Designs That Speak Volumes
David Adjaye Making a Mark on D.C. With Libraries and African American Museum

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.

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.

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."

* * *

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.

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?

* * *

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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