David Adjaye at the Design Museum
Matthew Lloyd Roberts glimpses the workings of a deeply original and exciting architect at “David Adjaye: Making Memory”
Exhibitions about a singular architect have to be careful not to lapse into hagiography – the recent Renzo Piano show at the Royal Academy is a prime example of almost elegiac over-enthusiasm from its curators. It is an understandable pitfall for such exhibitions to stumble into. They rely on cultivating good relationships with architectural practices which in turn give them access to the otherwise inaccessible material that makes their shows worth visiting. Happily, this new show at the Design Museum which examines the construction of meaning in the architecture of David Adjaye OBE manages to mostly keep on the right side of hagiography.
The first room of the exhibition is dominated by a double wall spread of large black and white photographs of memorialising architectures. The next is cast reassuringly wide, ranging from Edwin Lutyens’ Thiepval, to Easter Island Moai, to the iconic picture of Sadam Hussein’s statue being torn down in Baghdad. These images set a tone for the broader, more global senses of meaning that Adjaye’s work attempts to address. As he remarks in the opening pitch, ‘Rather than the imperialist idea of enshrining a singular view, I am interested in exploring the democratisation of the monument.’ This is a perfect framing reflection for a series of architectural projects that often memorialise the victims of a variety of singularising ideologies.
The first project in the exhibition is Adjaye’s 2013 Gwangju River Reading Room, commemorating hundreds of South Korean pro-democracy protesters murdered by the state in May 1980. The project comprises a striking black wooden canopy, erected over four enormous concrete bookshelves. Adjaye’s keen eye for materiality is at its best here. It is a common trick in Brutalist architecture of the late 60s and 70s to pour concrete into rough wooden formwork, so that it sets and maintains the complex texture of the wood (stroke the walls next time you visit the National Theatre). This trope is played with in the exhibition room, which is dominated by a facsimile of one of the concrete bookshelves made out of wood and painted black, thus mimicking an inversion of the wooden ‘mould’ into which the concrete would have originally been poured, whilst simultaneously giving some sense of the scale of the project.
Another moment of compelling scale comes with a full size copy of a section of Adjaye’s tulipwood secular chapel for the Southbank. Comparisons of the plan to Borromini and the human eye felt a little on the empty side, but there was something very pleasing about experiencing the materiality of a 1:1 fragment of this project.
One of Adjaye’s most interesting confrontations with the question of meaning in architecture comes with his Smithsonian museum of African American History and Culture. The great critique of architectural modernism, undertaken by Robert Venturi and others during the broadly ‘post-modern’ turn in architectural theory from the late 60s onwards was that modernist architecture had attempted to eschew the meaningful and symbolic function of historicist architectural styles. In the 80s this theoretical framework emerged as a light and frothy but inescapably twee mode that alluded to classical forms as the sole available source of meaning.
This is why Adjaye’s Smithsonian project is so interesting. Early on in the 20th century a campaign group had fought for a museum of African American history in DC, and proposed a polite neoclassical design that reverentially reflected the architecture of the Capitol. Adjaye’s design rejects the elements and forms of classicism as the source of architectural meaning, instead turning to African American culture and heritage. As a result we get a magnificent three-tiered mirroring of the crowns of Yoruba sculptures of West Africa, hung with enormous ornamental metal grilles, alluding to the ornamental metalwork that defined the architecture of the antebellum deep south. The inclusion of an architecturally integrated Yoruba sculpture in the exhibition brings home the richness of the sources to which Adjaye alludes, and the strength of feeling and pertinence of the resulting work.
The exhibition treads very lightly in its consideration of Adjaye’s proposed design for a Holocaust memorial next door to the Houses of Parliament. The unbuilt memorial is largely subterranean, with concerns raised by some commentators about the potential for flooding from the adjacent Thames. Furthermore the Royal Parks have submitted to Westminster planning authority that the memorial as envisaged will damage the park, which is itself grade II listed. This is where the curatorial voice is at its least distanced from the architect himself – there is no way to frame this project in this kind of exhibition that takes into account some of the critiques that have been made of this proposal – if it were a finished project with some temporal distance, there might have been room for greater discussion.
Another unbuilt project that is given well deserved prominence in the exhibition is the National Cathedral of Ghana in Accra. The room is dramatically hung with traditional red and yellow umbrellas, used in rituals of kingship. The centre of the room is dominated by a large wooden model of the cathedral, complete with intricately carved palm trees. The upturned swoosh of the roofline communicates across the room with another object of ritual importance in Ghanaian politics and religion, an immaculately crafted stool. The incorporation of these elements, along with a print by Godfried Donkor, speaks again of the richness of Adjaye’s sources, and the intersections between his design programme and art practice.
Adjaye’s new design for a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Boston Common is given scant space at the end of the exhibition, sandwiched behind his design for a memorial to extinct species. The monument is inspired by one of King’s last speeches, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’, and incorporates the text of that speech into large panels, scattered haphazardly across the common, to be overlooked by a walkway mimicking the eponymous mountaintop. The curatorial choice to play the audio of the speech in this part of the exhibition was a brilliant, raw and emotional touch, but a stronger hand might have brought out a more cohesive narrative between the stories of loss and struggle that underpin so many of these monumental projects.
The inclusion of Eisenman’s Berlin holocaust memorial in the opening montage of monuments feels particularly relevant when Adjaye discusses his approach to spatial experience in the video clips scattered throughout the exhibition. At the Smithsonian, the experiential ascent from darkness in to light makes a comment on the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the United States; similarly the Holocaust memorial proposed by Adjaye begins with a descent into the ground, between enormous jagged shards of bronze. An incorporation of symbolic spatial experience into these works feels a compelling addition into a conception of ‘meaning’ in architecture that focuses on the power of allusion in form and element.
This exhibition is an interesting snapshot into the workings of a deeply original and exciting architect, whose career feels mid-swing. The inclusion of unfinished projects makes for an exciting glimpse of things still to come, and the whole show manages to strike an engaging tone, rather than feeling like a triumphalist victory lap. The question at the centre of his work, about architecture’s communicative power, and the attempts that must be made to wrest architectural meaning away from a traditional narratives of power, will remain pertinent for many years to come. There are still things to be ‘worked through’ in Adjaye’s method, and no doubt some may suggest that it is a little early for a one-man exhibition-retrospective of his work, but for me that is exactly what makes Adjaye, and this show, so exciting.
David Adjaye: Making Memory at the Design Museum runs until 5 May 2019. For more information, visit the website here.