PRINT October 2017


IT’S NO LONGER just a boom but a fact of life: The global explosion in museums has become a cornerstone of urban and economic development everywhere, with the so-called Bilbao effect changing the ways in which cities grow and culture is created and experienced. At the same time, art and architecture have become increasingly close—with the most ambitious new efforts in each field often shaping one another. Museum architecture is on the front lines of these shifts, and everyone has a stake: artists and architects, curators and collectors, scholars and critics, politicians and the public. Here, Artforum inaugurates a series of critical conversations on the topic with the world’s leading architects—beginning with DAVID ADJAYE, whom senior editor Julian Rose interviews about his pioneering designs for exhibition spaces, in cities from London to New York to Beirut, and their far-reaching social consequences.

Adjaye Associates, National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016, Washington, DC. Photo: Alan Karchmer.

JULIAN ROSE: More than any other architect working today, you have your roots in the art world. Many cutting-edge architects have defined themselves by using art as a model, but in your case, the connection seems more social and intellectual than aesthetic. Le Corbusier borrowed ideas about composition from Picasso, Zaha Hadid was famously inspired by the geometric language of Constructivism, and Herzog & de Meuron have cited early encounters with Donald Judd’s work as formative for their own minimalist style—but you went to school with artists; you were part of the same scene in 1990s London. How did those early contacts influence your conception of architecture?

DAVID ADJAYE: The thinking I encountered in the art world became the bedrock of my practice, because it actually helped me take a position about why I wanted to work in the built environment. I was not interested in architecture until I went to art school. It was the generation of guys and girls that I met as a student at the Royal College of Art, and then at other schools like Goldsmiths, the theory books we were reading and the debates that we were having about practice and what it meant to make contemporary things, that helped me realize that working in architecture could actually give me a certain kind of agency. I loved painting, but it didn’t fulfill me as a way of working, and in the end I rejected painting not because it doesn’t have any edifying possibilities, but because I wanted an art form that was in service to the public and invested in the idea that we make knowledge collectively in order to move our civilization forward. Architecture seemed to be one of those profound arts that has the potential for that kind of direct impact, and I had absolutely no doubt that architecture was the tool that I was most excited to work with.

JR: It’s interesting that you were drawn into these debates about artistic practice, because many of the first projects you became known for were, in fact, working spaces for artists: Chris Ofili’s home and studio [1999], or the Dirty House for Tim Noble and Sue Webster [2002]. You were working with a generation that was challenging assumptions about what it meant to be an artist and what it meant to make art—even about what should be considered “art” in the first place. How do you approach the problem of designing an artist’s studio when his or her working process is so open-ended?

DA: It was an experiment. No one just said, “Give me a beautiful cube with north light.” What was interesting for me was that a lot of the artists I was engaging with were in a live-work scenario, which was something very particular to London at that time—the way artists were inhabiting the city, the way neighborhoods were changing. So my job became about negotiating the relationship between the studio and the home, because the default was to just make them one.

JR: Sure, that’s the model of the industrial loft, where you simply throw everything together in one big, flexible space.

DA: Instead, I wanted to define an internal space for creativity, distinct from the space of daily life. And in order for me to understand how to construct the crucible for the work that they wanted to perform, I needed artists to be articulate to me about their process and about what they did. Each project required a very high level of intellectual clarity and communication before any architectural form-making could even begin. And so, because of the characters that I was coming into contact with, I was learning about all these different modes of artistic production that were emerging at the beginning of this century—as a result of having to make their work spaces. Rachel Whiteread had a totally different practice from Chris, Tim and Sue had a totally different practice from either of them, and so on. For me, that was the most exciting part of the beginning of my career. I became very addicted to that dialogue.

JR: How has that experience continued to inform your design of exhibition spaces? I imagine there would be a particularly direct translation into your current project for the Studio Museum in Harlem [in New York], given that an artists’ residency is one of its core programs.

DA: Absolutely. The dialogues that I had at the beginning of my career are continuing there, but now the building is scaled up into an institution. The idea is to reinscribe the presence of the artist into the visitor’s experience of the museum, to oscillate between the large exhibition spaces that a museum needs and the sense of intimacy and the visceral encounters that artists have with their work. And this expands the reach of the studio program. For almost fifty years, the residency has been an incubator, allowing and cultivating art practice, and now it has birthed a very powerful educational program that brings young kids right into the institution and shows them the force that drives art, puts them into conversations about how artmaking happens and how art is displayed. So the museum creates an opportunity to work between education, practice, and experience that’s different from a MoMA, different from a Whitney, different from a New Museum. It’s an alternative model. It’s not about creating an archival space or a contemporary space; it’s about creating an experience where a vital relationship between artmaking and art presentation can somehow erupt.

JR: The Studio Museum is a special case, but I wonder if much of what you’re saying applies to the design of contemporary art museums more generally. They pose a problem that’s similar to the one raised by the studios you designed earlier in your career: Contemporary art is a moving target. Perhaps one solution is to look beyond the exhibition space to other kinds of programming and activation—in a sense, to foreground the architecture.

DA: I think the first prototype that started to map out a relationship between the institutional space and what I learned from those early studio projects was the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver [2007]. That project is very important to understanding my approach to making art spaces. When we won the competition, we realized that everybody else had designed a version of what I call the Pompidou model: a large, technical, flexible box with a minimal circulation system. Instead, we made a sort of laborious circulation system, which took you through a series of specifically designed chambers that activated various relationships between ground, sky, and building. Our idea was that different lighting experiences—clerestory, window, skylight—would give different kinds of agency to the art. If you look at the development of art over the twentieth century, artists would always talk about the different relationships that their work had to light, and the notion of a contemporary experience or contemporary condition was often defined through lighting—or the lack thereof. Even when you get to the birth of performance art, something like Yves Klein’s black box—that’s another lighting condition, right? So, in a way, the game was to take the kunsthalle, which is normally just about flexibility, and redesign it to become about this mix of experiences of luminescence and contemporariness. Architecturally, this added up to a lot of circulation space, which no one else wanted to propose, because I think there was a sense that it somehow distracted from the exhibition space. But we argued that the circulation was the heart of the experience of the new museum. It would be a very carefully defined space that would create the journey to the artwork.

JR: Flexibility does seem to be the default thinking in museum design today. But there is a thin line between the flexible and the merely generic.

DA: Exactly. Many contemporary museums fall flat because they end up with something generic—they become dead spaces. And spending time thinking through the specifics of your space also helps give the institution a kind of agency within the city, through the people coming in, through the activities happening within the building.

Adjaye Associates, Aïshti Foundation, 2015, Beirut. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

JR: One of the few things we do know about contemporary art is that it is increasingly propelled by the market. As we expand our understanding of the museum—to encompass a broader role for the institution within the city, or a wider range of visitor experiences—are there some limits that are important to preserve? In New York we have seen any number of commercial galleries that aspire to the status of small museums, and there is also the paradox of the growing number of private museums ostensibly aimed at a public audience. How do you negotiate distinctions between public and private and commercial and institutional in such projects? I’m thinking of the Aïshti Foundation [in Beirut (2015)], where you have retail and exhibition programs combined under one roof.

DA: There is certainly an ultimate question of ownership and accountability to the public that differentiates these forms. But for me, whether public or private, all of my buildings must engage with the urban fabric and the urban condition in the widest sense. There is always a broader responsibility, no matter how commercial or private a project—it still has to engage with the city and its context. So my approach to one is not necessarily distinct from my approach to the other. I believe what is needed most are spaces for art that are about inviting people in, about dialogue and discussion, and about engaging with different ways of collecting and different ways of seeing the world. Commercial spaces can actually facilitate this. In the case of Aïshti, in particular, merging the worlds of commerce and art ignited new dialogues and fresh expectations for the mode of engagement that I found very compelling. But a very important aspect of that project was also the construction of a seaside promenade that is fully accessible to the public. So it is a balance, and always a case of looking for ways to create generosity, regardless of the nature of the project.

JR: You’ve described the museum as a space of intense engagement between art and architecture, and we seem to be at a moment of especially active interchange between the two fields. I wonder, though, if it’s ever possible to have some artists whose practices are almost too engaged. I’m thinking of some of the artists you’ve worked with: Olafur Eliasson, whose installations often become freestanding structures; or Theaster Gates, who, in a project like the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, has created an entire cultural institution, building and all. Do conflicts arise when artists start to take over the traditional role of the architect?

DA: It’s a new field. People like Theaster, Olafur, even Sterling Ruby—all of them are able to produce work that blurs lines in an exciting way. A lot of them are following a path that was laid out by the Minimalists in the 1960s, who wanted to be able to control the frame or the enclosure that produces the viewer’s experience of a work of art. That project was against the curator, in a sense—an attempt to gain more control over the work. But because of the complexity that some of these projects are achieving, even someone like Theaster, whom I do think capable of making beautiful architecture himself, still requires an architect to help soothe the making of the building, in a way. But he doesn’t need an architect who’s just producing a structure; he needs an architect as a viable intellectual partner who can help produce criticality.

JR: So you still see a continued role for the architect, one that goes far beyond physical building?

DA: Of course. If you were simply working for an artist as a producer, there’s nothing there. Some artists do just buy the infrastructure, literally, of an architectural office and use it to produce their own artwork as both architecture and installation. And that’s fine. But there’s also a new condition that emerges, which I think is much more interesting, from artists and architects working collaboratively to create a new ground for experience, expanding the notion of making artwork. You know, the way the Secession building in Vienna was supposed to be a space where the artist and the architect came together to create a perfect place for the production and appreciation of art—maybe one hundred years later, there is finally a coalescence in our culture that is bringing similar forces together. For me, the most exciting thing about the explosion of these new projects is that, actually, architects get to do what we do even better, and so do artists. It’s less about the Enlightenment idea of the museum as a container for the public, and more about coming together to find ways of allowing the public to experience the power of art, to get a sense of what art can do in society.

JR: And, of course, questions about public experience extend beyond art museums to other kinds of institutions. The National Museum of African American History and Culture [in Washington, DC (2016)] is an extraordinary project in part because it seems to push the social and cultural roles of both museum and architect to their limits. Civic and institutional buildings are often asked to play a dual role—on the one hand, their architecture is a potent cultural symbol, charged with representing history and defining identity, and on the other, they act as a kind of social catalyst, a gathering space with the potential to create new forms of community. I’ve heard you discuss this as a kind of form/content problem in relation to the NMAAHC. But in a sense, this project seems even more complex, because there is also the narrative created by the objects in the collection, which you had to consider when constructing both the spatial-architectural narrative of the building and its architectural symbolism. How did you use the architecture of the building itself—in terms of spatial organization, material, form, etc.—to negotiate all these different registers of meaning and experience?

DA: The central narrative guide for this project became an exploration of the meaning of “American.” I intentionally layered different kinds of architectural references and different ways for the public to begin to understand the project—materials that mirror the Washington Monument; a facade motif that draws from black ironworkers of the American South; a form derived from Yoruban art—to show how African influences are fundamental to America. This is a nation that was literally built on the backs of Africans, and one cannot fully understand the country without acknowledging this heritage. Through my design for the museum I tried to represent African American history in a global context, to situate it in relation to the beginning of modernism and, more broadly, in relation to the trajectory of America’s cultural engagement with the world. In that sense, the NMAAHC stands both with and against the other buildings on the Mall: It, too, is a museum of American history; it, too, is American.

JR: You are both uniquely knowledgeable about and uniquely invested in architecture in developing regions of the globe, particularly Africa, having opened an office in Accra, Ghana, and published extensively on African urbanism. What role do you see cultural institutions, and particularly museums, playing in these areas? Is there a way in which the museum can become a tool of activism, if the architect is savvy about leveraging cultural capital toward broader social ends?

DA: Architecture in itself is not activism, but it can form—or make physical and real—the ideas that we have about society and politics. Our ideas about a civilized world, in other words, are manifested through the architecture we make. So, especially in public buildings, there are always embedded ideas about access and personal freedoms. Everything from the materiality and form to the approach to accessibility is a cue about who is welcome in a space. In that way, architecture can very much be a tool to bridge historical gaps between people, one that can offer disadvantaged communities a source of pride and inspiration that encourages the kind of activism you’re describing.