Explore the work of architect David Adjaye in new book

Stephen Lawrence Centre, London, UK, 2004-7, entrance foyer with projection of Chris Ofili window © Lyndon Douglas

‘I’m interested in the humanity of architecture,’ says David Adjaye. Speaking with the artist Yinka Shonibare on the insightful BBC Radio 4 podcast Only Artists a few years ago, the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect talks passionately about the pivotal role of his profession in nation building. His is a belief in using visionary ideas and artistic sensitivity towards conceiving progressive, community-building projects.

Adjaye is one of our most exciting contemporary architects. He has received a knighthood for his contributions to architecture and was awarded the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. His skilful use of space, of inexpensive and unexpected materials, are best symbolised in buildings such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – a work rooted in the past and present while contextualising history. One of Adjaye’s latest projects is the National Cathedral of Ghana. The building is conceived as a landmark where people from all faiths are encouraged to gather, worship and celebrate – drawing reference from both Christian symbolism and traditional Ghanaian heritage.

Dirty House, London, UK 2001-2002 © Ed Reeve

When I met Adjaye a couple of years ago in Milan during Salone del Mobile, he spoke passionately on the importance of design thinking – the intellectual process by which design concepts are conceived – especially in today’s more complex creative landscape. ‘Younger designers are questioning the concept of simply manufacturing products and there appears to be a rebirth of design thinking,’ he told me, noting that he is more and more interested in how innovation is not simply about manufacturing products but providing social solutions.

David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 by David Adjaye and edited by Peter Allison is published by Thames & Hudson

A new book sets out to explore the work of the architect. Published by Thames & Hudson and edited in collaboration with the curator Peter Allison, David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 is a comprehensive monograph of his early work, accompanied by photographic renderings of the spaces. The introductory essay by curator, critic and architect Pippo Ciorra sets the scene: ‘Adjaye produces milestones of socially engaged architecture, showing an understanding of the market and competing at the highest level, and has benefited from the opportunities afforded by his own history to expand his view of the modern legacy far beyond the obvious space-time limits of Western culture, European cities, and Bauhaus functionalism.’

Idea Store Crisp Street © Tim Soar

Prior to studying architecture at London Southbank University and then Royal College of Art, Adjaye took part in the Art & Design Foundation at Middlesex University. On Only Artists he spoke fondly about his experience there (a terrific course where incidentally I also studied a few years later) noting of how he gravitated more towards art students than designers, and how profoundly the experience impacted on his work as an architect.

Other early influences, I learn from the book, come via the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura who guided the young Adjaye while living in Portugal, teaching him about artisanal charm and the essence and value of materials. Later, his travels to Japan exposed him to the works of visionaries Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando, Kenzo Tange and Yoshio Taniguchi. Adjaye also explored Japanese Buddhism, even taking courses at the University of Kyoto where he lived – all of which helped shape his creative thinking to expand beyond the European narrative arc.

Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo, Norway, 2002- 5. Entrance pavilion and east façade © Tim Soar

On his return to London, Adjaye set up his own practice and began working with residential and smaller studio projects. It is fascinating leafing through the book and seeing these earlier commissions. Adjaye worked within the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ with some clever urban interventions: roof-level living space is added to a factory-turned-studio, a sunken courtyard encases a tower-like house, and basalt stone extends a basement dining area to a roofless gazebo.

Adjaye’s civic commissions sparked off with the ‘Ideas Stores’ – two public libraries in London anchored on the role libraries in fostering social interactions. The success of these early projects led to to his US commission – the 2007 Museum of Contemporary Art Denver followed swiftly by the DC National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Lost House, London, UK, 2002-4 Wall with light scoops. © Ben Thompson

When I met Adjaye in Milan, I asked him if – on a similar vein to how he saw design thinking as pivotal to modern design – he sees his role as an architect evolving to be more than creating buildings. ‘Design can play a key role in helping people navigate an increasingly complicated world,’ he replied.

‘It shouldn’t just be about making things but understanding the responsibility of the product. Products have implications and it is up to design thinking to tackle that,’ he continued passionately. ‘Democratisation through technology means that we need new tools to understand how to function in this new society. The codes of the twentieth century are no longer relevant, and designers need to be part of this dialogue.’

David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 by David Adjaye and edited by Peter Allison is published by Thames & Hudson

Images from top: Stephen Lawrence Centre, London, UK, 2004-7, entrance foyer with projection of Chris Ofili window © Lyndon Douglas; Dirty House, London (2001-2) © Ed Reeve; Idea Store Chrisp Street, London (2000-4) study positions on external wall, library space; and Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo (2002-5) entrance pavilion and east façade – both © Tim Soar; Lost House London (2002-4) Wall with light scoops © Ben Thompson

Cape Cod Modern

The story began with Walter Gropius. Finding it near impossible to further the cause for Modernism in politically volatile Europe, in 1936 the founder of Bauhaus accepted a professorship at Harvard’s new and progressive Graduate School of Design, and together with his wife Ise fled to America.

The following year they rented a holiday house not so far on Planting Island, near the base of Cape Cod. Here they began entertaining friends and fellow émigré Bauhaus members Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy and Xanti Schawinsky.

Gropius called the Outer Cape, ‘marvellous piece of earth’ where the reunited group cooked, ate, swam and talked of the future. As they settled in America, many returned renting and buying plots of land and within a few years, the area was a hotbed of European intellectuals.

They soon began designing and building holiday homes in the woods and on the dunes. These were almost laboratories for processing their ideas. By 1977, there were some one hundred notable houses here that fused European Modernism, Bauhaus concepts with the building traditions of this region of mainly fishing towns.

This was a hybrid culture, partly American partly European that gave rise to a new vernacular so that this remote area became highly significant in the evolution of Modernism in America.

Cape Cod Modern – Mid-Century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape tells this story in depth. Beautifully captured by the photographs of Raimund Koch and illustrations of Thomas Dalmas, what adds further texture are the archival pictures of the lives of some of the most prolific names in the history of Modern architecture. We take a peak at their normal world as they prepare lunch, play chess on the porch, talk and laugh and enjoy one another’s company in these incredible homes.

As the authors write, it was ‘a lifestyle based on communion with nature, solitary creativity, and shared festivity.’ Their lives were as much about furthering the cause of Modern architecture as of radical thought and experimenting with new ways of living.

The former Bauhaus members brought to America their take on Modernism at the same time absorbing their new homeland’s hunger for change. This was an America so very different to now; a country that encouraged intellectual growth, championed creative thinking. Cape Cod Modern is a fascinating read.

Cape Cod Modern: Mid-Century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape is written by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani and published by Metropolis Books.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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Designing the $300 world house

As some of us in the West overdose on television programmes such as Grand Designs, a rather more humble design effort has been underway elsewhere: the attempt to design homes for the millions of people around the globe living on a few dollars a day.

The problem of housing the poor is not a new one. However, as cities in the developing world becoming increasingly overcrowded and rural livelihoods are eroded, it is becoming more pressing.

Recently, there have been two high-profile stabs at this. Indian manufacturer Tata has designed what is thought to be the world’s cheapest home. The firm who was responsible for the $2100 Nano ‘world’ car in 2008 claims that the 20m2 prefabricated dwellings – priced at about $700 – can be built in about a week. It hopes to launch it next year.

Meanwhile, an online designer community has been engaged in a similar effort. In a blog post last year, marketing consultant Christian Sarkar and business academic Vijay Govindarajan challenged the design community to come up with ideas for a home that can be built for under $300. The hundreds of entries for The $300 House have been ranked by popularity.

What is immediately striking is the range of approaches that the designers have taken. Each seeking to tackle a different aspect of the problem: some focus on materials, others on layout. While some restrict themselves to a single unit, others consider the context that the homes would be placed in.

There is a strong focus on materials – and many of the designs use a similar method: filling bags with local materials to use as building blocks. The winning home, Totally Tubular, is one of these. Designer Patti Souter’s dwelling comprises a base of rubber bags filled with rubble, gravel or sand for structural stability, and a light upper wall of mesh tubes filled with straw or chips.

The designer cites the advantages of her idea: the technique is easy to learn, which means the homes can be built by residents, and it uses local materials, so the inhabitants can source components themselves.

Approaches such as these eliminate the need for skilled labour and advanced technology, but they raise a wider question about what the designer’s role should be. The ability to construct your own home is referred to as ’empowering’, but many poor people already do this. The justification for intervening in such situations is clearer if you contribute technology that is out of the reach of the poor – such as prefabricated homes assembled by professionals.

Furthermore, as one commenter says: ‘When people build their own houses, they void any warranty, and when the roof collapses killing families, the designer has no legal liability.’

The first runner-up, iLines, uses a similar technique. The major difference is that the Earthbag House Community comprises a group of homes, rather than just one. Joint and extended families are common in many developing countries and poor families tend to have several children. As such, the designer has placed seven homes around an atrium – a configuration that would allow families to pool resources and maximise the space available to each person.

iLines’ design is one of the few that do not assume that occupants will be nuclear families. Unfortunately, it falls short in other ways. The proposal notes that ‘polypropelene bags have superior strength and durability as long as they are kept away from too much sunlight’, which ignores the fact that much of the world’s poor live in the tropics.

This lack of context specificity is evident in several designs. Most seem to have homogenised ‘the poor’ into a unified group with common problems. Some attempt break away from this – by offering different options for hot and cold climates, for instance – but this often feels like tokenism rather than a genuine attempt to examine the needs of specific people.

It is impossible for a single design to cater for all – simply swapping the filling of the walls does not transform a home for the deserts of north Africa to one for the sub-zero temperatures of the Peruvian Andes, or a structure built to withstand earthquakes for flood-prone regions. Variation is equally pronounced between urban and rural areas.

People have spent centuries developing appropriate building techniques for their conditions, using available materials. A one-fits-all-solution is, therefore, unworkable.

The winning designers will now attend a workshop, where they can collaborate with potential residents. However, unless communities that already suit particular homes are chosen, this exercise may make the initial designs redundant.

Some designers address these issues. For instance for 300 possibilities – in sixth place – the creator examines the contexts that poor people lived in and suggests techniques for particular conditions. In areas of heavy rainfall, for instance, it recommends building on slopes; for hot environments, it proposes shaded courtyard. Its ideas are not prescriptive, but this very fact makes it appropriate.

Entry ten, meanwhile, suggests ways in which multiple, contrasting open spaces of different scales and levels of access can be used to create a community. Homes are placed around semi-private central courtyards, but open onto a street, which includes public spaces and markets.

Meanwhile, in fourth place was the design for a community in Bangladesh. This team makes a genuine effort to examine the needs of residents. They observe that the land has ‘relatively secure tenure’, consider the backgrounds of the residents and proposes a range of techniques to improve homes, rather than a single design, including the treatment of bamboo against insect attack, concrete foundation posts to keep bamboo out of contact with the ground and the stabilization of earth using cement.

Tailoring designs to specific needs is the only way to create a something fit for purpose – and by not doing so the designers do not account for people’s livelihoods. In rural contexts, for instance, providing facilities for securing livestock would make sense. Urban slumdwellers would benefit from live-work units or the inclusion of space for running a business – like in Project Ground Up.

It is also remarkable that many fail to consider basic necessities such as toilets and outdoor or well-ventilated cooking facilities. Lighting and air, too, are given scarce attention. The winning design uses bottles to let through light, while the Hybrid House, uses shutters that let it breezes. However, other designs, such as the Stone Dome, comprise few windows and little space.

These errors highlight the folly of designing without really understanding the problem. The main issue with housing the poor is one of planning – the fact that slum homes spring up individually with no underlying infrastructure – sanitation, electricity or clean running water – is why they are such abhorrent places to live.

The principal of replacing individual homes, as and when poor families buys them, is a recipe for disaster. A better strategy would be to build a new development. This seems to be the intention – the $300 House team says they plan to build a ‘model village’, but the $300 price tag does not include the costs of infrastructure, so it would be interesting to see how much this escalates.

In its current form, the prospects of rolling these designs out on a large scale are slim. For one thing, $300 is a lot of money for people who barely have enough to live on. To create any meaningful development, the lead will have to come from public authorities rather than by selling to individual households.

A viable home could be created, however, by combining the best elements of the designs. There is something missing, though: at the present pace of urbanisation, space in cities is becoming scarce, and the reality is that high-rise construction will have to become a major part of any solution.

For more on the The $300 House competition and images visit Jovoto.

Guest blogger Debika Ray

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Show RCA: Young architects’ future vision

Emerging architects are faced with real issues that demand some innovative thinking. Here three young designers from the Royal College of Art in London explain how they hope to make change with their graduate show projects.

Project Title: A Happy Thamesmeadium
Student: Craig Allen

‘From April next year we will start measuring our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving, not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life,’ stated UK prime minister David Cameron on 25 November 2010.

Could a failed vision of utopia be sustained through a re-appropriation of aspiration values?

It’s 2021. The British government’s newly-established Office of National Well-being has partnered with the Office of National Statistics. Private enterprises begin to adapt a set of tactics in order to convince local authorities of their capability to provide the best realisations of the governments’ happiness targets.

Candy & Candy [developer of luxury residential building One Hyde Park in London], look toward Thamesmead – an area with the highest levels of negative equity, mortgage fraud and repossessions in the capital – as virgin land for lucrative investment towards creating its very own twenty-first century Happy Grosvenor Estate.

What if private enterprise exploited the happiness index?

This project speculates on the developer Candy & Candy turning its focus away from the luxury market and towards social housing.

By designing in value plucked from the happiness index and establishing a funding partnership with Coca-Cola’s Institute of Happiness, a new saccharin social housing model begins to emerge in a Thamesmead divided up into an archipelago and reliant upon the arrival of Crossrail.

Project title: Foreign Bodies – The Refugee Hospital
Student: Luke Smith

Foreign refugees living in London struggle to become integrated with public services, including the National Health Service. The range and severity of medical problems faced by these transient groups are greatly increased as a result of the less developed health services in their countries of origin, and compounded by the traumatic conditions which forced their exile into the UK.

The Refugee Hospital is an independent institution where refugee patients can access free medical treatment provided by doctors who are themselves refugees. This allows the effective treatment of medical conditions which are rarely seen amongst the host population, by doctors who have experience in treating them.

The hospital also functions as monitoring centre for global heath trends, as well as highlighting the inequalities between heath services of different countries. These issues are exposed and presented to public and political audiences as means of raising awareness and inciting change.

Project title: Ministry of Chinese Culture
Student: Pierre Shum

In the last twenty years, Chinas has become prominent on the global economic stage. However, its cultural status is still lacking in comparison. How then can architecture be used to promote, integrate and display Chinese culture within the City of London?

Nostalgic repetition of cultural references can no longer provide a viable strategy for integration between Chinese and British cultures. Now cultural relationships will dictate the future of this integration.

The Ministry of Chinese Culture, located near Bank [in the heart of the City], celebrates the colossal and pervasive phenomenon of ‘Made in China’ as a telling and contemporary element of Chinese culture.

This ‘excessive manufacturing’ will be displayed in this Ministry, part of a London-wide masterplan of over 30 ministries which aim to promote Chinese culture.

Craig Allen, Luke Smith and Pierre Shum exhibited as part of their masters in architecture at the Show RCA 2011.  Read our report on the Vehicle Design Show published in Wallpaper*.

Guest blogger Sean Jackson

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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