grou serra architecture

David Adjaye with Wiel Arets, Vedran Mimica, and Jenna Staff
Edited by Grou Serra

Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology

Grou Serra You have a very pluralistic approach to architecture. You talk about place making and the role of light and sun, you also are very occupied with architecture as an object but on the other hand you consider it a social act and you talk about responding to climate and geography, local culture. All that while trying not to design, but as you put it - to disappear. Can you talk about this multiplicity of ideas?

David Adjaye Yeah. I think that I take this position, which is.. seems rather multi-headed, but in a way, I sort of feel like the conditions of the city and the societies that we live in sort of demands a much more multi-headed response to the question of making architecture. I think that there are fundamentals that are always at work, but I think the fundamentals become less concrete for me. They become ideological, and positioned and in a way I become more and more, as I sort of mature in this subject, become very much more interested in the way in which, with the confidence of having a kind of maybe a more ideological core, one is able to test that against different conditions. And that, I think might be the time that I'm in, but I find that testing very stimulating, and the results that it produces.

Grou Serra You talked about how people migrate, and its applicable to your situation as you've lived in so many different countries. And you mentioned that it helped you to not take any location as being the norm. What type of norms you are referring to when you say that?

David Adjaye I think that there are habits that come from, a kind of, having a kind of, a singular sense of a kind of an importance of place. That is kind of romantic. And also just to do with duration, time, so there's a kind of durational relationship that creates habits and kind of patterns. And those are the norms that I'm talking about. Most people have those.

Grou Serra You mentioned in the first question ideology. Can you talk a little bit about your ideology more specifically?

David Adjaye I think fundamentally believing in architecture as a kind of organizing system for society and a mechanism for city making. And that, within that there's a kind of rich tradition that has, you know, really from the most primal senses of enclosure and aperture right through to the complexities of, you know, hybrid buildings that we're dealing with now. Or not, or not complex. I don't know what else to say.


Grou Serra How do you see the making of a place in relation to time?

David Adjaye I think place making is the essential thing that we do. The essential thing that I'm interested in. I mean I almost would say that place making is more important to be than buildings. Some people prefer buildings, but I prefer place making. And the notion of place making for me it's this idea to be able to concretise that information, that creates a certain citizenry in a society, in a city. And to find a way to make sense of how that can speak to a message about a certain time, in a way. The specificity of the time and the way, the fact that the architecture maybe is frozen in that time is something that I enjoy. It's not something that I find problematic. I don't find it necessary for me to try and find a timelessness. In fact I find that kind of too abstract for my brain to even comprehend. I mean people use that so easily, so casually, I don't know what that means. I'm more interested in trying to find the kind of resolution which makes the most sense. To me.

Grou Serra You reference a lot of african artefacts - in an abstracted way - when talking about your projects. And you also mention that you want your architecture to go beyond the idea of the object. Do you see these artefacts as a cultural heritage or as primitive models for your projects?

David Adjaye Well, I don't like the word primitive. [Laughs] We'll start with that. But I specifically reference a lot of artifacts, not as a way to kind of make simulacrums or to find fundamental reductions. But because for me, I think that there's something about that period of work that happened, you know, coming out of the medieval... Or even pre. I mean, what am I talking about. Like, Nok architecture goes back three thousand years. So, there was a kind of way in which the civilizations on the continent used abstraction as a very powerful coding device - for representing notions of society, enclosure, adornment, also an abstraction away from nature, even though it was simulating and playing with nature, a kind of abstraction that was separated from nature that really spoke about man's articulation of his environment - that I found very consistent right through to the most mundane objects, and I thought that was interesting, because in a way this is pre-technology, pre even industrialized technology. There's this very interesting... You know, and I think it's a kind of human thing, about trying to create abstractions which speak to something more. So I've been very fascinated with looking back at these objects. Almost like pieces of technology, so for me they're not romantic, at all, they're real. And they present sort of systems for me. Sometimes they present literal systems for an approach to dealing with a mundane condition of industrialization which I'm problematized by, or they present messages about how to understand how to deal with an environmental strategy. So they're very powerful for me. And also they decouple me from me known knowledge, from my literature. you know, I have a fantastic library of books, I know them all, I know all the references in them. But I want sometimes the work to not, not sometimes - all the time, I don't want the work to sort of... When I know the reference very literally, I'm very worried with me work, I don't like it. So I try to go past the references that I know. And usually, entering a different realm allows me to shake my own comfort zone. So it's really kind of continually using objects, or the textiles, or the pieces to also question my own comfort zone. It's a very strange thing. It's sometimes not about literacy but it's sometimes about inspiration, too.

Grou Serra Adolf Loos famously said that "art does not belong in architecture" when criticizing the often too formal approach of his contemporaries. Do you think formalism has a place in today's architecture?

David Adjaye Formalism?

Grou Serra Yes.

David Adjaye Oh wow. I think, that, you know, There's a kind of end to big grand statements. I don't find that statement too relevant, in the sense that it doesn't speak to anything to do with the way in which I see positions happening. I mean I think that there's a kind of return, and you could say that almost every century there's a kind of return. And there's a kind of exploration that's happening, very much, across all platforms and there's a freedom away from feeling that any dogma has any kind of specific power. So, I think that there's a sense of freedom to explore in this time that creates strange monsters and very interesting projects. And you know, from it, synthesis clearly happens and some kind of direction always finds a way, I think. So, I think that's it's not just about formalism it's just about this idea of being able to explore, right now. And to not have any boundaries. And whether that's useful or not, that's actually a different conversation. It's certainly the arena.


Grou Serra You also mention that you like to collaborate with artists that see space and structure as integral to their work, because it involves a merging of skill and aesthetics that is impossible in either separate fields. Can you talk more precisely about what art can then bring to architecture?

David Adjaye I think, more than actually, necessarily looking for artists that have a spatial practice, because that's not really that important to me, it's the idea of the art practice as a philosophical and intellectual inquiry that I find very fascinating. And, what artists have been able to do is to get a certain kind of freedom, that architecture continually loses. Because we sort of write it out of our own scripts, you know. We write it out. Because we don't quite have a way to kind of make it have a relevance and a language that artists do. There's a precise power that artists have about the relevance of what they do. And we can articulate it, but in the end it's sort of very hard to... you know, very few can stand being it. And so it became very interesting to me to just collaborate with artists. At the beginning it was to do with the Royal College of Art, the school I went to, and really discussing issues about the city and about ideas with artists. And hearing their position and to see the uncompromising nature in which artists were able to behave, in a way that architects could not. And that was fascinating to me. So I kind of wanted to understand the basis of their certain convictions. So it started off as dialogues in bars and stuff, and it became collaborations, to see what kind of potential they would have on architecture. ANd in the end, it's sort of become very fluid now, I mean, I don't insist on collaborating with artists, but I'm very happy to. Only because in the end, for me, I insist on working with artists that don't have preconceived ideas about what they think art is, either, you know.

Grou Serra The Smithsonian African American Museum is - as you put it - your defining project. Also one of the biggest in terms of scope and budget. Can you comment on the relationship between influence, innovation and money in architecture?

David Adjaye Influence, innovation and money. Specifically to the African American museum? Or just generally?

Grou Serra Generally.

David Adjaye Oh I see. No, not at all, not at all. I mean, architecture is about spending money to construct things, at all levels. So, money is slightly unavoidable in the game, but innovation and influence can happen in the most mundane projects that can be supremely profound. And you may have the most incredible projects but actually make something that make no impact at all. I don't see them in any way interrelated, but I see them as autonomous things that are important, yeah. They all have their own power. I think that you can become a very successful commercial project, in our time. Commercial architect. But that doesn't necessarily mean you're, you know, an architect that actually has a profound ability to have something that contributes to the subject. But also, you can. It depends. It just depends on what you do with that opportunity that you got.

Grou Serra In 2008 during the downturn, you said that you had to "go big or go home". And that you went big. You make it sound very simple. How did that happen?

David Adjaye I tend to make things sounds very simple. It's probably the criticism of the way I talk. [Laughs] No, I just meant that I faced a scenario where I could've just contracted and just sort of return to a traditional what I call accountant or banker strategy, we just strip everything down and go down to the bare minimum and see if you can survive. Or, I chose to, you know, expand my practice, that was all. Really, it was a propulsion for me to expand my practice beyond and to learn that actually I lived in a globalized condition and not a localized one. Even though, the world seemed local. And that even though there was a kind of condition in London, there were other opportunities elsewhere. It forced me to become much more nomadic in my practice. But that sort of nomadic quality has become something that I now, absolutely treasure, as a quality. Even though it has a huge impact on one's personal life and all these things. It's very destabilizing in terms of your life, but it's incredibly nourishing in terms of your intellectual inquiry and your ability to do things.


Jenna Staff How do you approach authorship in your practice?

David Adjaye It's a studio. I don't have partners, I have associates. And they collaborate with me. I collaborate very much with them but I'm... You know, there is no.. I don't have a sense of like studios making options where I'm choosing or anything. I don't do that. It's really a scenario where one is working on the projects, and then I bring it to my teams, my teams then feedback. I get crited [critiqued]. In a way, I put myself in the position of being crited. So, my teams, you know, my directors really sort of attack me. [Laughs] To see whether it's working. And whether I feel comfortable. And when I'm comfortable that I can sustain all the questions that they're firing at me about the project, then the project usually goes to the next stage. And then it has teams involved, you know. I have people who've worked with me for a very long time so they know how I work, so, you know, I have several directors can almost take my initial studies and through very minimal dialogue really accelerate projects very fast. And that's just to do with experience, that's the teams I have. And then, when that moment is exhausted, or if my associated feel like they need to move on, I'm very happy. And I've actually supported a lot of practices that have come out of my studio. You know, I've worked for çlvaro Siza and for Eduardo Souto de Moura. And, you know, there's something very beautiful about being in these studios, where this idea of a kind of, a space of inquiry is happening. And you're very welcome to be part of it, in a very intimate way. But it's not about a kind of an acceleration to win work. You know, the purpose of the studio is not just to win work, yeah. The purpose of the studio is to create an environment for enquiry, and for a kind of evolution of enquiry. And, for me that was a completely... When I kind of saw that model, I became completely asphyxiated with it. And that became the model of practice that I wanted. It's the model of practice that I have.

Grou Serra You mentioned Souto de Moura. He famously said that his two great masters are Mies and Siza. If you had to name yours, who would they be?

David Adjaye [Laughs] I don't have a practice like Eduardo! I can't name any two figures, no. Sadly. Eduardo's practice is extraordinary, because it's very precise, the way he attacks it. And I'm full of admiration for him. In fact he's someone I learned a lot from. But I think also Eduardo's practice is situated in an understanding of Portugal post the revolution and its democratization. And an idea of modernity which somehow counters a certain traditional frame that was the matrix for a very long time. And, in a way creates a radicality, in that context. And allows him to operate in a way which I think is very powerful. And I think that you find that his practice is, as a result, more local than global. I know he's doing projects around the world and he's very capable, but somehow, Eduardo loves that kind of.. He's had this incredible dance and fight with Portugal. Wanting to change it. [Laughs]


Wiel Arets So you have a big challenge now in front of you. Because you can add to Beirut, Lagos, Dakar - Chicago. You have a challenge, because you're asked to do a proposal for the Obama Library. Could you say something, about that challenge?

David Adjaye You know, it's interesting because... It's an extraordinary moment, and it's unlike any other competition I've ever entered. Because in a way, it seems to have a very powerful focusing agenda to do with a moment of politics, society and architecture. Which is very interesting to me. It's in this incredible city. But in a way, without sort of talking about the project... [Laughs]

Wiel Arets I'm not asking you to talk about the project.

David Adjaye No, I know you're not.

Wiel Arets I'm talking about the challenge.

David Adjaye No, the challenge is to see if one can actually create a synthesis for this very interesting president. Who's created an incredible, for me, an incredible legacy. When you really start to read it. And, in a way, sort of repositioned the way in which the presidency can work, whether you see it as a failure or not, through a very complicated time of factions. You know, when you start to kind of dive in on your research, there's this... the way in which certain things have been done is quite extraordinary, and in a way, I think the ambition, from what I'm reading and how I've sort of read him, is one which profoundly sees the idea of architecture as a lens to make continuity rather than one to make a statement. And that's also very interesting. Because this is a president who doesn't see himself as finishing, but beginning. And, what does that mean? And how does architecture play a role in there? Because, really, the traditional library is much more kind of end-game product. Where it's a kind of summing up. And I think we have, probably for the first time in the lineage of it, something which speaks to a different narrative, and maybe changes the nature of the project and the opportunity. I mean, the opportunity is quite profound because in a way, it offers a moment to use federal dollars. And, in way, that's more than just to do with statesmanship, but maybe, something much much more. It's very exciting. It's extremely challenging, but very exciting.

Vedran Mimica But David, you put this political talking about Souto de Moura. What was called the revolution in Portugal? It was called with a flower?

Grou Serra The carnation revolution.

Vedran Mimica I lived a bit in Portugal in the eighties. So you put that, and I think that you are very right, that Siza and Souto de Moura have been kind of embracing to democracy after a totalitarian regime. And now, your challenge, what Wiel is asking, is how to interpret through the formal means, some legacy. So my question, and then we come to the famous Godard sentence "It's easy to make a film about politics, but how to make a political film". So maybe it's a question on how to make a political building. And that I think is challenging. Because it's a unique, actually American phenomena, isn't it?

David Adjaye Totally.

Vedran Mimica A presidential Library.

David Adjaye Totally. It's an American thing.

Vedran Mimica It is indeed political.

David Adjaye Totally. I think that ultimately, it has requirements, but ultimately they're not really drivers. They're quite mundane in the sense of... rudimentary.

Vedran Mimica Right.

David Adjaye So, in a way, there is a kind of, there's a charge. And you know, the president recognizes this. There's a charge to use architecture to send a message. And he's looking at the seven architects to see if they can make the message, with a building. And this is really powerful, because usually, most people, most, even past - recent architects kind of put the message in technology and the system and the narrative and the building is just a kind of reference to an idea of what a building should be. And, I don't think this president is interested in that. So, it makes for a very powerful opportunity. How do I do it? You'll find out. [Laughs]

Vedran Mimica I'm more going back to perhaps, Bush and Bob Stern.

David Adjaye I was speaking to that.

Vedran Mimica It's a kind of... there's some correspondency between the two. [Laughs]

David Adjaye You know, I visited it. And I think that Stern was really more interested in the representation of power, than he was in somehow encapsulating some sense of the power. So, in a way, the compound is almost like a stately... It's like a stately palace, you know. And I think that that representation rang well. And it rings in Dallas, which has a kind of... Doesn't have a legacy of a deep history of architecture. SO, in a way, it sort of presents this thing in a different way. But I think this is a very different thing. And also, this is in Chicago, which has an incredible legacy of democracy and a kind of architecture that speaks to a kind of democratic ideal. I mean, we're in one of them, here it is [S.R. Crown Hall]. This is a political act, for me.

Vedran Mimica It is.

David Adjaye [Laughs]

Wiel Arets In which sense?

David Adjaye In the sense that it's... It presents, it flattens an organizational hierarchy. It forces a kind of... A building without corridors, that's pretty powerful. [Laughs]


Wiel Arets You put, you set up this office in Accra, because for sure you believe that there's a lot to... as you call it, opportunities in Africa. And we can talk about America, we can talk about Europe, but I would like you to say, why you set up the office in Accra, and what you believe you could do for Africa.

David Adjaye I set up... I mean, Accra is set up not because of... It's very much an ideological set up, yeah. But, just traveling around the continent, what became very clear to me, is that there's a way in which the built environment is being made which really, almost, ninety percent of the time, omits the art of architecture. Simply because of the way in which the continent has become a sort of residue for a sort of what I call "aid architecture" or a kind of architecture, that's sort of, you know, "you should be grateful for". And, I found that... I think that really happened from the eighties to now. And it's created a sense of, a kind of warped, a very distorted, mutated sense of what modern can be. And if you talk to young african kids, it's interesting to me, that they slightly tear it apart, and mutate it on to other things. They don't have an ability to absorb it, because they feel that it's fake. And I think there's implicitly a feeling that it's not their, but they don't have any other alternatives. So, if you look at the imagery, and comics, and things like that, that are coming from these incredibly diverse and smart kids, it's torn apart and mutated, and slightly destroyed. And I think that, that's because of that absence. And, in way, what I'm very keen to see, and I mean, that I'm starting to do it, is to see if one, in these amazing geographies, can postulate examples of architecture which have a certain luxury and precision, and enjoyment of place, that has been lacking for a long time. And in a way, there's a kind of foundational, if I can use that word, foundational sense to that. Because, in a way, the modernization of Africa starts with a kind of repositioning of modern technology to the continent. And then a kind of, a slight adjustment to do with the deep fundamental problem of the climate and cultural tropes, which are not, know. So there's a kind of defamation of the modernity. But there isn't a kind of moment of using technology, and enjoying, as your word which I love, the luxury of the place. And there a very minimal examples that I know. Very few. But when they appear, they're very powerful. And in a way, I think that the continent can actually make a very powerful architecture, and I'm very interested in that. I mean, yeah, I'm very excited about that.

Vedran Mimica Then I always... since I'm originally from south Europe, then working in north Europe, and working now here. And then, you always somehow, basically come back to your origins. Then, I always ask myself, which my origins would be "Balkans" and say, what kind of knowledge is relevant there. And to what extent us, with a kind of international global knowledge, can really now deal, in a local situation. And that's always very interesting, it's very tense as well. Do you belong there? Are you preaching there? Are you understanding? Or you are not understanding, you are modernizing. And this is ideological setup. Ultimately you know, you become inevitably ideological, but you are kind of bringing other things to it, other knowledge and without that you cannot operate as an architect or thinker. And that's I think very interesting point, here.

Wiel Arets No, but I think it's... When I was a student, at a certain moment there were people from all over Europe, in Italy there was a lot of debate going on Italy, New York, Rossi, Peter Eisenman, and there was this momentum of post-modernism. For example Japan was very powerful, and also this momentum about America. But, Africa is, and that's what myself I'm very much interested in Africa, what could happen in Africa? It's a lot of countries, like Rwanda, Ghana, could be very strong.

David Adjaye Could be, yeah.