Sir David Adjaye on the power of architecture, from the Smithsonian to Harlem

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Sir David Adjaye reflects on the significance of the “overdue” African-American history museum, the emergence of an African-Western architecture, improving social housing and his “Golden Rule” for making better buildings.

The architect Sir David Adjaye was born in Tanzania to a Ghanaian diplomat who taught him, as Adjaye tells DnA’s Frances Anderton, that “the world is polyphonous and diasporic.” He studied in London and found his first clients in Britain’s art world.

He went on to design private homes, public housing, museums, a management center in Moscow as well as products and furniture and many other buildings, all rich in interplay of materials, light – and ideas. He’s a “kind of a cultural mixmaster,” says architecture writer Ian Volner, adding that Adjaye is able to achieve a “deft intermingling of artistic and aesthetic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa with Western monumentalism with something something faintly modernistic.”

Last year was a game changer: Adjaye received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and then came the opening of his most important commission to date: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

“That day when we opened and Barack came, Bush came, Clinton came, it was like this extraordinary moment. I brought my mother who is in her 80s, and we sat there watching this thing and started crying. It was the most powerful experience that I’d ever had in my life. You realize that you’d become part of an important piece of history,” he said.

“I was so upset that it took so long to make this project… I think the community has always been in this second-class position. It’s only post-Civil Rights that it’s started to have a chance to have a voice in the front seat… there’s been a struggle to feel like they are equal in the idea of America. It’s really interesting how architecture is part of the symbolism that creates that sense of being in the front seat. There are just simply not any monuments that celebrate or talk about who they are and what they’ve done to build America. Labor and building cities and building America was one of the most direct ways in which the black community contributed and professionalized themselves.”

An exhibition of his work, called Form, Heft, Material, is currently on display at the Garage Museum in Gorky Park in Moscow; and he has been appointed by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan to a group of architects who will advise on improving the city’s housing quality and availability, following public outrage over the Grenfell Tower fire.

Adjaye talks to DnA about the impact of the Smithsonian museum; the power of light and craft in a digital age; the emergence of a fresh architectural language, uniting African, African-America and Western traditions; why his first project in the U.S. was housing for the underserved in Harlem; and his “Golden Rule” for making better buildings.