November 27th, 2011
The Miami Herald
Design Miami's Designer of the Year: architect David Adjaye
by Beth Dunlop
To be sure, the brilliant British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye was not an obvious choice as Design Miami's Designer of the Year. Unlike most of his predecessors, he has designed very few pieces of furniture or objects, except as part of a total architectural environment. And although he has designed for both artists and collectors (among them artists Lorna Simpson and James Casebere, painter Chris Ofili, director Spike Lee and collector Adam Lindeman and his gallerist/wife Amalia Dayan), his work is not in itself the object of collecting desire.
He has designed the acclaimed Denver Museum of Contemporary Art and has one of this country's most important museum commissions, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American Culture and History (NMAACH) which will sit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. His work shapes galleries, but it's not - for the most part -on display in them.
"What's very interesting about David is his way of collaboration," says Design Miami's new director Marianne Goebl. "For him, collaboration is a way of expression."
The Designer of the Year selection is always accompanied by a commission. To this end, Adjaye has designed a pavilion titled Genesis that stands as the entrance to the Design Miami tent just across the parking lots to the west of the Miami Beach Convention Center and the main Art Basel Miami Beach exhibitions. It is a timber-frame prismatic equilateral triangle that deals with such heady concepts as "enclosure, aperture, views, respite, meditation and community" but also offers (more mundanely but no less necessarily) places to sit and escape the sun, rain or crowds.
Born in Tanzania to a Ghanian diplomatic family, Adjaye was educated in England. He has been awarded the Order of the British Empire, and he is young (just 44) for such a distinction. His principal practice is based in London, but he also has offices in Berlin and New York. He has just published a multi-volume work, African Metropolitan Architecture, with the international art and architecture publisher Rizzoli; it is a major work, the result of 10 years of travel to 53 African countries. Among his other important commissions are the Moscow School of Management and the Nobel Peace Center.
"He was a less obvious choice," says developer and collector Craig Robins, Design Miami principal, "and yet it was a phenomenal and important selection. He has such a profound sense of design and profound sense of community." Robins has purchased Adjaye's Genesis, with the idea of re-installing it at some later point in the Miami Design District.
Adjaye is also reflective, thoughtful and most eloquent. We spoke with him about his life, work and ideas. Q. First and foremost, you are an architect, but your work encompasses so much more than that. How would you describe what you do?
I would say that I work in a creative industry - not just architecture - that is diverse, with many voices and different references coming into the canon. I'm driven by the work, but I'm also driven by my need for the work to have something more, to be something more. It is a transitional occupation.Q. Could you tell us about the pavilion you are making for Design Miami? What was the inspiration? What are the ideas behind it?
I have always been fascinated by the idea of creating a complete and immersive environment through the use of a single material. Genesis is an exploration of this and a taste of the essence and ambition of my work. Windows, doors, structure and seating fuse – like a giant piece of architectural furniture - expressed as a series of timber frames that work together and through compression, provide the overall structure.Q. You've designed homes for both artists and collectors, which is quite a collaborative process. Do you enjoy such collaborations? Can you describe the process?
I often collaborate with artists, collectors and curators - whether on the design of exhibition spaces, their homes or by including artists in the core design team. The driver is always the cultural and creative discourse that extends far beyond the buildings, themselves. I believe that this broad cultural base generates work that is socially dynamic and more absorbing.Q. What traditional architectural materials do you particularly enjoy working with (i.e. glass, bronze, wood)? What new materials?
I pay great attention to materials and my work is often distinguished by its eclectic palette. I very much enjoy working with wood – Genesis is a good example of this -and we are also exploring the use of bronze on the façade of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington - a historical reference to African American craftsmanship. Materials can be one of the most emotive tools. New materials are equally as powerful as traditional materials. It is often the juxtaposition that offers a unique perspective on composition and materiality.Q. Tell us a bit about the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
This project is extraordinary on many levels and I feel honored to be working on it. Like much of my work, our ambition is to create a widely democratic and inviting space for Washington. I see the idea of making a museum as about making a public space, not just making a public building.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver is unique in its organizing principles and also in its use of materials.
MCA Denver was not only my first American project but also my first major museum project. It has great significance for me. I had long been invested in the art world – through collaborations and having many artists as clients - and this was an opportunity to become further involved in that dialogue. To build a facility that would contribute to the discourse and explore the typology, was extremely compelling.
I wanted to continue the trajectory of the discourse on what a museum could and should be and to establish a kind of co-authoring relationship with the art. There are a series of spaces that are crafted for different art practices and we tried to encourage a sense of intimacy with the art rather than the feeling of trawling a giant archive. There is also the relationship with the city, through the roof terrace, view corridors and public spaces.
The building is also like a mini-version of the city. You never go from one exhibition space to another: You always come out into a kind of street and then you meander into another exhibition space. The way in which you are seeing art is almost like being in a little village or little town.Q. Your work is modern, yet it draws from a variety of influences. Can you discuss some of these influences, such as traditional African architecture and craft?
I draw inspiration from many sources. I am a British-Ghanian architect and I borrow much from this heritage. I was educated in the UK – so my practice has also been informed by this training. Every project follows a unique conception and sometimes the influences can be quite literal – or alternatively the connections can be less linear. The Smithsonian project is rich in literal references – such as the Yoruba sculpture, the traditional African American bronze craftsmanship and the idea of the porch. The Moscow School of Management, however, was less directly inspired. There were various [influences] - from my research project in Africa to Russian art history.