Last Thursday, British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, took to the Oprah Winfrey Theater stage at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., to discuss the roles of space and narrative in architecture with hip-hop architectural theorist and architect Craig Wilkins.
Following his presentation, ARCHITECT sat down with Adjaye (who was the lead designer of the NMAAHC and is currently working on the London's Holocaust Memorial) to talk about the importance of diversity and education in the industry.
ARCHITECT: What was your reaction when you were invited to come back to D.C. and to speak at the “Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Planners, 1968 to Now” symposium?
Adjaye: Oh, it’s good to come back to D.C. I mean, D.C. is now hardwired in my mind after nearly a decade of working here, but it’s my first time on the stage formally.
In your talk, you discussed the idea of creating a narrative as opposed to rewriting it. Where did you get this idea from and how does it applies to your work?
It’s central to my work. The idea came from my own sense of wanting to create an architecture that meant something to me. Since my work is deeply personal, it’s almost autobiographical. I would say to my studio, 'Why are we doing this?' I mean, it’s not interesting because it’s architecture. It’s only interesting if it does something.
Why is this discussion of diversity in architecture important now?
We are at a moment in history. This museum has been built and it concretizes certain stories that are really spatial stories, having to do with separations and reconciliations. And we’re seeing the effect of this building now through two different administrations, and I think that this idea is very important—that the landscape is democratized.
This idea of kind of a democratized landscape—a democratized knowledge base where everybody learns from each other—is profoundly powerful.
In this case, what do you think the future of that looks like?
The future of that looks like a really beautiful world, where all knowledge bases, all knowledge systems are valued and used. I look forward to a time when a European kid is referencing African architecture to make a project. That would be nirvana for me.
That's a beautiful vision, but how do we get there given the lack of opportunity in a lot of communities?
I mean, I’m not an economist: I just make buildings and I’m reflecting on them. I don’t know what the answer is, but all I can say is it is about a more integrated world where many things have to be shared and the goals have to become much more polyphonous. The goal can’t be singular anymore. Difference and diversity matter, and these things make a great ecology for the human experience and that makes us better human beings.
That to me is nirvana, that we’re not all in segregated nation bubbles, but we’re actually living on the planet, and all enjoying it, and making things for the planet rather than in spite of the planet, as we do now.
It was recently announced that you will hold several visiting professorships at architecture schools in the U.S. this school year. What do you hope education can impart on the next generation of architects?
With education establishments, the dismantling of the colonial language of architecture is so important. Architecture is still full of colonial language. It’s very much one narrative and is written like it’s an essentialist narrative, and we write it to do with the success of economic might, but it has nothing to do with that. It’s a much more elusive art form.
When I started teaching and I would take my students to Africa, people were horrified. They were saying families are going to sue you. 'You took their kid to where? To Johannesburg? Into the inner city?' You need to see more than just the American landscape.
Do you notice a difference in the discussion of diversity as it pertains to the American experience versus an international one?
I think there is a difference. There’s a lot more economic might within the diverse communities of America than there are in the international community.
The communities of color are much smaller in the international world, whereas the American project is about the bringing together of many people to make one group. So you find that actually in terms of the profession, there are many more architects of color that have opportunity in America even though it's tiny by comparison to the majority. But they have a leg up the ladder. When I think about what’s going on in Africa or in Europe, it’s very, very small. It’s a very small group of people doing a lot of things.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.