Canadian Architect


Ideation and Creation

On a Recent Visit to Toronto, One of Great Britain's Hottest Architects, Ghanaian-Born David Adjaye Discusses His Processes and Attitudes Toward Contemporary Architecture.

June 1, 2006
by Ian Chodikoff

InterviewerIan Chodikoff

You have had the chance to briefly look around Toronto. What are your first impressions?

DA I think that Toronto is an incredibly strong city. Usually, in most cities where there is a large ethnic diaspora, the diasporas are quite friendly but there is a sense of a tension. I don’t know if I am completely off the mark, but I don’t sense the ethnic tension in Toronto. There is an incredible diversity in this city which seems to bode well in business and design.

How do you view the potential for materiality to express meaning that is dynamic and beyond the aesthetic?

DA For me, materials don’t operate within a caste group of their own, they are very much agents in the naming of spaces beyond the SOM [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill] model, or the post-Miesian model. I am completely uninterested in materials as performance which space-making often encompasses.

You seem to like to juxtapose metal, fabric, wood and steel in your designs where the materiality seemingly transmogrifies from leather to steel, and vice versa.

DA I am very much interested in the transmogrification or transliteration of materials. The shifting of meaning is an important endgame. For me, this is the very agency that architecture has. We live in an age where materiality no longer has the symbolic value that it used to have within popular culture and in society. A hierarchy of materiality no longer exists. I recently saw a McDonald’s employ marble and ebony veneer, which was quite shocking to me. I deploy oppositional relationships of materiality to reveal other qualities: this is a motif that I use to drive the way of reading materials. I always combine things that don’t seem to belong together.

What about the social direction in your work?

DA For Oslo [the Nobel Peace Center], it comes back to allowing people to be empowered by their choice of materials. For me, rediscovering the social or the public is what my work is really all about. I am on a trajectory of encounter. “Social” is actually an overused and misunderstood word. Most architects understand the word from a ’60s or ’70s definition, something that Aldo van Eyck might have tried to convey. For me, the question is how do you remake architecture that re-engages again with society, ensuring that this relationship is not futile. Certainly, it can go awry like everything else, but the ethical agency in architecture lies in the engagement with people. This kind of critical engagement is not a type of instrumentalized analysis where a computer program and an engineer states something like: “Thousands of people flow this way, let’s make it this wide.” This kind of instrumentalization will only disconnect the experience of a human. This is what road designers do. It’s interesting that postwar, the landscape of engineering which uses that syntax and thinking, and the landscape of the city are colliding twins that create a landscape of trauma. For me, the idea that you arrive at an ethical position in finding an aesthetics of understanding form through critical engagement does not deny but heightens radicalism, albeit not in the formalistic sense.

Just as people learn how to develop an awareness of the ingredients they use when cooking, there is a level of material literacy in your designs at various scales. How do you push your clients and include your communities? Do you have a didactic approach that allows an endgame to result?

DA As one gets a name, it becomes less about convincing the client of the strategies that one deploys. The arguments we used to make about materiality and materials which were not valued as building materials are gone. It has moved to a different level of discussion. I kind of enjoyed that resistance because it allowed so much questioning. The engagement of community is not about what materiality is best, or a kind of tokenistic consultation. If we use the culinary model, it is really about the presentation of the familiar–the food as it were–but presented in a way that engages you. It is incumbent on the profession to expose the potential and the weakness of the range within what is considered to be familiar. I question the ethical judgement of architecture as a manoeuvre that says “this is the right way.” The “right way” is how long does this want to be there? Who does it serve? What are the issues about this building that we want to address? Is this about permanence? Each of these questions has massive effects on a strategy. It is a very SOM legacy to take on the preacher or the actor role. Gordon [Bunshaft] started it. It is no longer the job of the architect to do this.

You seem to be facilitating the vision of the people you are designing for, but you must encounter problems with your methodology when discussing your approach with older practitioners.

DA It’s always aggressive. Some practices don’t feel a sense of threat and are kind of relaxed about who I am. But there is definitely a certain middling practice that sees its value in the ability to say that its judgements are right. I find this deeply troubling. What I present threatens a certain kind of what they call “professionalism.” When using Jenny Holzer’s criteria, there’s a certain kind of weakness that gives you incredible strength. You need to let go a lot to do a lot more. I think that this is a kind of architectural trick that I am interested in. How far can you let go in order to regain your position of strength. Ambition is no longer seen. Architecture is about a series of investigations where the form, typology and building potential comes out of a critical engagement. Out of that comes a certain kind of resolution that illuminates you and your client.

How do you feel about other emerging design firms like FAT architecture, muf and Future Systems?

DA FAT is now operating within the realm of symbols. FAT’s detailing is pretty straight. They don’t deploy materials as a questioning tool. As a questioning of the nature of aesthetics–they are very simplistic. Their answer is always the anti-aesthetic, which is the aesthetic. “Ugly” is their answer–it is a very polemicized idea. Disney is as good as a Mies column, so we’ll do Disney and we’ll say that this has value. This is a polemical game. Just because you make ugly buildings or reference postmodernism that every architect believes is ugly doesn’t mean that you are being radical. You are only changing the semiotic terms but you are still very much part of the establishment–even more so. What’s happening is that so many developers have jumped onto FAT because they offer a refreshing view that doesn’t question but is visually titillating. muf are fantastic. Liza Fior is an intellect that I am fascinated by in terms of her critical engagement. Liza and Katherine Clarke strategize scenarios where the notion of consultation is the high operation. It comes out of the relational arts aesthetic that was happening in the ’90s. It’s an idea where the artist goes into society, empowers society through a series of actions and then makes something. The difficulty that they are finding now is that there is a fatigue within the community of being used by creatives in order to make agency for projects that are more or less set, but I still think that they are most interesting.

Because they are installation-based and in the realm of landscape?

DA Yes. There is a questioning of exactly where the architecture is, and this I like. They make “things” which are not necessarily buildings as an end result. The notion of “thing” is a very beautiful philosophical concept because the “thing” is the agency which allows community to occur.

So, in terms of provocation within the public realm by new architecture in England today, are we entering a pha
se where the diasporean condition is starting to trigger new modes of practice?

DA In London, it has suddenly dawned upon architects that there is an inevitability to address this issue. The discourse has shifted whereby those who are at very critical places in their careers have suddenly realized that they need to prepare for this new paradigm. The old models of deployment are highly questionable and yield alienating relationships with their constituents because it is about politics in the end and because first-generation immigrants are now increasingly empowered and bright–they know how to negotiate through the mechanism. This has political consequences and the political paradigms realize that they have to engage to accept a more diverse population. That’s why my career has flourished in London. I was the first example of this new shifting paradigm.

By and large, Canadian architects have not reacted to this paradigm shift yet we have a highly diverse population. We embrace multiculturalism in festivals, food and banners, but we don’t embrace this in terms of urbanism. Who engages this in Great Britain?

DA Ash Shakula architects and Patel Taylor are beginning to react to this shift. It is almost embarrassing that it has only just started. The idea is laughable that if you instrumentalize the notion of aesthetics as a paradigm that is not recognized, then you will overcome the problem. We must somehow acknowledge that there is a fatigue in form-making, only to deploy tons more form-making as a vaccine. As a collection of forms, you actually decimate what I call the horizontal and vertical paradigm of the city in order to have a certain kind of cultural validity.

And yet the mechanisms that you want to shift into already exist in many different cultures as a natural way of building.

DA Absolutely. This is not about ethnicizing or about tokenism, but rather shifting specifically away from a Grecian-German way of thinking and making architecture. It is that simple. It is to acknowledge that these power and ordering systems don’t have the same registers within people from different cultures. These registers are completely different in other cultures. If you want to truly engage within a paradigm of diversity, you have to recalibrate strategically right through to every element exactly how you deploy the codes to set up the scenarios that define architecture. If you are not interested in rebooting the machine, then you will deploy stupidity again and again. We are living in an age where public space is about intimacy and silence that is a non-questioning repertoire. By being silent, it seems as though we are engaging the meaning of public space, but we are not. This allows the person to remove himself absolutely from everything around him so as not to appear stupid. This reduces the engagement between the environment and the person so that it is about nothing, and where the public comes to the conclusion that every environment is completely irrelevant, declaring, “I just pass through it to my destination.” We talk about technology, but architecture contributes 50 percent to this idea because it is completely out of step with the psychology of the person. It is not just about people of colour, but it also exists within the ethnicity of white culture. Even the cross-mixing of white culture makes a new hybridity that is not acknowledged. This is actually a new condition for us, and the psychology of the character [in the urban realm] has actually shifted.

Amongst people your own age, you must have detractors?

DA I fight with certain people in my own generation. The problem when you set up a paradigm like this which has always been there but has never had a voice is when it becomes exposed. Certain people think that you are exercising a marked advantage, so they become super-threatened by your linguistic deployment. They feel as though this new paradigm completely cancels out their contribution to the city and thereby makes what they have to offer completely irrelevant. For a younger generation who haven’t engaged these ideas but who are completely engaged with aesthetics instead, this is incredibly threatening.

Are you closing the door on them?

DA No. They are very relevant but they have to change. You cannot just rely on the same tools. You have to read more. Travel more. Architects need to travel more.

I wanted to ask you about your involvement with two BBC television shows on architecture. What ideas were behind your involvement?

DA The first one was about design [Dreamscapes] and that was just about “Wake up, public!” You need to have wider views than just changing your bedrooms. You need to understand that the universe which has been made by these makers think like this, not that. The second show was about cities. Africa provides an interesting model. I’m African but it is not my personal background that’s important. Africa is the model that has all its imagery relating to poverty and devastation. So, the purpose of the show was about taking the worst possible images, then talking about habitation and the social capital that exists within, irrespective of the imagery. How do these communities have social capital and how do they make communities? This becomes a way of visualizing and literally showing this back to the public and the profession. The profession actually didn’t have an image of the African city. They couldn’t understand what it actually looked like, until now.

Many cities in Africa and Asia appear resolutely Western at first. But these emerging urbanities appropriate and mutate the notion of the Western city, then re-export this new urbanity back to the West. Do you take inspiration from these kinds of cities?

DA Very directly. There is a very clear model of modernity in these cities but overcoming this modernity lies within the notion of community and the human spirit. These cities are not going through the same structural changes that happened in the West, because it’s totally different. This is not about the romantic world but about siting the notion of all-pervasive laminated cross-relationships in the public realm.

Maybe we’ve subjugated so much of our natural tendencies as a growing modern city. We still live as if it is another century. How can you change attitudes? Do you change them through building?

DA Literally by making things of engagement. This is not a Marxist-Leninist revolution, it is more virus-like. It is an infection of a system with a virus that is a building-block virus. It is not a semiotic virus or an intellectual virus. It is simply a reimagining of the environment.

Is this what makes your work amenable to clients?

DA My architecture can be easily read. It is very interesting that the notion of tough comes out of a complete discourse of openness. The preacher role actually limits what you are doing. We are in an age where if you want to take the democratic notion, the notion of a specialist who is shouting his ethical position on the community–this is perverse. It is sickening. It assumes that the population is totally stupid, as though we were living in the Middle Ages. This is why there are so many smart clients–developers–who say, “Fuck the architect!” Architects are traumatized by the fact that they are hamstrung. They haven’t bothered to engage with the phenomenon of the creature that is in front of them. They are too busy arguing about their ethical right to say and to judge. That judgement has been dissolved.

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