In a World of Brutal Urbanism, Can a Home be a Refuge?
Acclaimed architect David Adjaye reflects on what kinds of homes we build, and how we live in them.
By Emmanuel Iduma
In the course of the nearly thirty years of his practice, Sir David Adjaye’s projects have been realized on five continents. They include cultural and historical landmarks—such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., and the planned Holocaust Memorial, in London—and sites that show the possibilities of civic engagement, such as the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and the new building for the Studio Museum in Harlem. His practice, based in New York, London, and Accra, is like a body, he says, “implanting itself globally across many geographies.”
During a recent conversation with the writer Emmanuel Iduma, Adjaye was most impassioned when he spoke of drastic changes ahead, in which cities of the future will be increasingly brutal. He has the credentials to make these claims. An artist’s architect, Adjaye has worked with Chris Ofili, Lorna Simpson, and Olafur Eliasson, all of whom push the boundaries of the imagination. Yet it seems clear to him that there are distinctions to make with regard to scale: between the domestic and official, the intimate and public. Here, Adjaye, whose own photographs of architecture in Africa and around the world have been collected in books and shared widely on Instagram, reflects on the sensibilities that inform what kinds of homes we build, and how we live in them. Change might be inevitable, but Adjaye believes the home must be designed as a refuge.
Emmanuel Iduma: When you begin designing a home, what kind of visual references do you use, and how do you approach that kind of research?
David Adjaye: It’s quite a specific task, especially if you have the luxury of being able to make a home at the beginning of the twenty- first century. For me, it’s not so much about visual references or trying to make relationships to other things, but really about starting from the inside out, moving from the person to the enclosure. In a way, the idea of making homes is about what I call a “unique intimacy.” We don’t do homes like you see in big magazines. We do them for some very particular people who want to create intimate scenarios.
The research comes from the place that they want to make their home, whatever that idea is, and then we move out from there. If you look at the houses that we’ve done, there’s always either a reference to the local area, or to the construction, or to the materiality. But more than that, which is the last part of that layer, it’s this kind of reference to the person, or the couple, or the family, whether it’s about art, or a certain kind of labor, or a certain kind
Iduma: Your 2011 book, African Metropolitan Architecture, includes numerous photographs that you made throughout the continent. How do photographs by artists or architectural photographers, or even your own photographs, play into your design process, and help you develop your thinking on architecture and urbanism?
Adjaye: Photography is critically important to me because photography is not just images of places, but it encodes within the eye of the photographer a whole set of information that really captures the narrative about a time, or a place, or a form, or an object, or an experience, or even just a sensation.
When I was making my journey around the continent, I was shooting and cropping and editing my images very specifically. They had a certain kind of casual manner, because I was making a critique against a kind of highly choreographed photography. I was very specific and deliberate. Those images are taken in an honest way to share exactly how I look at things, and how that information is constantly in a feedback loop with me. They are shot a certain way to give me thoughts about a certain region, or a certain place, or to trigger certain emotions about a place. And they are constantly reused to delve into issues that I’m very interested in.
Iduma: The first major project that you designed in the United States, Pitch Black, was the artist Lorna Simpson’s studio in Brooklyn. I’m curious whether her work informed the building of the studio, or whether, in general, your relationships with artists inform the homes, the studios, and even the museums that you build?
Adjaye: Lorna is probably one of my favorite artists in the world. She asked me to work on her studio with her partner at the time, Jim Casebere. I was fascinated by both of their practices. The project was drawn from her incredible gazes, these gazes of the phenomenon of architecture and the phenomenon of the body in architectural space, and the way in which the body can be dismembered to have narratives about memory and cultural scenarios.
So the building is a kind of game in that way. It’s really a fragment of a set piece, which has to do with how close it is to a church and a rectory. When you look at that building, it’s really a composition about religion and black culture, and then the reappropriation of topology, the phenomenon of form, the use of different space—those are all working through it. And it’s really a direct critique/discourse with her work in a very profound way.
Iduma: I am also thinking about an interview you granted to the Design Museum, where you were speaking about the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., and one of the things you say is that you wanted to create a design that transforms the museum from a viewing experience into a narrative experience. Does this particular form of museology also impact the kind of work you do with artists or museums, if you’re thinking critically about the kind of storytelling experience that a viewer can have?
Adjaye: Absolutely. Museums have gone so far as to become almost an archive of history; I think that the complexity of our time has been missing from the way in which museums have organized their spatial narrative. In making the Smithsonian, I really wanted to avoid that problem. I wanted to make content that, even though it’s dense, has a kind of trajectory and a direction to it, for people to really engage in increments—in bite-size pieces, knowing where the story is and how to sample it. Almost all my public projects have a curatorial or narrative base to do with trying to impart some kind of experience through other media.
Iduma: Yes. Perhaps that’s a good place to segue into talking about this turn from designing residential spaces to designing public spaces. Is the process similar, or is it different?
Adjaye: They share a common kind of research root, but they are, to me, expressed very differently. Public spaces really are about speaking to the time and to the powerful narratives that are in the space. And residential spaces are slightly different, because they have to do with the kind of changing nature of the city, and the different densities. The residential buildings are more about a kind of specific beauty, and the public spaces are about a kind of collective beauty.
Iduma: I was reflecting on your ideas in relation to the work you did with Carriage House 2010 with Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan, who are art collectors. They were collecting work that normally would fit in museums, institutional spaces, and now they wanted a space in which they could live with this kind of work. You speak about this “schizophrenia,” as you called it, between the domestic and the institutional, or the domestic (in my own thinking) and the undomestic. Do you still think about those kinds of distinctions?
Adjaye: Adam and Amalia’s house—that’s something almost iconic in my portfolio. Really an assessment of the blur between the two worlds. In a way, their kind of ravenous attempt at collecting at the institutional as well as the domestic scale was fascinating for me, because that’s the schizophrenia that I thought was extraordinary—collecting for the home, the palace built with specific pieces, the ravenous idea to collect what is relevant irrespective of the scale. So the house is a dialogue between the institutional-commercial scale and the residential. In the entire house, there’s nothing in the sense of conventional proportion; it’s either exaggerated or extremely intricate. It avoids the middle ground.
Iduma: One other idea that I’m interested in with relation to photography is the idea of the vernacular, which has always been important in photography, and seems to be equally important to the London homes you designed, like Glass House or Dirty House, both from 2002, or even the more recent National Museum of African American History and Culture. I am curious if you still think about these notions of the vernacular, and how they might not only inform your material sources, but, say, show up in 130 William, your current high-rise project in New York.
Adjaye: In a way, my work has a kind of new vernacular. [Laughs] It’s kind of like a new body that’s implanting itself globally across many geographies, but it’s actually a new reading of the body. And it’s an attempt to rescript the dominance of Western architecture and to hybridize it, to implicate it with other phenomenology. It always assumes some of what I call a “slip” with the existing conditions and also, at the same time, a resonance. That’s deliberate.
Iduma: Is this something in particular that you’re thinking about in relation to the design of the new Studio Museum in Harlem?
Adjaye: Yes. It’s such an important moment. It’s a critical mark in the sand, especially after the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is a federal project. This is a project that was generated within a city by a group of supporters and patrons and was eventually supported by the city, recognizing that it is fundamentally important. For diverse communities and communities of color who find themselves in the minority, it’s a big statement. So, for me, it’s like the first big cultural open house in New York—the first real one for black people.
There are all these institutions, but in a way, they were built not really for the audience of black folk or brown folk. They were built exclusively for a certain idea of the population. That’s the kind of context of being an immigrant, you hybridize—in that Du Boisian sense—you can inhabit many bodies and be in many spaces. But it feels really wonderful to be able to make a space that is not about trying to assimilate into a dominant culture; it’s kind of the other way around. So, in a way, everything about the Studio Museum originates from the profound experience of Harlem, and being in Harlem, and the time that has passed now, and the hybridization that has happened with the architecture, which was built by Europeans.
Adjaye: But hybridized by people of color across the entire spectrum, and remade in a different way. Rescripting what’s already happened. This is one of those moments where the rescripting now presents the opportunity of an architecture, because the rescripting, the appropriating, has been kind of completed, so that it makes its own reference, and then reimagines the city another way, which allows the city to go, “What the hell is that?” But it doesn’t realize that it’s actually from itself. It’s birthed from the very premise of the city, but the way in which the city creates suppression can also birth a form that is surprising, generous, and opportunistic.
Iduma: I imagine it’s a tenuous connection, but I am thinking about the notion of intimacy in your architecture and this idea of thinking about the body as some kind of metaphorical notion that guides the work you do. If one can make connections between, say, the buildings that you are making as some kind of body and the notion of intimacy in architecture, in general.
Adjaye: Completely. I think understanding the body as architecture is a very central way to understand what I am doing. It’s a very West African way of thinking, actually, that people don’t realize. Most of West Africa is the city as the body—the architecture is really about the body. It’s about the face, the arms; it’s about the organs, the systems. People look at the architecture of West Africa—what is left, what wasn’t destroyed—and they think of it as a kind of material primitive but actually don’t realize the sophistication, which was about the whole way in which you organized the society.
Adjaye: Especially in a metropolitan world, where everything is being mixed, do we make a machine aesthetic of the city, which is simply a tool, a machine to be used? Is architecture simply a machine for living in? Or is architecture an extension of the body? And I am interested in the latter.
So intimacy is profoundly at the heart of my work. And that intimacy has to do with the idea of the person in the construction called space, called the city, called whatever typology. Yes?
Iduma: Yes. Thinking about typology, I just want to go back to your thinking around the photographer J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s work. It is possible to think that there is a so-called disjuncture between the buildings and the headgear or hairstyles. But some scholars have argued that there is no disjuncture there, that it’s essentially the same vision—the attempt to capture with compositional acuity what towers above.
Iduma: Are there other photographers’ works where you’ve seen that kind of through line between how the body is depicted, and then how buildings, or how landscape in general,
Adjaye: I am not a photography expert, but I have a particular fascination with that generation that was post-independence, and the way in which they were trying to deal with the past and potentially project a body of work that speaks to the future. James Barnor is really that kind of photographer for me—he photographs West Africans in London, and speaks about the hybridity of West Africans in London, but also photographs the West Africans in independence architecture. I am interested in them because of this relationship between the ideas of figure and space, and the way in which they try to speak about the connectivity of it. I think that the trajectory of West Africa specifically, if it hadn’t been colonized, would have been really powerful in helping the world to understand how to make that architecture.
Iduma: Could you speak about your concerns with gentrification, particularly if there is a difference for you between the idea of housing and the idea of home?
Adjaye: Gentrification is a big topic, and it’s a trauma. There’s gentrification that is the opportunity of capitalism and its horrible desire to gain as much as possible—especially now at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I always say that we’ve forgotten that we’ve moved from a population of one to eight billion in a hundred years, which has never happened in the history of humanity. We’ve gotten bigger in a hundred years than in the previous ten thousand years. And we have just started to invent tools to deal with this extraordinary explosion. People talk about housing shortages. In a hundred years’ time, that magnitude is going to be even more profoundly acute, because we simply cannot build fast enough for the population explosion that’s happening through the advances in medical science.
So the planet is going to change, and our ideas of the city are going to radically change. The privilege of saying “I want my space to look like what it always looked like” is a kind of hopeless fantasy, to be honest. It’s a kind of wonderful fantasy, and it’s romantic but not sustainable. There’s the lack of ability to build in what has become of the city, and we don’t want to make any more suburbs. We have to aggregate and, in fact, shrink in the center.
Record the city now, because in a hundred years it will not look like this. It is all going to change because we simply have changed as a civilization on this planet, and either we are going to destroy the planet by taking over all the land, or we’re going to change it, we’re going to shift it. And, you know, capitalism, and the way in which it creates value, has a little check in it. Markets collapse and restart. I always say to people, “Don’t believe capitalism; it’s a kind of game.” So, yes, I am completely invested in thinking about the trauma of gentrification, especially in communities that are the least able to resist change—I am totally empathetic. But I also realize that just holding on to what it is, exactly as it is, is not the answer.
Iduma: I feel like I would call that a pre-apocalyptic vision.
Iduma: But what then?
Adjaye: It’s not quite the apocalypse. The apocalypse is much, much worse. [Laughs]
Iduma: What kind of sensibilities do you think will be important to develop when thinking about home going into the next fifty years, or even twenty-five years?
Adjaye: For me, the crisis of the home is in this idea of the refuge, or the respite. If New York, or Manhattan, is a model of the relentlessness of how the city can punish the body, it’s a warning at the same time of the brutality of the city against the body in the future. If you’re lucky, you can create a refuge, which is your shield against the city. If you’re making homes, they have to become no longer just components of the city, but refuges. They are a battery recharge for the body before going back into the world—restorative, committed to nature, connected to a source of individuality that allows the body to breathe.
Iduma: Finally, I wanted to ask about your use of Instagram. You call your page a “visual sketchbook,” or that’s the name of your account. I’m curious what have been the peculiar pleasures of sharing the mélange of built forms you encounter in the course of your travels, and how that has informed your practice since you started using Instagram.
Adjaye: Instagram allows me to perform one of my public duties as a public person. I don’t have any interest in Instagram as a kind of business tool or extension of myself. As I’ve become more successful in what I’m doing, I don’t have time to be in schools and teaching in the way that I used to. Instagram became a tool where I could simply share what is going on in the lens of my eyes and my thoughts with anybody who was interested in my work. So instead of waiting to hear from me at a lecture, a young kid in Malawi, or in Vietnam, or in the Philippines can actually know what I’m doing and what I’m looking at. I think as a public person who is making form in the city, it’s a responsibility.
The documentation and the making of images become part of a collective memory, the memory that informs the next generation. I am making a body of images that I hope becomes a kind of reflexive space, one that allows another generation to look at a body of references that’s different from the canon that they’re supposed to look at. I hope that mine will give them another way of looking.
Emmanuel Iduma is a writer based in New York and Lagos and is the author, most recently, of A Stranger’s Pose (2018).