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Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye review

Blueprint

Art Institute of Chicago
Until 3 January
Review by Shumi Bose

Right now it's a crucial moment for British Ghanaian architect Adjaye to have a large retrospective exhibition in the USA, and particularly in Chicago. Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye is a restaging of the largest retrospective of the architect's career, first presented under the title Form, Heft, Material in Munich at the Haus der Kunst earlier this year.

In the US, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture - of which Adjaye is the lead designer, and which will soon be completed in Washington DC - is perhaps one of the most charged projects in the realm of new arts buildings in the western hemisphere.

Opposite the Washington Memorial in the National Mall, the new Smithsonian is more than a century in the making, from when it was first suggested by black veterans of the Civil War. That its design and execution is led by an architect of African, albeit British, extraction is a palatable fit, but one which places a considerable burden of cultural articulation on Adjaye's shoulders.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Adjaye has already built significant public buildings (including two libraries, see Blueprint 321, December 2012, and the recent Sugar Hill housing in Harlem) in the US, but the Smithsonian will push him into a new orbit of American consciousness.

And this is setting partly aside the persistent rumours (denied by the architect, of course) that he may receive an even hotter commission, the - 'Obama Library', which will be located in the sometime-deprived South Side neighbourhood of Chicago itself.

Making Place, then, has a sizeable job to do. In the context of a major, public-facing institution, the exhibition seeks to introduce the breadth and capacity of the Adjaye office to the general American public - and this it definitely does (the exhibition's name change itself indicates something of this agenda). Indeed most visitors, whether in the field of architecture or not, would likely be unfamiliar with all 50 built projects on display here -- that number itself is a tremendous feat for an architect of almost as many years.

Adjaye's career began in London through intimate collaborations with artists and fashion designers. The material quality and the economy that produced Adjaye's early houses - tight, resinous volumes that glowered among more inelegant, (at the time) grisly corners of East London - is shown to blossom into larger, ballsier projects that explore not only the architect's pursuit of the modernist idiom but also a savvy emergence on to a global stage, with projects in Moscow, Beirut and Houston to name but a few. Across projects ranging from Kofi Annan's beach house near Accra, to the forthcoming, dream-inspired ruby city of the Linda Pace gallery in Texas, the office shows itself more than capable of retaining a muscular, if subtle, thumbprint while adapting itself to geographic, climatic and cultural specificities.

There are several moments where the perennial problems of exhibiting architecture rear their heads. The 'first' room shows pristine, white models produced at the same scale and displayed on identical plinths. Much of the power of Adjaye's work lies in its handling of material and experience, these models - which are effective only in terms of volumetric and formal qualities - are displayed without context and so remain somewhat impenetrable. The second and - moving across the museum to another gallery - ensuing rooms follow a more conventional strategy, in which architecture models and fragments, like a piece of the textured and patterned bronze facade of the Smithsonian, are complemented by 'mood board' collages.

Displayed above and below a picture-rail painted on the walls, the arrangement of contextual and precedent images feels slightly dated, like a student pin-up, and editing this selection might have produced a more logical hierarchy of information.

The plethora of photographs, architecture drawings and art objects do however show a thinking process, showing how the architect arrives at the final form: a Yoruban sculpture with a spiked crown is echoed in the inverted ziggurat of the Smithsonian for example, while John Akomfrah's excellent film on cultural theorist Stuart Hall makes a sensitive complement to the display of Rivington Place, London, home to the Institute of International Visual Arts. Partly as a personal project, Adjaye spent considerable time in an 11-year period visiting and photographing a canvas of African cityscapes and urban architecture, amassing some 40,000 images in all.

These have previously been edited into exhibitions in their own right (Design Museum, 2010) and a book, but in this retrospective the body of work is staged through the least satisfying mode of display.

David Adjaye’s Dirty House art studio, Shoreditch, East London (2012)
David Adjaye's Dirty House art studio, Shoreditch, East London (2012)

Earlier this year, Adjaye explained to me part of the frustration which spurred on the project: many students and professionals across erudite colleges, particularly in the USA, were unaware of the sophistication of an urbane Africa, the Africa of burgeoning optimism, commerce and architectonic expression that Adjaye himself had witnessed in his youth. Though the individual images themselves are not of a particularly picturesque quality - Adjaye would be the first to admit that he is not a professional photographer - one would expect this collection to be presented as a mass, the overwhelming richness and startling diversity of which would make the case for an under-recognised 'Africa'.

Instead, the display of 15,000 edited photographs, loaded on to wall-mounted iPads, was an underwhelming and ill-chosen medium to demonstrate the volume and variety, and the particularities, of the architect's gaze. Swiping Tinder-style through one image at a time allows the viewer to assume a perfunctory appraisal, rather than illustrating contrast and acuity.

Happily, the exhibition ends with a full-scale installation of Adjaye's sensual Horizon pavilion - designed to exhibit a light piece by artist Olafur Eliasson at the 2005 Venice Biennale of Art as Your Black Horizon. It is through visceral experience that Adjaye's work has the greatest and most successful resonance. The deftness with which the visitor is lured in and around the corners of the pavilion's angular internal volumes, the rhythmic play of light and obscurity between wooden slats, the unapologetically modulated floor, encapsulate the real quality of Adjaye's work, in producing, through careful concern for material and tectonics, a confident, affecting and culturally aware architecture of experience.

Main image: Edmund Sumner