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The Brain of Africa more of an artist than an architect

A world-famous London-based architect, with African roots, is bringing his talent home.

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David Adjaye, the renowned architect born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, has been busy. He is leading the design team behind the Smithsonian’s $500-million National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. He is also the frontrunner to design Barack Obama’s presidential library in Chicago. These two buildings will be the most high-profile pieces of more than a decade of work.

Although Adjaye’s work, which focuses heavily on historical cultures, is spread all over the world, it can now be appreciated, by many. He recently released his latest book, David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material, which was published to complement his exhibition at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich. In September, it was extended to Chicago.

“It is the most comprehensive survey of my work to date. The concept of the book was to offer an insight into current projects within the context of the trajectory of my work over the past 15 years, and framed within a broad social, cultural and historical discourse,” says Adjaye.

The discourse to which Adjaye refers has informed his multiculturalist work across every continent, and has led to projects that have placed Adjaye as one of the most distinguished architects in the world.

Adjaye’s work has shifted to public architecture.

“I think that design can provide a critical inquiry into social responsibility and civic consciousness.”

Despite this shift, Adjaye maintains a certain audacity to his work; the kind of trait that can only make a building indelible to the most discerning eye. His work surpasses the mediocrity of simply fulfilling the mere function of shelter. Adjaye is more of an artist than an architect. His work is often as much of a visual sculpture as a constructional design.

“I have always sought to cross creative platforms, collaborating with artists and designers from different disciplines and focusing on the creative discourse surrounding the act of making things. It is the dialogue – the cultural intersection – which excites me.”

Adjaye has also been embraced by the world of politics. He was commissioned by Obama to lead the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Such a responsibility has not been taken lightly. Adjaye describes it as “a career defining project.” The monument, in Washington D.C.’s National Mall, has been built to commemorate the momentous milestones in African American history.

“It is an incredibly exciting project and it has been a real honor to be involved in the creation of this monumental building,” he says.

Like most of the museums the architect has designed, the National Museum will be as iconic as the exhibitions inside it. It is  to open to the public in early 2016. The timing of the building’s inaugural opening could not be more perfect; Obama’s term is coming to a close, and racial antipathy continues to plague the country.

“My hope is that the museum will transcend the uneasy fact of racial tension through an open exploration of history, culture and society – thereby addressing profound aspects of the human condition and the positive value inherent in creating a forum for multiple interpretations of America’s history and demography, however uncomfortable those may be.”

Adjaye has a different hope for Africa – a continent often riddled with political instability that threatens to derail progress made in the private and public sector.

“Politics can hinder development. The four-year electoral window is often at odds with urban and infrastructure projects which can require a decade of political commitment. Nevertheless, [I] am excited about all of my work in Africa.”

A few of the projects that Adjaye has been working on across the continent include; a luxury concept store in Lagos called Alara, a school campus and residential project in Accra, building the headquarters of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in Dakar, residential projects in Johannesburg, and a hospital in Rwanda.

Over the last few years, Adjaye has collaborated with Propertuity to develop one of the Johannesburg CBD’s many timeworn buildings in the Maboneng Precinct – Hallmark House. The area is undergoing urban changes, with many buildings being redeveloped and perhaps gentrified.

“The project is a dramatic transformation of a former commercial building into apartments and cultural facilities in Johannesburg’s CBD. Its proximity to the already vibrant Maboneng district will mean that it will extend this extraordinary new city quarter.”

The inspiration behind Hallmark House’s transformation has been driven by the same principles Adjaye places on all of his work. His designs are often a reflection of social, historical and environmental context. In the case of his work in Maboneng, the design of the residential building was inspired by what Adjaye lauds as “an icon of the Joburg city skyline”. The 66-meter-high structure, initially designed in the 1970s by Greg Cohen, was built to house a burgeoning diamond polishing company.

Adjaye is a firm believer that the story of a city is written in its buildings. Johannesburg reflects the complex challenges of its past.

“Johannesburg, sadly, is one of the few cities in the world that has a specific spatial architecture that is born from division,” he says.

Such a landscape does not wean Adjaye away from the potential possibilities awaiting this historically rich part of Johannesburg, but rather encourages an admiration of the city.

“Johannesburg is the most cosmopolitan city I have visited in Africa. You see in its buildings a story of a tragic past but also a city that is being very intentional about confronting its history and seeking ways to move forward.”

Adjaye dismisses the idea that his work has a clear and definitive aesthetic.

“I am part of a generation of architects which has moved away from the idea of a signature.”

He does, however, pull much of his inspiration from the continent.

“I draw from Africa, but I also draw from many other things. That’s what architects do – we are planetary creatures.”

Adjaye adds that all of his projects have been memorable.

“Each one is part of a curve, a critical piece of a narrative that is still unfolding.”

This is a story that will bring many more milestones for the successful architect on a mission in Africa.

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