On Tuesday, David Adjaye received a W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University, along with 12 Years a Slave filmmaker Steve McQueen, the late writer and activist Maya Angelou, and six others who were recognized for their contributions to African American culture. This fall, the architect also celebrates the opening of the early childhood education center at the base of his recently-completed Sugar Hill housing development in Harlem (click the link to read more about the building). The building combines pre-kindergarten classrooms, permanently affordable housing, and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. For Adjaye, who has offices in New York, London, and Accra, Ghana, and a satellite in Berlin, Sugar Hill is just one of many commercial, residential, and institutional projects his firm is currently working on. Most notably, his Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), currently under construction on the Mall in Washington D.C., is set to open next year.
David Adjaye
Photo courtesy Culture Lab Detroit
David Adjaye, speaking at Culture Lab Detroit in April.

Architectural Record: You’ve done a New York townhouse for a billionaire art collector, an experimental dwelling without a budget in China, and a number of small pavilions. A common thread in all of them is a love for discarded or unpopular materials like oil-soaked travertine, tulipwood, and rejected slate. Why is that?

David Adjaye: We live in a time where material resources are becoming scarcer. In industries that really use materials expensively—and architecture is one of the big consumers of material on the planet—we need to look at what we think is valuable and not valuable and to question those judgments, which have become patterns that we’ve inherited. I’m interested in finding new materials that can create new value systems, new appreciations. That’s something I look for in my work all the time.

Another common thread in your work is an attempt to make a project disappear or become invisible, yet the reality is that they are sometimes very massive or heavy. It seems to be almost like a trick, for lack of a better word.

That’s a bad word in architecture—but a very impressive thing to be able to pull off…

You seem to be doing it quite well.

Actually they’re very deceptive. When you see the buildings in person, they dissolve and appear. I pay a lot of attention to that. I work with a lot of very platonic forms, very bold forms, but I also dissolve it in the way in which it’s materially made. When I say ‘disappear,’ I don’t mean literally. I mean there is a kind of appearance and a kind of recess—things that are not sparkling at you. There’s a great tradition of that in vernacular architecture, but I want to go even further, past what the vernacular is doing, with natural materials. I love that moment at twilight when the fluctuation of light and material becomes very mutable and things almost fade into each other. I’m trying to find some of that quality in my work.

A few years ago, you did a temporary pavilion in London where the closely packed boards suspended from the ceiling look very similar to the “forest” of wood columns that will cover the lobby ceiling at the NMAAHC. Do these small projects serve as experiments for the larger ones?

Yes, more and more. I refer to them as small monuments—these moments that create the opportunity to test something. It’s very difficult to make that proposition without having the experience of that folly. I wouldn’t have had the confidence.

Your Sugar Hill project provides housing for very low-income residents, and formerly homeless. You’ve also designed for the other end of the spectrum. What about the middle?

I’ve worked for all three actually. I’ve done houses for very wealthy people, and for the very poor, but I also try to be in the middle. In Africa, what I’m doing is a lot of middle-class housing. It’s about making housing stock for this huge emerging middle class. There’s a lot of housing we’re taking on board that is very exciting. Sugar Hill is fascinating for me. It’s not about housing, because you can argue, “Why are you getting fancy architects to build low-cost housing as a funny experiment?” The experiment there is to bring together a mixed program into a housing scheme, because what is always missing for me in these housing projects, especially at the low end, is the support that’s required when you create density at that scale. In middle-class environments, when you have the density, you have a great commercial environment that supports it; you can put in 200 units and not worry about putting in the infrastructure. In poorer neighborhoods, the commercial center doesn’t support these communities. So when you build large tracts of housing, you get a sort of siloing, which is deeply problematic. What’s great about this project is we were able to bring in a community museum, daycare facilities, an urban farm on the roof, and an art program.

You’ve said you spend a third of your life on a plane. What does the global nature of architecture now mean for the practice of architecture in the future?

There are two kinds of practice. You can live in a place that you’re connected to, where you’re part of a network, and build, and be part of that community. Or you can do the kind of thing I’m interested in, looking at the way in which typologies can grow, and evolve, and mutate, and can be informed by different cultures, different places. The kind of practice I’ve taken on board means that I have to move around in the world. I’ve propelled myself into this position.

What does that mean for your lifestyle?

For my lifestyle, it’s a big sacrifice. But I grew up moving around as a child. My father was a career diplomat and we moved every three years. I’ve known this kind of life, and I love it.