Acclaimed British architect David Adjaye was awarded The Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year award in 2017 for his design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2010, the star architect collaborated with the museum to stage the exhibition David Adjaye: Urban Africa, and this spring, the duo join forces once more for another thought-provoking showcase. Here, Maria McLintock, Assistant Curator of David Adjaye: Making Memory, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition.
Why are monuments important in contemporary life?
“Monuments are a reflection of the values that we hold today. The complexity of their material and symbolic presence is contingent on the shifting disparity between the belief and value systems of individuals that exist in a shared society. Nowadays, there is a deep-rooted tension at the very core of what monuments are and what they should represent. In Western Europe and North America, some are calling for Commonwealth and Confederate monuments to be placed in museums, others for their destruction. In India, an intense debate is taking place over the construction of the three tallest monuments in the world honouring ‘crucibles’ of the Hindu Nationalist Movement. It’s a very rich yet painful subject, and one that Adjaye approaches with generosity and awareness. Adjaye has a strong critical and ethical awareness of the meaning behind his own memorialising buildings, and what it is he is remembering. Their very form, the site in which they are located, the inclusion of learning centres to expand on topics too complex to be captured through architecture alone and the collaborators he chooses to work with on such projects, are all involved in a dialogue woven throughout his design process.”
How can design and architecture be used as tools for storytelling?
“This is a central tenet to the buildings Adjaye has selected for the exhibition, and one we have endeavoured to illustrate in many ways. One example is The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture which draws on two important strands of African history. Firstly, it honours the contribution of African American slaves to the ornate ironwork common in the southern states of the US during the height of the antebellum south – the majority of ironwork in cities like New Orleans and Charleston was designed and produced by black slaves. Adjaye’s team isolated common patterns in this historical ironwork and used them to create a new geometry for the museum’s external skin, platforming the craftsmanship of individuals lost to history. Secondly, the material and colour of these panels is influenced by metal plaques and sculptures in the Royal Palace of Benin in, what is now known as, Nigeria. These are just two examples of many where Adjaye has literally woven history and storytelling through the very fabric of a building.”
How did you approach the task of featuring seven very different architectural projects in one exhibition?
“With much thought and intellectual labour, and through close collaboration with the team at Adjaye Associates and Adjaye himself. The biggest concern was how we could accurately communicate the unique and highly emotive power of Adjaye’s buildings, tackling as they do a multitude of complex historical events and movements. In each room we have included a reproduced and immersive ‘fragment’ of the original building. For example, in the case of the Sclera Pavilion built in 2008, we have a beautiful 1:1 fragment of the tulipwood folly. Elsewhere, we commissioned the only Asante umbrella craftsperson to create a series of umbrellas for the National Cathedral of Ghana room. The Asante umbrella largely inspired Adjaye’s design of the building’s impressive roof.”
What are some of the highlights of the exhibition?
“We have a very moving carving by stone-carver Tim Lees in the room dedicated to the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory, a monument that remembers the species that have gone extinct since the Dodo. The carving depicts the now extinct gastric brooding frog and the idea is that the interior of the memorial would be lined with such carvings and made of Portland stone, a material containing the fossilised remains of species gone extinct in previous extinction periods. Another highlight for me is the Gwangju River Reading Room bookshelf. Adjaye was invited to design a structure that responded to the South Korean city of Gwangju’s 10-day uprising in May 1980, which resulted in the massacre of hundreds of students and citizens. Collaborating with the writer Taiye Selasi, Adjaye designed a public reading room which, through the exchange of books and ideas, keeps the memory of those who died alive. We have an interactive 1:1 fragment of the building’s bookshelf, containing a curated list of books by Selasi.”
What would you like visitors to take away from this exhibition?
“A deeper understanding of the ways a building can shape our perception of events, and how architecture, rather than words, can be used to tell stories.”