David Adjaye talks to Lisa Fletcher

The architect behind the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture talks about his designs

Lisa Fletcher: There is a lot of racial tension in America right now. How do you integrate past, present and future into your designs, like the one for the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History?

David Adjaye: It's amazing that architecture can start to negotiate some of these things.

I believe that for architecture to be emotionally relevant to people, that there has to be a connection, [that] there has to be a relationship, that architecture cannot be autonomous. If it's not connected to the lives of people, the histories of people, I think there's a problem. 

You've got 400 years' worth of history that you have to put into this building? How do you how do you do that? 

Well, I think that you look for important flashpoints in the story that have a very powerful resonance. For instance, just looking back at the history, thinking about the great artistic periods of West Africa. The Yoruba were one of the great kingdoms of that time. And looking at what would have been iconographic to people of that time or what would have been special or the magical thing, the temples of that time. We try to imagine that.  

We looked at the agrarian past of slavery and the architecture of slavery and the architecture of slave houses. But we also looked at the work of slaves who were freed just after the emancipation. They were also people that were building and making America, and I wanted to speak to that. 

I was down walking around the property yesterday, and it's almost an inversion of a typical building.

Exactly. It sort of opens itself up, and it reveals itself. But it also kind of moves upward. But what it's doing is that it's referring to a few things. It's referring to the Washington Monument. The sort of obelisk in the center of the monumental sort of master plan of the core of Washington.

The pyramid at the top — it's an inversion of that pyramid. And it's exactly the same angel as that pyramid. So visually they come into alignment, almost like two sort of planetary bodies. But also it's referring to a Yoruba sculpture, which was about the column, the capital columns of shrine houses. In a way, I'm sort of speaking about an ancestral memory of something and a contemporary memory of something.

What about meaning behind the materials that you chose?

The materials were very important. I wanted to speak about permanence but also about the way in which precious artifacts are celebrated in art. Bronze was a very important material from the classical world because it's the material that lasts through the ages. It lasts longer than us. It's an inert material that doesn't pass away. 

I wanted to also use a different material to the materials that are on the Mall, which are predominantly stone. 

‘I think that what the world will see is that the African-American story is not a footnote but probably the lens to really understand America, to this day.’

David Adjaye

The Smithsonian defines its buildings as places where the world comes to learn about America. What is the world going to learn after moving through your museum?

I think that what the world will see is that the African-American story is not a footnote but probably the lens to really understand America, to this day. I mean, I don't know about America in the future. But I think that the African-American experience has been part of the commercial success of America but also the extraordinary progress and modernity of America in terms of its laws, its understanding, that even though this has been seen as a bit of an evil, it's also been an extraordinary sort of refiner of an important, you know, the most important superpower in the world, the kind of leader of the world, to really show the world about how struggle can also create emancipations. And I think that that is central to what this building is trying to say. 

Most architects spend years and years pursuing a degree. You have one year of formal architectural training. 

You did your research. Busted.

What gave you the courage to just carve your own path like that?

When I started, I was extremely scared about the whole thing. But I was also incredibly inspired by this thing. When I did my research into how architecture was being taught at that time and what the big voices were, I found that I just disagreed.

And I didn't have empathy with the discussion. Because I felt that the discussion had become very formal, had become about architects navel gazing, in a way, and kind of debating the style of something versus the style of something else. I wanted to find a path that engaged more with what the world was and what people were doing. So I found that I had to kind of carve my own path. That's the path I took.

David Adjaye

When you were a boy living in Ghana, your brother Emmanuel fell very ill. And you've said that was a real turning point for you. 

Emmanuel sort of becoming mentally and physically handicapped was a dramatic moment in my family. But it was also a kind of moment of consciousness, I think, for a very young family. For me, it was a consciousness about the fragility of life and the enjoyment of that.

But also it awoke in me a consciousness about the built environment, because I very much wanted to participate in looking after him. I was very close to him. I was just increasingly appalled by the environments that I saw disability occupy.

The inequality of public space?

Completely. That in a sense, public space was curated, as it were … for able-bodied people or for a sort of image of a certain citizenry, which I think maybe mattered several hundred years ago but seemed grossly just difficult for me.

And I found it problematic that architecture was about stairs and hierarchy and all these things. For me, it needed to be about people. — all walks of life, all their narratives, all their stories. And it needed to keep adding that story to the history of the world, because, in a way, literature records our lives, but architecture also does.

You were born in Tanzania.


You lived abroad until you were a teenager. What's your relationship with Africa, and then how does that influence your work?

I was lucky that my father was the first generation of diplomats from Ghana. Ghana was the first country to gain independence in the 20th century. I was lucky enough to be the kid that he wanted to take with him. So we traveled a lot.

But actually, I thank my father each day for giving me that incredible exposure, because by the time I was 14, when I came to England, I had a very kind of plural sense of the world and all the kind of differences it had from different religions, cultures, spaces, climates, temperatures. It was all very clear. 

And you went back to Africa as an adult. And you went to every country?

I went to every country except Somalia, because of the war. 

I just wanted to discover. I didn't quite backpack. I flew and taxied and did my own thing. But I never wanted to go formally to any of these countries. I wanted to discover it for myself. Because in a way, the continent is such a big thing. And it's always spoken about and referred to.

And I certainly realize that even myself, who had been to the continent and came from the continent, probably only really knew about half a dozen countries intimately. And there are 54. When I say Africa, I wanted to know what I meant by that.

You just unveiled designs for a children's cancer hospital in Rwanda.

When I was approached a few years ago by the charity that are putting this together — [Rwanda's Ambassador to the U.N.] Eugène Gasana, set up this foundation and to start this project. And when he approached me, I was incredibly moved. But what was even more sad for me was that I realized that there was not a single cancer treatment center on the continent. 

On the continent?

On the continent. That was astonishing. You had to go outside the continent to do it. Rwanda becomes very important because it's more or less the center of the continent.

I hope that this is the first of many. It's a training center as well as a cancer hospital for children. And I wanted it to be very much a beacon. Hospitals are incredible pieces of infrastructure. They're usually big, bulky and quite ugly. But they're so important that we kind of forgive them their form. Because they just have to be there.

When a hospital is both functional and beautiful, it does a lot. Because I totally believe that well-being is also about changing the state of mind of the person that needs to be cured.

‘I think architecture’s primary role is to be transformative, to shift the paradigm and to emanate new publics. ’

David Adjaye

You've created an affordable housing project in Harlem. Talk to me about Sugar Hill.

Sugar Hill is really important to me because it's my first large-scale housing project. Those who have the least opportunity — it was about bringing design to this community and not to patronize this community. Not to demean or to say that they don't have the ability to understand, you know, things that I would offer to the most elite person that I met.

Can an architectural project be transformative to a community?

I believe that it always is. I think architecture's primary role is to be transformative, to shift the paradigm and to emanate new publics. 

Is it too dramatic to say it can inspire a social change?

I think it inspires social change in a different way. I think architecture shapes the society that we have. Our modernity shapes through architecture, ironically. And we sometimes undervalue it. We underplay it. And I think we underplay it to our own expense. Because, really, it is the force that actually kind of makes the glue that sometimes helps society kind of understand things.

It creates the porosities or the hierarchies or the connections. I mean, architecture can either create — reinforce — elitism or create egalitarianism. It can create opportunity by how you celebrate places where the least have. I think these things affect — absolutely affect — the way in which we live in the world and the people that live in the world.

You have a little boy now.

Yes, we do. We have an amazing son we love dearly. 

I understand there's one design item that you're absolutely obsessed with right now.

Yes, I've become a baby person. 

And the Baby Björn.

The Baby Björn I've given a lot of attention to. You know, it's amazing because I think that, actually, men have a lot of difficulty holding children. And in a way, to find a way that can be a kind of gender-neutral way to tie the body of a baby to your body, I think is finally giving people — like me, anyway — an amazing opportunity to just, you know, fuse with your child in a way that I really love. I just love having my boy next to my chest. It's kind of amazing. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

An earlier version of this interview stated that Eugene Gasana's son died. He is still alive and is cancer free. It is Gasana's father who died of cancer. 

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