is being opposed by local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners.

"The design does nothing," says Theresa Howe-Jones, an ANC representative. "It doesn't blend into the neighborhood and it isn't compatible with the red brick buildings and the single-family homes." Howe-Jones is one of several signatories to a letter (sent to Adjaye's office) imploring him to rethink his plans and consider merely refurbishing and expanding the existing library.

The letter makes clear that they are not happy with the pods on thick stilts that Adjaye has proposed for the teen reading room and adult conference spaces. To local residents, these extensions with large glass windows feel like aquariums.

"Ward 8 residents are not fish," they write.

If his library reminds residents of an aquarium, what will his design for the African American museum suggest to people? Adjaye's team (which includes Philip Freelon, one of the most respected African American architects) has proposed a dramatic stack of two inverted, flat-topped pyramids, encased in a porous skin of bronze. It was not the most radical idea put forth in the competition (that came from the dynamic, New York-based team of Diller Scofidio + Renfro) but it will be a sharp departure from anything that has yet appeared on the Mall.

The design idea that won isn't necessarily what will get built, says NMAAHC director Lonnie Bunch. He and his jury were looking more for a team, and evidence of good teamwork, than a final idea. But the thing that makes the original idea so interesting -- the bronze skin that Adjaye calls a "corona" -- is integral to whatever the final design looks like, he says.

"I think things will change in the process, but I hope that that corona will stay with us," says Bunch, who feels that the richness of its color, and its perforations, represent the way in which African Americans have long been a hidden presence in plain sight in the nation's capital.


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