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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.

Bunch says he was deeply moved, during the competition, by an animated "fly through," a computer-generated tour through the museum, which ended with a view of the proposed building with its metal halo twinkling at night. But watch the video, and you see the challenge Adjaye will face. Every detail of illumination, every little lumen of light, will have to be vetted and approved by the various agencies and boards that have oversight on the Mall. If the corona is too bright, it won't happen. But if it doesn't glow, is it worth the effort to solve the engineering and other problems it will pose?

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Since the early years of the last century, this is the work that architects have done: persuade, prove, adapt, defend. If Adjaye's view of the museum holds up during the design process, it will be a small miracle. He says he wants to "confuse the narrative" and make the museum "like an archive that you dive into and make new associations," so that people will have a reason to come back, so that curators will be able, in 10 or 20 years, to reconfigure and rethink everything.

"This is not the Holocaust museum," he says. "This is not about a single event experience. This is almost like the Hegelian idea of making history."

Can a man who casually mentions Hegel (and then giggles) by way of explaining why he doesn't want to put the NMAAHC's slave ship in the most prominent spot in his new library ("the ship should be hidden, it should be an emotive discovery") get anything done in Washington?

"There is a drive and a focus there that the gentle nature belies," Freelon says. "There is a fire burning inside of him."

People who have worked with Adjaye describe him as warm, witty, engaging, smart and driven. Kister, who helped shepherd the Denver project, says the experience was wonderful, and that they came out of it friends. Bunch says he has shown the "fly through" animation of the building to potential donors and they were so moved, "I thought they were going to cry."

Adjaye addressed the museum's council a few months after he won the commission, and he wowed them, according to Bunch. And it wasn't an easy crowd. Oprah was there.

Adjaye has also been through the wringer a few times and come out on top. Last July, the London press was wild with schadenfreude when a string of canceled projects almost forced Adjaye's firm into foreclosure. "A society architect whose clients and collaborators include Ewan McGregor, Alexander McQueen and Brad Pitt, has been forced to seek protection from his creditors," wrote the Evening Standard. Adjaye's status in London can be summed up in that little word, "society," appended to "architect."

"It implied that I was some kind of entertainer, that I was wheeling and dealing my way to success," Adjaye says. "It was actually very hurtful."

But Adjaye, who says he moved quickly to restructure and defend his business, doesn't sound wounded. "We didn't realize how notorious I've become."

Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian diplomats, educated in London, head of a firm that also has offices in New York and Berlin, Adjaye is somewhat culturally removed from the African American experience. It is one of the curious twists of the process that a man with a British accent has been hired to design something so quintessentially American. As he marshals his ideas and prepares to defend them, it will be a fascinating test of whether his personal experience, as an African living in Britain, will connect him to the larger diaspora of Americans of African descent. Or whether he, and his ideas, will seem foreign to the local audience.

When he was selected to design the museum, his name was one among a long list on his team, a strategy meant in part to add the local experience of men such as Freelon to Adjaye's design brilliance. (Team member Max Bond, the beloved patriarch of African American architects, died during the competition process.)

But like so many things in Washington, it can be read another way: The firm hand of pragmatism will keep the reins tight on a young Turk. As Adjaye works with his team, as his team works with the Smithsonian, as the Smithsonian works with Washington, and as Washington struggles with its own reluctance to move forward architecturally, there is one thing at stake: Do we build the last big museum of the 20th century, or the first great one of the 21st?


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