David Adjaye is to modern architecture what Barrack Obama is to world politics. David has eared global prominence through his knack for deconstructing structure and marrying fluid Art with solid Architecture. One of his most outstanding works is the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, which has quickly become a national landmark in Norway. The city of London is also blessed with his structures such as Stephen Lawrence Centre, the Ideas Store and his recently exhibited wooden pavilion, part of the London Design Festival’s Size and Matter project. His private commissions also include the designs of homes for Ewan Macgregor and best friend Chris Offili. Apart from his work in the Diaspora, David has Africa on his mind. He is determined to bring the present and ancient urbanism in African to the world stage through a project called ‘53’, for the number of capital cities on the continent. If anyone can do it, Adjaye can. In an interview with Ebun Olatoye, he puts the myth to rest about his being Nigerian. He is not. Adjaye is from Achim Akan in Ghana. He also explains his fascination with Lagos, cascading panels and alternative definitions of modernity.
Photo by Ade Omoloja
You recurrent theme of cascading panels is almost inescapable in the elements of your work, even on your business cards. What ideas inform this theme?
It’s called design. (Laughs). I am interested in exploring things, which people think are conjectural but are not, things which people think are not structure but they are. I think they are important artistic ideas and they come from other places and they’re not the sort of rational, classical way of lining things up in a symmetry. Its just another exploration of finding systems in things that you think don’t have systems.
What is the fate of the African designer in view of the fact that we have a lot of catching up to do to identify and project our art and designs globally particularly in relation to China that is quickly emerging from a period of copying to the period of creating designs?
I think it’s already affected the way in which the design culture works because essentially what China has afforded the world is a new place to imagine what modernity might mean for us now: our modernity not the modernity of the past. Basically in most western cities it’s very difficult to imagine the future except for commercial building, which are driven through by economic desire. But China is about rebuilding the entire image of the nation in a contemporary way and where it’s taken Europe two hundred years and it’s taken China twenty-five years, which is extraordinary in terms of design and in terns of what they’ve been able to show. So it’s already totally influenced my industry. We all think of what is possible post China and how we build. I think the Middle East is one to watch in terms of emerging its image of modernity. Maybe India will follow after that but the Middle East, I think, is going to be the next big image of modernity and I think it will happen even faster than China. And when I say modernity I mean developmental modernity in terms of seeing huge buildings suddenly on the landscape, which define the image of a nation.
You recently embarked on a project to document the 53 capital cities in Africa. How did that project begin and what stage is the project in now?
The project is nearly complete. It’s an idea I had to document the urban landscape within Africa. Only because I realize that even within Africa we not only divide ourselves from nation to nation which is fine, but also because of this colonial relationship which Africa has to Europe. Within Africa there is this Francophone world, this Spanish World, this Arab world and this Anglophone world and they only interact slightly because of the language difference. So for instance you know the Arabs all know the Arab countries, the Anglophones only know the Anglophone countries and don’t deal with the Francophone countries except they are bilingual. In Africa there are already divided images but in the world there are no images except for this romantic sense of Africa as a virginal continent of poverty and animals running everywhere. People don’t relate to Africa in an urban context because of the history of the last 200 years and for me I find that to be a laughable position because the first traces of urbanism come from Africa. So Africa is probably the oldest urban place on the globe and there are lots of people living here and their context of development is actually quite sophisticated even if its not developmental as in cash, their way of living and has been going on for thousands of years. I kept talking about this and getting angry that poverty and rural landscape were the only images of Africa so I just decided I would go and photograph every capital city on the continent and that is what I’ve done.
Do you have plans to ensure that the material from your project is available to the public (in and out of Africa), who have this clichéd perspective of the continent?
I teach at Princeton, I teach at Harvard, I teach at the Royal College of Art, I teach at many schools and at first I was doing it for my own database and for my own archives. But very quickly Harvard heard that I was doing it, they gave me a show and I showed about fifteen countries on the Harvard campus and basically the Press went nuts. They were like what is this, we didn’t know this existed which was really funny to me because what was very obvious to me clearly was not to many people. And off the back of that a publisher that I had previously worked with approached me and said look we have to make a book probably called 53 of all the capitals on the African continent. The title 53also helps to drum home to people that there are 53 countries in Africa not five or ten or one. It’s like 53, get it? Wide ethnic Diaspora, get it? Metropolitan, get it? I just get frustrated with the image of black, which has been squeezed down to the lowest possible denominator, one which has no complexity, no nuance except for the usual colonial crap. So although the project started off as a private project it will be a database for me and research material for people interested in these African cities.
Rem Koolhaas also worked on a similar project but his focus was Lagos. His theory is that organic combustive cities like Lagos will be the model for urban development and that Lagos represents the future of the Western megacity. Do you agree with this theory?
I think rampant urbanism, which is what the planet faces now, is something that must be taken very very seriously. We are in the most accelerated growth of urban spaces that the world has ever experienced it is literally a planetary phenomena. There are people moving from rural places to urban at a pace much faster than the earth has ever experienced. The idea of building cities is no longer something that you have 50years to plan. Rem has a particular way of analyzing and looking at the world and drawing diagrams from it. I actually love it very much but I’m not sure it’s the model for anything because I think things change so fast anyway so for me I think the idea that you talk about models starts to get a bit old fashioned and colonial for me. I don’t analyse like that I prefer to work within present systems rather than say for instance ok now Lagos is the fashion and tomorrow India is going to be the fashion. What I love about what Rem Koolhaus is doing is that finally somebody actually chooses a real hyper dense metropolitan condition and kind of brings it to the same discourse as other global cities and that for me is huge because it is putting Lagos on the map.
Did Rem’s work inspire your project 53?
No, the timing was completely coincidental. We talked about it and I wanted to know if it would be a problem but no, not at all. Rem’s project will get a lot of press and mine will come although I don’t really care about that. What I want is for the book to provide the references for how to get a deeper understanding of these cities.
What sort of relationship do you have with Lagos?
I’ve been to Lagos many times. I love Lagos. I’m a West African, how can I not love Lagos. I have a lot of cool friends there, actually friends who live here (London) but are from there. Duro Olowu (Fashion Designer) is a good friend of mine. I know Keziah Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor they’re good friends of mine. Chris Offili is my best friend.
Have you had any creative collaboration with Nigerians?
Yes, I’ve done work with Chris, he built the Stephen Lawrence Centre with me. The façade of the Steven Lawrence structure is Chris Offili’s work and it is the biggest public building by a West African in the Western World.
You haven’t lived in Ghana very much yet there seems to be a subtle link between the proud, bold Ghanaian national brand and your bold, “demanding reaction” style of architecture. Do you draw any inspiration from your home country?
Because Ghana is such a small nation, education has always been very important so now there’s been a generation of people who went to good schools around the world or whatever and you’re seeing them and they’re doing well. But also because it’s a small country it becomes stronger as a brand and there’s a feel good factor in the country right now which is very good. I think Ghana sees itself as the Singapore of Africa and that’s no secret. Apart from all of that my parents brought me up to be very proud and very conscious of my heritage. My work is about difference negotiating difference. I am Ghanaian, I’m a West African but I am not a one-dimensional person. I have lived in many places but the predominant body of my experience of living is African. I’m not the kind of African that can tell you I lived here in Africa in this year, I am a nomadic African who has lived all over the world and I think it’s a very modern idea. However my work is not about devaluing Africa, no. For me I treat the basket weaver from Accra with the same weight as any artist from Bahaus movement. I respect the creative moment that creates a piece of Art and those creative moments are powerful and my work is about tapping into that agency. For me the idea that modernity comes from one place is ridiculous to me. Modernity has to come from intellectual capacity and it’s not about playing catch up with European modernism. I am more invested in this type of thinking. It’s not subtle defiance, it’s not anti colonialism it is the democratization of design because design is a global phenomena.
Does the enormity or scale of a project ever overwhelm you?
Yes definitely, I get that every time I’m not even going to pretend about that. I’m making a building and every body is just standing there and waiting. It’s all happening live. Every mistake and every success is out there, so it’s daunting every time. When I was doing the Nobel Peace Centre I was terrified. I thought they would slaughter me but in the end they were very happy. The reviews were amazing and the national press was fantastic. They took a pawn because I wasn’t known at all at the time and it worked out really well.
Which new turn should we expect from Adjaye Associates?
I’m doing product design now. Habitat just released a rug I designed and I’m doing plates for a Chinese company also.
For more on David Adjaye’s work visit http://www.adjaye.com/
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