The National Museum of African American History and Culture on Washington’s National Mall—opening in September—has been a long time coming. Architect David Adjaye’s radically inventive design will make sure it’s unforgettable.
In a profession that rewards age and experience, the British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye has hit the top without having to wait his turn. He has buildings or ongoing projects on four continents. He spends a third of his life on airplanes; maintains offices in London, New York, Berlin, and Accra; and rarely spends two consecutive nights in the same bed. He’s on the short list of architects now being considered for President Obama’s library. And on September 24, two days after his fiftieth birthday, the Adjaye-designed National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C. It is by far his most important building to date, and one of the most keenly anticipated monuments of our time.
The exterior of the building has been finished for several months. It’s a tiered, upside-down ziggurat—three stacked square boxes with outward-leaning walls, resting on a glass-and-steel base. The zigzag silhouette is shrouded in open-work aluminum panels painted dark bronze—in striking contrast to its white-marble and limestone neoclassical neighbors. It’s a daring contemporary design based on Yoruba tribal motifs, built on the last full site in Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original plan for the Mall, and a stone’s throw from the White House.
Three years ago, I sat with David Adjaye under a tree, looking at what was then a five-acre hole in the ground. He showed me one of the panels on his iPad and explained that they had been adapted from ornamental iron castings made by slaves and former slaves in Charleston and New Orleans. Now the exterior of the building is in place, and for all its nonconformity, it looks completely at home. “It’s about architecture, but also about memory and history,” Adjaye says when we meet at the site on a cloudy afternoon in mid-May. “I got exactly what I wanted on the exterior, which was a dark, brooding, bronzelike building.” Before going inside, he points out what he calls the “oculus,” a circular raised platform at the west entrance through whose glass windows you can see the room below. “We found out that this spot was once a slave market, right on the Mall,” he says. “The oculus is like a slave pedestal, levitated off the ground. I’ve tried to make every decision here have some history.”
The inside is still a construction site, and we’re both wearing hard hats. The light in the interior comes from all four points of the compass. (On a sunny day, I’m told, the aluminum cladding breaks it up into dappled, continually changing patterns.) Four hundred thousand square feet of space on eight floors, four below ground and four above, make it twice as big as the new Whitney Museum. Adjaye didn’t get everything he wanted. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which raised half of the $540 million to build it; Congress provided the rest, and every architect knows that when you work for a government-sponsored project, cost-cutting is inevitable. His original idea was for the exterior cladding to be bronze, not aluminum with a bronze coating, but that proved to be prohibitively expensive and far too heavy. The most painful loss for Adjaye, though, is the “shower of timber” he had designed for the entrance-hall ceiling—thousands of split-pine two-by-fours raining down, representing the African slaves brought to America. It was ruled out as too costly, and the ceiling is now metal sheet paneling—a nondescript compromise. Adjaye has come to terms with this: “If you get 60 to 70 percent of your original idea, you’ve won,” he says, “and I got 80 percent.” But he holds on to a hope that the timbers may return at some future date.
The building offers countless other surprises, one of the best being the “Nine Views”—windows cut at different points on two gallery floors perfectly frame the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, the Capitol, the National Archives Building, the White House, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and, of course, the Mall. “When I won this dream competition,” Adjaye says, “I brought everything I knew, every trick I’ve learned, into my design.”
“Architects are always jealous of one another, and I’m no exception,” says New York–based architect Annabelle Selldorf. “But I’ve come to think David’s a totally generous person who contributes on a very large scale. One of his most important contributions is that he’s very conscious of where he’s from,” she adds, “and through him I realize how important heritage is to the bigger picture.” The idea of a national museum dedicated to African-American history had been proposed many times over the last 100 years, before finally being green-lighted in 2003. Lonnie Bunch III, the museum’s director and the driving force behind the project, has put together more than 34,000 objects for the collection. A few of them are already installed—a railroad car from a segregated Pullman train; artifacts from a slave ship; a slave cabin; a training plane for the all-black Tuskegee squad of fighter pilots in World War II. “There’s no doubt that David is at the top of his career,” Bunch says. “He really brought creativity and vision to this project. We wanted an architect who was on the rise and who would recognize that this had to be a collaboration.”
Both of Adjaye’s parents came from Ghana. His father was a civil servant who became a diplomat soon after Ghana won independence from Britain in 1957. He was stationed in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania when David, the couple’s first child, was born in 1966. They had two more boys, Peter and Emmanuel (the family also included two half-brothers from previous marriages). They moved frequently—Uganda, Kenya, Egypt, Lebanon, Ghana, Saudi Arabia; in Ghana, Emmanuel, the youngest, came down with a serious illness that resulted in permanent paralysis. Taking care of him was a full-time job for his mother; his father, intent on finding the best possible medical treatment, took a desk job at the Ghanaian Embassy in London. David was thirteen when they moved there. The family lived in Hampstead, and David went to state schools, where for the first time he was subjected to racial slurs. An intelligent, joyous child who loved science, particularly physics and chemistry, and who found many of his English classmates slow and somewhat stupid, Adjaye took some time to assimilate. Being part of a close and supportive family helped.
He was good at too many things, which caused his parents some concern. He found his direction when his high school art teacher persuaded him to take a foundation course at Middlesex University. “I was exposed to art, which I loved, but I was too worried about finding a career,” Adjaye says. “That pivoted me toward looking for a creative job, and architecture seemed interesting. I soon fell in love with it.” After getting his architectural degree from London South Bank University, he spent a few months working with David Chipperfield, then a year in Portugal absorbing the craft-oriented architecture of Eduardo Souto de Moura, before going to the Royal College of Art for his master’s.
He and his friends spent nearly every weekend traveling, looking at great architecture both ancient and modern, from Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye to the Parthenon. He went solo to Japan for a year, studying the modernist innovations of Tadao Ando, Kenzo Tange, and others. He graduated in 1993 and, instead of joining a large architectural firm, set up his own practice with a classmate. They landed the occasional small job—a noodle shop, cafés, sets for a music video. Within a few years, Adjaye set up his own office in London’s run-down East End, an area that was becoming popular with young artists and designers. One day, walking on Brick Lane, he spotted a green Ford Capri driven by Chris Ofili, whom he had known as a student at the Royal College. Ofili was already a rising artist—he would win the Turner Prize the following year. He had just bought a derelict row house a few blocks away, and within minutes of their reconnection, he hired Adjaye to do the renovation. The house, and double-height studio with a folding glass wall, launched Adjaye’s reputation as an architect who could work brilliantly with artists, and he and Ofili have been collaborating ever since. Ofili is currently in the process of moving into their latest joint venture, a spectacular hillside house in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where he lives with his wife and two children. A modernist concrete beach house for the family is also under way. “David and I have worked together as friends in our 20s, 30s, and 40s,” Ofili tells me. “I look forward to our 50s.”
Many of Adjaye’s early clients were artists (Jake Chapman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster), and the houses he built for them and others caused a stir. Their dark, sometimes black exteriors (Noble and Webster’s place is called Dirty House) were offset inside by brightly colored rooms and unexpected sources of natural light, which he “harvested” in highly original ways. He has continued to work with artists (Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, Juergen Teller, and others), and Adjaye himself recently had a career retrospective—with models and drawings—at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Art Institute of Chicago. From the beginning, though, his real interest lay in doing public projects, the most important of which was his Idea Store Whitechapel, a transformative library in a multicultural section of the East End. Conceived as a new kind of information and community center, it has a green, blue, and clear glass exterior, light-filled spaces, and an indoor-outdoor escalator that attract some three-quarters of a million visitors a year, many of whom would never have thought of going to a library before.
The Idea Store put Adjaye on the global map for innovative architecture, and he’s been winning commissions and major competitions (and losing some, too—such as the new building for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) at an accelerating rate ever since. His work has always had a few detractors. Some have found it unduly harsh; others felt he had come too far too fast. A London TV journalist, Janet Street-Porter, attacked him in print over some leaks in a house he had designed for her, calling him “someone I dream of regularly ritually disemboweling.” In the Guardian, Rowan Moore complained that Adjaye’s vision paid insufficient attention to practical details, “as if he is too easily persuaded by his own eloquence.” And, of course, people carp about an African-American museum being designed by an architect who is African but not American. The attacks hurt Adjaye, but they don’t slow him down. His more recent successes include the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, his first really big project, which led directly to his being put on the list for the African-American museum in Washington.
Working at warp speed throughout his 30s and 40s, Adjaye had little time for a private life. As he matured, gaining confidence without losing his youthful buoyancy, he had become immensely charming—good-looking, highly articulate, quick-witted, smoothly persuasive, an astute listener with what the curator and fashion designer Duro Olowu calls his “individual yet effortless” personal style. There were plenty of girlfriends. In 2005, he met Ashley Shaw-Scott, a young Stanford graduate, born in San Francisco. She came to a lecture he was giving in New York and stayed afterward to meet him. Although she declined his invitation to dinner, he kept thinking about her. Eventually they became friends, and later more than friends. In 2014 they were married, twice—first in a traditional Ghanaian ceremony in Adjaye’s Marylebone architectural office, and the next day in St. Paul’s Cathedral, with Chris Ofili as David’s best man. Their first child, Kwame, came along a year later. Ashley, who had been a Ford model before going on to receive graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and the INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, outside Paris, is now the head of research at Adjaye Associates. David travels as much as ever, but their agreement is never to be apart for more than ten days. “That’s the rule, and we try to make it more like five days,” he says. Their home base is a surprisingly haute bourgeois London flat overlooking the Thames. They recently rented an apartment in Harlem, where they’re looking to buy a house, and they own beachfront land in Accra, where they will eventually build.
On a Friday afternoon in March, I’m in the conference room of Adjaye’s New York City office at Broadway and Canal Street. The long wall is covered with renderings and other materials relating to the Obama Presidential Center, the official name for the president’s future library and archive on the underprivileged South Side of Chicago. As one of the short-listed candidates (the others are Renzo Piano, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SHoP Architects, Snøhetta, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, John Ronan), the Adjaye team is about to make its formal presentation to the Obama Foundation, and they are meeting this afternoon with a professional coach to help them give it their best shot. “This is front burner right now,” Adjaye tells me. “They want it to be more than just an archive. They want it to be a center for the community, for activism, for debates. I’ve looked at all the presidential libraries, and there’s nothing like what’s being discussed here. Up until now, presidents just choose who they wanted and got on with it; they didn’t have a competition. But Obama is doing a very different thing. He’s making it a public process.”
Adjaye is intensely focused, leaning forward and talking rapidly. The community-center aspect is what his own work has so often reflected in projects like the Idea Store and Sugar Hill, his recently opened, low- and mixed-income residential building in a historic Harlem community. “The president doesn’t want to make a building that’s glorifying him, a monument, but one that serves the greatest needs,” he continues. “To me, it’s a very powerful message to the world about what you can do with architecture.”
America will be seeing more and more of Adjaye’s work. In addition to the completed Sugar Hill housing and community-development project, he has designed a 60-story residential tower at the other end of Manhattan, on William Street in the old financial district, “right next to” Frank Gehry’s rippling, 76-story building on Spruce Street.
But Adjaye’s main New York City initiative right now is designing a new building for the Studio Museum in Harlem. “This is a unique museum because it’s about studio practice,” he tells me. “It’s about artists being embedded in the institution, creating work, and then celebrating it in that space. At the moment, that side of it is not expressed. In the new building, there will be studios by the front window on 125th Street, so the artists can look out, and you’ll be able to see them.” Thelma Golden, the museum’s dynamic director and chief curator, observes that “David’s vision has always been incredibly broad but also incredibly deep, and at this point in his career and his life, the broad thinking and the deep thinking are coming together.”
A lot of Adjaye’s thinking these days is about Africa. Fifteen years ago, he started making frequent trips to the continent, visiting 54 different cities and taking multiple photographs. A selection of these images was published in 2011, in a seven-volume collection called Adjaye Africa Architecture, and soon afterward he began working with private clients and government officials on building projects there. He’s done a beachfront house for former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Ghana, and the Alara Concept Store in Lagos, Nigeria. He’s currently working on a slavery museum in Cape Coast, Ghana; a state-of-the-art children’s cancer hospital and teaching center in Kigali, Rwanda, the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa; a World Bank headquarters in Dakar; and a high-rise apartment building in a former “no-go zone” of Johannesburg. Like all his African buildings, the “Jo-burg” project is largely self-sufficient and designed for a hot climate. “It’s not a sheer glass building,” he says. “It’s all inside-outside space, very layered and lush, with a garden all around it. It has a special membrane roof that protects residents from the harsh sun, but it’s virtually carbon-neutral and generates almost all its own energy.”
As Adjaye approaches 50, he is more and more interested in the way entire cities are made. He has designed long-range master plans for Libreville, the capital of Gabon, and for a town in West Ghana. (Both are on hold because the steep decline in oil prices has crippled the economy in each country.) Meanwhile, he has just won the commission to turn the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco into a new town for 40,000 people—mostly lower income employees of Silicon Valley. It will have libraries, child-care centers, a neighborhood museum, art parks, restaurants, and offices. Like New York City and London, San Francisco has lately become too expensive for ordinary working people to live in.
“I’m just a teenager in terms of architecture,” Adjaye says, with his warm, all-encompassing laugh. “It takes you 20 years to rehearse before you can actually say that you know what you’re talking about, or that people can trust you with vast amounts of money. I always think I’m just beginning, but I’ve made it through. I feel like now I’m at the height of my abilities.”