David Adjaye: “Place, Identity, and Transformation” | Talks at Google

David Adjaye: “Place, Identity, and Transformation” | Talks at Google


[MUSIC PLAYING] SHIH HUA LIONG:
Welcome, everyone. Thanks for coming. And welcome, David,
to Talks at Google. DAVID ADJAYE: Thank you. SHIH HUA LIONG:
Just a quick intro. David is one of the leading
architects of his generation. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot
about him in the news of late. One of the most
significant projects I think that you’ve done to
date, at least in the US, is the Smithsonian’s
National Museum of African-American
History and Culture. And so would really love to
talk to you a little bit more about that. I know you were
born in Tanzania, come from a family of diplomats,
you moved around a lot, lived in many different cities,
and sort of have your base in London. Adjaye Associates
has offices in London and New York, Berlin
and Accra, right? DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. SHIH HUA LIONG:
And so we’d really love to hear a little bit
more about your background and how that’s sort of shaped
you and your work today. DAVID ADJAYE: Well, I was born– well, I’m not going to give
you a date, [LAUGHS] but– well, that doesn’t matter. That’s OK. But I was born at a time when
Africa was really transforming from a colonial
sort of continent to a country of independent
sort of countries. And my father was part
of that first generation of independence
diplomats and politicians who were trying to
make the country. And so I was born on the
that soup of that change and this kind of old
world, new world trying to forge a new identity. And my father was really part
of that generation of diplomats that was then sent to
Africa first, but then the world, to learn how to
be diplomats of a state. And so my childhood was two
years in a different city, six months, three months. And we went from– my parents are [INAUDIBLE],,
with just west Africa, but me and my brothers
were born in east Africa, so Uganda, Kenya. And then we migrated up to north
Africa, to the Middle East, and then to Europe. So by the time I was 13, I had
sort of lived in nearly 15, 20 cities. SHIH HUA LIONG: And why
did you choose London as your sort of home base? DAVID ADJAYE: I didn’t choose
it, my father chose London. My youngest brother– we’re
all very different, competing. We’re four boys,
very competitive. But my youngest brother
is mentally and physically handicapped. When he was five years old,
he had a fever in Africa and it was incredibly
difficult to deal with it. The temperature sort of
flipped into sort of a really unsustainable level and he
came out two weeks later with brain damage. So it happened when he was
five and it was very traumatic for my family. And a way, it was
the time that sort of shifted the dynamic of traveling
in my family and my father. My father’s career changed. He became local staff,
rather than carrying on as a kind of career diplomat. And he chose London
because predominately, we had gone to Anglophone
schools, so English schools. So he decided that London
was the right place for us to stay and to get the care
that he needed for my youngest brother, the sort of best
medical care that he could. SHIH HUA LIONG: And I
feel like that really speaks to the core of who
you are as an architect, right, in terms of the social
responsibility of architecture and how it can transform
our societies So talk to us a little bit about that. DAVID ADJAYE: No. I mean, in a way, that’s
the grounding which started my interest in the
nature of space and space and society, space and citizens,
space and freedom, space and accessibility. And it just came
from a young child pushing a disabled
brother around everywhere. And in the late ’80, early ’90s,
disability were not around. So we would always
be the family that were kind of pushing our brother
to the back of a building and sort of yanking him up and
getting people to sort of hold him to get him up into buildings
because ramps weren’t around. Very simple things like
ramps and elevators that make level access for
people, all these things weren’t around. And it really got me incensed. And things like come respite
centers for disabled people, places to have good
care would be given, those are very ad hoc
and horrible places with just sort of infrastructure
that really slightly de-humanized the
experience that was already a kind of traumatic experience
for people without ability. And for some strange
reason, architecture, I became very sensitized to it. And I decided that it wasn’t
just for me about aesthetics or monuments or
anything like that, but it was also principally
an approach problem-solving, but it’s also about a kind of
democratizing this knowledge to create the greatest
opportunity for everyone so that architectural design
is not just for an elite or for people who
can afford things. It’s not about the value of
it, it’s about the intellect. And if the intellect
is what’s being sold, then that should be able
kind of be for everyone. We like to say in
our office, we really believe that luxury
should be for everyone. And we don’t mean luxury
as in gold, but luxury as the capacity to think should
be for a project which is maybe making a cafe for a truck
stop in the middle of nowhere as much as maybe
working for you guys. It’s the same. SHIH HUA LIONG: Absolutely. I think that’s a really good
segue to some of the work that you’re doing here in
New York with the Sugar Hill Housing Program in
Harlem, which I’m quite familiar with because
it’s right down the road for me. So 125 units of
affordable housing. DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. SHIH HUA LIONG:
Tell us a little bit about how you got
that project and what it meant to you and
you and even the motifs that you see at the
front of the building. DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. That was my first big
competition in the city. And I really was
very excited about it because essentially, the
principal tenant of it was to deal with homeless
housing in New York and to use design to really talk
about how do you integrate– homeless housing usually is
seen as a blight on communities, people don’t want to
have it near their homes because they think it
devalues their property, there’s all this kind of
stigma with the communities that are around it. And we said this was a
very important project because it deals with a
key and clear social issue and that actually, design can
be used to coordinate, solve the problem of the sort
of flow and movement that happens around these
institutions in terms of different types
of people, but also that we can also make an
architecture that gives dignity to this community
but is not expensive. It’s also in that sort
of low cost budget. And it was a big signature
project for DeBlasio. It started at the end
of Bloomberg’s sort of administration and
became DeBlasio’s kind of signature project to talk
about the importance of housing for all. So in a way, the architectural
discussion at the time was about luxury buildings and
ever more fantastical shapes, but actually the kind of
more meaningful conversation was happening about,
well, how do we get good design right to the
people that need it most? Of the building really
speaks to the history of its place in
the sense that it talks about the
fact that actually, that part of East Harlem
was only 100 years ago seen as the countryside. It’s very funny. It was farmland. SHIH HUA LIONG: Right. It was upstate. DAVID ADJAYE: It was upstate. That’s where you got
to get away from it all and now it’s very much
the island and the city. And so we wanted to
kind of reference that. So we were referencing
the great bucolic idea of kind of flower gardens. and there were many flower
gardens up there at that time because Harlem is a Dutch word,
it was a Dutch colony actually, that sort of formed
that Upper Harlem. So I was very
fascinated by that, this idea of a kind of Dutch
farming sort of flowering kind of culture. So that’s kind of embossed
in the architecture. But it’s also where Duke
Ellington parked his car, it used to be a car
park there all the time. And the building has
about a 30% intake of musicians who, for
some strange reason, are probably the largest
group that become homeless. Because we see these kind
of successful musicians, but there are so many
that dedicate their lives and don’t make it and sort of
don’t have family, fall out of the social structure,
and end up on the street. And they’re these incredibly
talented people who have just fallen off the edge of society. So it sort of was interesting
that the building is sort of filled with those
characters so we wanted to make spaces where they
could teach and support, that’s part of the
buildings program, that they can mentor young
kids or do rich programs. There’s a storytelling museum
that we put in because we also wanted to not have a
building like this not be near culture because it’s
usually the furthest thing away for this community
to be near culture. So we brokered with the
city and with the sort of cultural
institutions to create a children’s storytelling
museum in the building so that there’s
continual life coming and the arts are
celebrated there. The performing arts
are there, that’s a little bit of commercial
space but very, very little. SHIH HUA LIONG:
And the preschool. DAVID ADJAYE: And
there’s the preschool, which is a very, very
important component to have very high quality
preschool offering right in the building. And the third part which,
is not fully activated, is that there’s a kind
of farmer’s market that kind of sometimes
comes to the plaza. But actually, we got
zoning from Amanda Burton to allow urban farms to be
on the roof of the residents so they can have their own
allotments on the roof, which we’re working on now. So really, the building is
a kind of a total ecology and really, these are
people who are just getting their first homes of
families are single people. And it’s meant to
show that this can be a transmitory part and a kind
of dignified part of our city. It doesn’t have to feel
like it’s some negative. SHIH HUA LIONG: Absolutely. And you talk a lot about
some of the artists and you’ve worked
with a lot of artists. I know in Harlem, you’re also
working on the Studio Museum. So tell us a little bit about
what that project entails and how it’s going to sort of
transform that neighborhood. DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. So where we were, the Sugar
Hill project is on a 155th, so up in sort of East Harlem. But the Studio Museum in
Harlem is really the beginning of the sort of black Renaissance
arts movement in the US, really sort of at the
moment of the civil rights kind of emancipation moment. So it’s really their 50th
anniversary right now. And they were
basically an agency to deal with the
racism in the arts. It’s really sort of secluded
a lot of white artists and sculptors from coming
into the mainstream because it just wasn’t seen
to be what they should be– they weren’t considered
part of the canon. So there were many
artists that were actually collaborating with
many white artists as young sort of practitioners. But then as their
careers blossomed, the black artists were
kind of left behind and the white
artists kind of rose. And intellectually,
there was a lot of kind of fertile sort of
relationship between these two organizations. As And so the Studio Museum
was born to kind of collect this group and not
to let them get lost and to also make
sure that there was agency and support for this community. So it started off very
much as a very low budget thing, just very simple spaces. Then they got the building
on 125th through the city, brokering a deal with them
to give them a cheap rent. And then Max Bond,
an amazing architect, refurbished it and created three
very large rooms to show work. And more or less, that was
maybe in the sort of ’60s and that has lasted till now. And space has been
falling apart. But last year there was a
big competition in the city and internationally. We won the competition
to rebuild it. And the idea is to really
turn it into the premier arts destination in the north of
the city, so away sort of off the Museum Mile, but up on
125th, very close to Apollo. And really, 125th is
changing dramatically. But it’s lot of commercial
sort of business is coming and there’s very little
cultural anchors. So places like the Apollo,
places like the Studio Museum become very
important to the city because the anchor a
certain continuity. So we are making a building
which tries to create in a way that the Whitney
created something in ’77, a cultural anchor,
that could have just become a kind of
residential area completely. But that cultural
anchor defined the way in which that center works. We’re hoping that by creating
a significant cultural offering of exhibition spaces, lecture
spaces, public engagement education kind of programs
which are very important and studios for artists,
what they became famous for is that they incubated
artists and gave them a year or two years’
studio space to perfect their work as residents. And so that program
will still continue, so there will be
artist-in-residence programs still going on there. And this will become a kind
of major arts destination on 125th. And we’re working with the city,
sort of quite a way into it, we’ll be starting
on site next year to really build this very
significant building, which will hopefully create
an anchor on 125th and then carry the story on in a
kind of much more powerful way. SHIH HUA LIONG: Wonderful. We look forward to
seeing that in New York. DAVID ADJAYE: I think they’re
releasing images in the fall. SHIH HUA LIONG: Oh, great. So we talked about sort of
social housing, the arts. I want to sort of turn
the focus a little bit on libraries and
access to information. Libraries have
really become the– well, used to really
be the focal point of a community for information. I know you’ve worked on the
libraries in the UK, the two ideas. DAVID ADJAYE: [INAUDIBLE], yes. SHIH HUA LIONG: Tell us about
the challenges around that and how you’ve been able
to sort of transform. DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting
because the two projects that I won really at the
beginning my career, sort of 2002, were at that moment
when the internet really was becoming something that
was clearly going to change our world or our
lives and was starting to impact the typology
of certain institutions like libraries. And so there was a
lot of discussion at that time and everybody
said, well, libraries are going to disappear
and everything’s going to be on their laptops. And to a certain extent,
it’s completely changed, but libraries
haven’t disappeared. But they have completely changed
because in a way, if you think about the library,
we think of libraries sort of in a romantic
sense in terms of academic and
historical libraries. But libraries for normal
people, citizens in the city, really happened post-war in
almost all Western cities. It really was after the war that
there was a systematic program to make boxes with books,
and usually a certain amount of books which gave you a
sort of body of knowledge. And that was the way in which
every suburb had something, and that was the first thing
out of libraries outside of the university or the kind
of great sort of institutions. So it’s really a modern
typology, but one that very quickly became– SHIH HUA LIONG: Died down. DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah, died down. It shrunk. But also it became
something that became a very important way
for families and communities to have access to
the sort of– it became a first device to
democratize knowledge, really. But in doing that, also
what it did– apart from just democratizing
knowledge– it also became a
multigenerational institution for communities. Because as communities,
we basically stay away from different
generations naturally. We stay with our
tribes, our age groups. And places like
libraries are actually one of the few places
where multi-generations come together. You see young kids,
you see teens, you see toddlers,
grandma and grandpa. And actually, what
we’ve all realized is that these are really
powerful social incubating spaces. So the competition
entry was to say that the library, yes in terms
of the information has shifted, but actually the idea of
that kind of destination in the community that
brings multi-generations together is even more
necessary in a world where we are now tapped into
things and in a world where things are very expensive
for certain families and our kind of notion of the
unit of the family structure has changed. The library has to do more. It has to become a place
where maybe a single parent family can allow their kids
to stay till 11 o’clock, not just open as a kind of nine
to five or nine till seven. It has to kind of offer
language classes maybe or motor mechanics
or learning massage, it has to offer computer skills. So actually, what
it started to do was it started to
melt what we’re calling lifelong learning
with library services and the notion of
a community center. And so the libraries
that you’re seeing now, we prototyped those
two at that time and we won a lot
of awards for it and started talking about it. And there have been a lot
of big signature projects that were done, but those
were the first to community sort of transformations that
really showed the library world that they could work. And it suddenly just
mushroomed around the world. We had all these library people
coming to London to learn and it’s really had
this incredible effect all over the world. And I was also then brought
sort of almost a decade later to Washington to also then
kickstart their program when then Mayor Anthony Williams came
to London to see the libraries, called me, and wanted me to
go talk to his library team. And we built two libraries
in Washington, as well. And it was, again, helping
them understand this model and really bring
that into making a kind of signature
building which becomes an important community hub. And it’s amazing when we
opened these buildings, people thought, oh,
nobody’s going to go. They’re so full,
they’re oversubscribed and people are being pushed
out when they want to close. It’s actually the reverse. We realized that actually
with the kind of accessibility we have, we also now crave
sort of powerful spaces that allow us to have
a kind of social life that’s meaningful
beyond a retail mall or street, sidewalk. SHIH HUA LIONG: Right. And you talk about how
the library has also started to attract
sort of teenagers, where it’s the spot to go to
is let’s meet at the library. DAVID ADJAYE: That was actually
our benchmark of success. We said if we could
attract young teenagers to meet in the library,
rather than at a retail mall, then we were winning. SHIH HUA LIONG: Absolutely. DAVID ADJAYE: And
that was the test, and thankfully it did happen. SHIH HUA LIONG: So I’m glad
you mentioned Washington. With your significant
sort of signature project there, I’m sure
the audience also love to hear about just the
process of how you started the project, also the
significance of the crown at the National History
of African-American Culture and History. DAVID ADJAYE: Well, that museum
is really a project sort of I guess 200 years in the making,
philosophically, and 20 years to really bring to fruition. And it’s the last possible
site on the monumental core of Washington. The Mall is divided into two
sections, if you don’t know it. It’s basically the museums
that go up to the Capitol from 15th and
Constitution Drive. If you don’t know DC,
it’s basically a cruciform and one part of the cruciform is
very strict, very French, very ordered with lots of museums. The Science and History
Museum is there, there sort of Hirshhorn is there,
the Smithsonian Castle, the American Museum et cetera. And then on the other side,
you have the monuments of the nation and it’s much more
in a kind of English landscape. And it’s taken 200
years to build this. And actually, when
the plan was made, there was a kind of petition
to have a museum that talked about the
African-American experience and its contribution
to America, but it was dismissed as not relevant. And so it’s the
last building that can possibly be built on the
Mall in terms of its master plan. All the institutional
buildings have been built and the monuments are full. They have to find places to
make new monuments, which is why the Vietnam
Memorial is so powerful. It was kind of discovering
a new way of doing it. And we’ve just
completed the last site, which seemed like the
worst site because it’s half the size of all
the other museums. But in a way, the position
of it is so powerful that it allowed
us to do something that maybe we couldn’t have
done if we had a different site. So the museum is
really trying to talk about the story of the
African-American sort narrative from really the Declaration of
Independence, the declaration of emancipation to now. So really, there’s a kind of
journey from the 14th century, so there’s a kind of moment
to think about the impact of slavery and the kind of
commercialization of human trade and how America’s
foundations are in that, but then really how this
community evolves out of that kind of trauma, moved through
incredible movements which shift the legislation and
the mood of this country– and it’s ongoing, as we know– and how that really
allows you to understand the identity of the
African-American here but also to understand
the identity of America. It’s not just a museum
for the community, it’s actually an
American museum which really helps you to
understand fundamentally how America is made. And its narrative for
us was that it really also cements the
relationship between Africa and the Americas. Because by the slave
trade, you have this kind of
incredible relationship that is sort of formed. And so we said
that we didn’t want to just make a museum
which is maybe just to make a kind of
Greek temple and then fill it with artifacts or a
palace or a fabulous building. We thought that with this
building in being so late but being so important
should really be from its very silhouette be
a narrative about the story. So in a way, it
contributes both in terms of its aura in its
landscape as a monument, but also then as a museum
educating in its content. And that kind of very decision
was what distinguished us from our peers because
we were able to present a narrative about how you make
form, which was about speaking from the silhouette
to the very smallest thing inside the building,
that everything is kind of part of the content of
understanding this narrative, everything is asking
you questions. So when we opened the building,
people were like, well, what is this? And so the storytelling
started then. It’s inspired by
Benin caryatid shrine structures in West Africa. Why? A large part of the
community comes from there. Because it was commercial trade,
it was meticulously documented, shockingly. No data about people’s
names or tribes or anything, but the content– the ships’ cargo. So we know where
the ships came from and what they did,
so we know the areas. And so we made a fiction about
that time, the 14th century, what would be the great
things that people would know about from
west and central Africa? And they would all know
about the Yoruba of Benin because they were the
greatest craftsmen. They were the Greeks
of Europe, so they were the Greeks of west Africa. They were the best casters,
the best woodworkers, and the employers or the courts
and empires that were around. There was a lot
of intermarrying. So we said, well, OK,
let’s look at the best arts from that
place and let’s see if we can use that as
a reference to say, this would be one of the
kind of high points of kind of an artistic kind of moment
that would be a memory. And then let’s kind
of create a hybridity, which is the African-American
experience between Africa and America, but then talking
about the experience of then sort of coming from the roots
of the South, the agrarian landscape, working the land,
building the infrastructure of the country, labor. And we wanted to look
at sort of the kind of beautiful traditions of
ironworking, ironsmithing, which was something
that a lot of– if you weren’t in the military
or a carpenter or on the field, ironsmithing was a very
important labor that actually built a lot of South– railway buildings, et cetera. And a lot of
African-American slaves in kind of their first sort
of when they became free went into artsmithing as trades. So we wanted to honor that. We particularly
looked at somebody from Charleston who now is
becoming very well-known as one of the kind of great ironsmiths
of his time, Philip Simmons. And I took one of
his metal ironworks and sort of mapped it
and created a screen from the mapping,
literally, to create sort of what looks like
an ornamental pattern. But it’s actually
really a redrawing of this man’s work
as a kind of way to hybridize the corona form and
to create the nature of labor in the kind of detail
of the building. So that became a kind
of way to kind of make kind of a very
complicated skin which is environmentally responsive. We’re the first gold LEEDs
building on the Mall. I know it’s shocking, but
we recollect our water, we’re sustainable. And then really because
the building concept was to put 50% of the
building underground and then to create two
special chambers up above and to create a narrative
where you go down 80 feet and then you rise up, which is
not a normal museum narrative. In fact, all the
museum people said, this will never work because
you should go into a lobby, it should be grand, and then
you go into rooms like the Met. And we said, no. SHIH HUA LIONG: Rethinking it. DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. So we rethought
this and in a way, we buried history in the ground. And then we talked about
the first professional class being in the upper
level and then the sort of performing arts and
entertainment being above that. And then we created also
the end of the project to draw people the best view
of the entire Mall at the top, where you have a
window which gives you views all the way
to Arlington and right to the Capitol. And it’s the only
place where you can get this incredible overview. So we turned the
building into a sort of bit of a sort of a
tower, a ziggurat, that you sort of climb, a journey
that you go from the ground up to the top. And in doing the
work, our instincts were sort of proven right
because we placed it in the ground and there
was a slave market just behind the White
House on this site, which was astonishing when we
find out the history. So we sort of in a way
by not building on one sit e putting things
underneath it, we sort of kept the kind
of sacred relationship to that land. It’s a place where everybody
arrives on the north side and waits and there’s
a kind of water pool that just kind of
celebrates that idea. So the building is
full of narratives. We could keep talking
about it for a long time, but it’s something that I would
encourage people to experience. SHIH HUA LIONG: Definitely. Thank you for sharing that. I’ll just cover
one more question and we can open it
up to the audience. So you were born
in Africa, you’ve lived there for a long time,
you’re doing a lot of work there. Tell us about what key
projects are happening in Africa and perhaps some of the
challenges in working there. DAVID ADJAYE: Challenges,
there are a lot. So there’s a kind of second
wave of a sense of kind of developed, especially
in central and west Africa, and also in east Africa
now, and their governments are trying to deal
with very difficult– these are nations that
are only 50 years old. We think of Africa
with its great history, but in terms of its modern
history, its modernity, it’s really new. And just as the civil
rights were happening here, that’s when actually African
independence was happening and kind of new identities
were being formed. So the first wave
was very interesting, people like [INAUDIBLE] building
incredible infrastructure, et cetera. But really, it pitted
out and got quite a lot of problems in terms of
power and opportunity, all the sort of things
that beginning states have. But there is a kind
of movement now where economies are
getting more robust, people are starting to
learn how to kind of work within a globalized world. And certain leaders now have
understood that architecture is very much part of that, that
architecture and infrastructure have to be brought together. So I’m working for the Ghanian
government right now helping to develop their
rail infrastructure system for the country, talking
about nodal sort of points and how we develop
terminals that celebrate sort of civic life. In Dakar, I’m working
with the World Bank to kind of put their
infrastructure directly in the continent and not
just have it in America, but to have it on the ground
so that the countries that are being served actually
have a kind of base there. In places like Gabon, I’m
helping the government maser of the campus to kind of have
a much more smart government campus where people can find
things and relate to things. So it’s like these are
fundamental things, but these are
nation-building things that are really
fascinating to me, as well. So that’s why I have an office
and Accra to deal with that. SHIH HUA LIONG: And
we talked about it earlier this afternoon,
how working in Africa, working with governments
now is sort of really at the core, right, of
who you are and sort of your vision of sort of civic
experience and transformation. DAVID ADJAYE: It feels
very privileged to be able to have that
opportunity because I mean, my work in London and in New
York has generally tended to be much more the private sector. But now in London also, I’m now
the mayor’s design advocate, so I’m now sort of supporting
in a political role the shaping of the city and
the next sort of iteration of the mayor’s sort of time. So that would be
much more into a kind of philosophical realm of how
London is going to develop. But in the US, it’s been working
with cultural institutions, but in a sense
private [INAUDIBLE].. So to suddenly go full steam
into more the political realm feels daunting. It’s felt very daunting to start
off with because it’s really something we’re not trained to
do, so the logistics of that have been a quick a very
steep learning curve. But what they create from us is
the way we think and the way we problem-solve. I would say aesthetics come
from the problem-solving. We are obsessed with
aesthetics, but we’re obsessed with aesthetics as a
solution to problem-solving. So I always say to my
team, we solve the problem and then derive the
aesthetics out of it. We don’t create the aesthetics
and try and solve the problem. SHIH HUA LIONG: Absolutely. Great. Thank you. And the other thing
I told you about was the best part of the
talks is really opening it up to the audience. So would you like to start
and introduce yourself? AUDIENCE: My name is Florian. It’s super cool
that you’re here, so thanks for making time. I have two questions. The first is as you
talked about storytelling, I recently watched
Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted talk about single
narrative and I know that she talks about how
collectively Africa, right, has suffered from this. And I think we see a lot
of that narrative in the US around our black
population here. Your work at the Smithsonian
is in many ways centered on creating a second
narrative, right, but that’s not the work
of an architect alone. So I’m curious about your
collaborative process and that with other
artists and how that influenced the process
of structuring that space. And the second is about
the location of the museum. So it’s important to have this
recognized in our nation’s capital, obviously. But as I look at an organization
like the Equal Justice Initiative and the building
of a first memorial to the history of [INAUDIBLE]
lynching in this country, there is an equal importance
to local recognition, right? If you could speak to
anything that you’re aware of perhaps this
being the beginning of more of these developments
elsewhere in the US, that would be interesting. DAVID ADJAYE: Two
great questions. I’ll start with the
last and go backward. I mean, I think that there is
definitely now an awareness that we move in the 20th
century from objects, artifacts, or just expressions of
beauty to narratives, that actually the
narratives of people as we move to
metropolitan cities all over the world that become
very powerful mixing places becomes very important because
the notion of how we all come together and how we make
relationships to each other is more profoundly important
in the 21st century than it’s ever been in the
history of our humanity. Because we’re now coming
closer than we’ve ever been, we actually spend a lot of time
getting away from each other and forming our groups how we’re
like slamming back together. And so in that’s sort
of coming together, where are our strands of how
we come together is critical. So I think that there’s
a lot of thought about how to kind of
talk about these issues and how to also create ways
for different generations to kind of lock into
that and understand how to use that to help
them in the way they are and the kind of
metropolitan condition. I can’t speak specifically
to the project you’re talking about because I
don’t have information on it, but I know that just
in my work that I’m doing that this is really
a big conversation. With the museum, say the– AUDIENCE: The other one
is about collaboration. DAVID ADJAYE: Oh,
collaboration, yeah. So there are 36
consultants, there are four architects
that were doing this but we were the lead team. When you’re working on these
incredibly complex projects where you’re working
with the government, the local authority,
community stakeholder groups, what we’ve decided
is that these things are just too much for one
architect to work with. So we develop a
multi-headed system where my partners would
work on different aspects of the either
legislation, contract, specific ways of building,
et cetera, et cetera. And so we sort of put
ourselves into specializations and then became a
kind of team that would then deliver that thing. We didn’t work on this
project with any artist specifically on the building
fabric or anything like that. That was actually
[INAUDIBLE] our job. So we were the sort of artistic
lead and the architectural lead and then we worked
with [INAUDIBLE] Group, an amazing team from North
Carolina, who delivered our delivery on the ground. And we were based in London, we
were just setting up a New York office here. The Smith Group, who
were the only people that built on the Mall in
the last 20 years, so we were like,
we need somebody who has done this
because you’re dealing with the federal government. We worked with Davis Brody
Bond, Max Bond, his ex-partner, because they had been one of
the few people that had work on sub-underground buildings. Which we knew were going
to build a building that was 80 feet down and they had
just completed the World Trade Center. So we wanted that
intelligence, we didn’t want to learn it again. We knew that the
site that we were on was basically a backfilled. It was a canal, it was a
swamp that was dredged, and it was a canal used to bring
the stones to build the Capitol and all the other buildings. So we knew that we were actually
putting ground on a soggy site. And we were developing–
usually as an architect, you develop a
foundation of the boat, we knew that we were
developing almost a submarine. We have to develop and
double-walled system to deal with that. So we had to kind of bring
in intelligence so that we didn’t make many mistakes. But that’s giving you a sense. And then with the
content, we were the kind of overarching
architects in terms of coordinating how the spatial
kind of narrative worked, but Applebaum were
the people who did the detail of the sonography
of the exhibition design. It was their concept and vision. So really, what you see
in terms of narrative and the specific content is
Ralph Applebaum, who worked collaboratively with the team. So it’s a very
multi-headed system, but it’s really
exciting because you get this incredible intelligence
from different places coming together to form this thing. Hi Hi. A question for you about
construction technology. As steel girder construction
and reinforced concrete really kind of radically changed
the way architecture worked in the last century, what kind
of new upcoming construction technologies do
you see that will make sort of the next
radical shift in what cities and buildings look like overall? DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. This is the big questions
that are emerging right now. I don’t think we are 100%
clear about what they are. But we know things like if arc
welding and steel and concrete, as you said, literally radically
transformed the skyline by creating verticality–
essentially, it created verticality
and the ability to brace and stiffen the
structure as you went up. The sort of things that
are happening right now is that with elevators,
for instance, we’re on the precipice for the
first time of elevators that no longer just go up and down
but can go sideways, up, down, and around things. That sounds like nothing,
but that literally is a phenomenal
breakthrough which suddenly means that we can create
scale and operation in a way that actually nobody
could even imagine. And those are some of
the things that are being thought about right now. And these new types of
elevators are being prototyped, they’re just starting
to come onto the market. Mayor Bloomberg has just put a
set in his building in London and they’re really
extraordinary things. Obviously, there’s
technology [INAUDIBLE] integrated systems make
smart, responsive buildings. So the building is not an
inert thing, it’s something that starts to become, as
it were, it has an ability to sense its environment
and respond, both to the people in it and
the environment outside. So we’re able to make
buildings that are, I think, much more specific
now and the century is going to show more of that. And I think with
that, it means that we can make buildings that are
much more clearly related to their geography, which is
a big problem the 20th century couldn’t do. We were just very much about
creating big clunky things, sealing them, pumping air
in them as much as possible, and hoping that everybody stayed
in sort of temperature ranges. Well, we’re now going to be
able to make buildings which actually are able to
breathe differently in different climates,
different altitudes; be able to kind of use the
material science of those places to kind of reinforce their
making maybe in terms of their fabric, their
wall constituency. And we’re then going to be able
to make in the 21st century geometries that you could only
imagine as drawings in the way that maybe the constructivists
imagined drawings at the beginning end of the
19th century, early 20th century that became buildings at
the end of our 20th century. So I’m giving you a
sort of mixed answer because I think that the next 25
years is going to reveal a lot, but we are at– the
precipice has already seen that it’s really
radical going to change. We can do density in a way
that people cannot imagine and that’s already up upon us. We’re just starting it and
it’s going to get more. AUDIENCE: Thank you. DAVID ADJAYE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: Hello. DAVID ADJAYE: Hi. AUDIENCE: My name
is [? Onome ?] and I had a question about the
problem-solving process for you and your team. So one of things you said
that really struck me was you focus on solving the
problem for the community and then do this
aesthetic around that. But from your work,
you’re solving problems for different kinds of
communities– for London, for New York, Washington
and now you’re working in Dakar and Accra. So how exactly is that
problem-solving and creative process when you’re
working on solving problems for different kinds of people,
different kinds of communities? DAVID ADJAYE: Yes. It’s about being
out in the field. One of the things that I
made a very early decision was that we’re
not a huge company and we could just stay
in London and just send people out and do things. But I decided very
early on that if we were going to be in
a continent, then we would invest in placing a
team there so that we could actually have on the
ground information but also develop
relationships on the ground. So the reason for
having a New York office, the reason for
having an office in Accra is because we want to
be much more connected and we want to be able to be
responsive in the way in which we kind of create the kind of– what you need, essentially,
in those collaborations is the ability to have
dialogue and to have dialogue and response and to
then replay and then to have dialogue and response. In a way, design is
a kind of process of talking it
through and learning the lessons, articulating them,
see if it works, and then kind of expanding up again. So it becomes like a kind of
vortex that’s growing bigger until you get some solution. So that sort of
cyclical kind of journey is really important
to have continuity and not to have a
sort of disconnect that I feel like having
one central office where you fly in
and out of crates you’re kind of
still in your world and you sort of feel almost
like a space man kind of landing somewhere, but you’re insulated. Whereas I want people
to be almost as it we’re native, breathing the
air that everybody else is breathing and being
in that context. It’s profoundly important. And it seems like nothing,
but actually, it’s amazing. On the three
continents, the work that comes out of the
studio is very different. And it’s very interesting. I’m the kind of main
person, but because it’s not about an aesthetic kind of
then overwriting and saying, this is the look of
Adjaye Associates, it’s coming from the
solutions that we have to make to deal
with the problems that we’re encountering. The work is emerging
differently, and for me that
philosophically confirms a sort of deeper belief that
architecture of the built environment should respond much
more to the geography in terms of the kind of terra firma,
but also to the culture that is emerging. It should find its
aesthetics, find its notion through a kind of bigger
sort of thinking about how you do things, but it
should find its resolution in the way it expresses
itself in different places. So for me, I’m in
the experiment also. So I’m sort of
half kind of clear, but already know
the results that I have make me believe that
it’s really the right way. AUDIENCE: Thank you. SHIH HUA LIONG: Question. AUDIENCE: Hey. DAVID ADJAYE: How are you doing? AUDIENCE: How are you doing? My name is Kevin. And first of all,
when I just want to thank you for showing up
and all that you’ve contributed to the many communities that
you’ve been fortunate enough to work in and
serve, in a sense. And I also want to thank you
for being able to work in Harlem and developing a space in
which people can come into and the adjacent neighborhoods
can feel OK with that structure to serve those certain
individuals living there comfortably, as well. But then I’m starting to realize
after being born and raised in New York City for
quite some time, areas like Spanish Harlem, Harlem,
you’re starting to see things. The people who made Harlem
are no longer there, right? We’re starting to– we’re on
this line of gentrification. And even most recently,
Realtors are kind of trying to rename Harlem into SoHa. SHIH HUA LIONG: There’s an
article in the “New York Times” about that. AUDIENCE: Harlem not only
represents a neighborhood or a part of Manhattan;
it represents a culture, it represents a way of life,
it represents a history, it represents a past. How do you as an
architect feel when you’re developing these spaces
and you can kind of see it not fitting those people that you
necessarily designed it for? For me personally,
it kind of hurts where I have to take my daughter
on trips to these neighborhoods to show her but we can’t
necessarily live in them and I have history
in this neighborhood. How does that make you feel? DAVID ADJAYE: Yeah. There it is. OK. Let me be brief and
give you [INAUDIBLE].. The dilemma of the city
is that it’s not static. It’s a horrible thing. But if you look at the
evolution of cities, it is permanently in flux. We are actually never static. So there’s that
dilemma to deal with. So the city doesn’t
belong to any generation, it’s always belongs to
the future or it dies. So there’s that problem. And it’s a horrible one, but
it’s one that one has to face. The second thing is this
notion of gentrification, which has become a bit of a kind
of easy bashing thing, people bash it. There’s two things, there’s
entrepreneurial opportunity, which is when
planning laws relax certain things to
activate entrepreneurs to kind of do development. That’s one thing. It’s actually very
controllable because the city has the power to do it. But there’s this idea
of gentrification, which actually is problematic. But actually, the statistic
shows that only 10% of construction is
about gentrification. We looked into it and
we were like, oh my god, this is horrible, it’s taking
over the whole [INAUDIBLE].. Then we looked at the numbers
and we were like, oh my god. It’s actually these hot spots,
but they become the stories and they become the overriding
narratives that kind of blanket out everything else. So these communities don’t
completely disappear, but they change
and they upgrade. There are certain benefits. Certain families live in
very difficult situations and that uptake of
money allows them to buy homes in places where– so it’s a very kind
of complicated dynamic that actually does good. It does some harm because it
changes these communities. And I think as
planners, architects I always say that
when you come in, you have to work with history. As a design, I’m
like, it doesn’t work if you don’t start
from history and move into the future. If you just start
in the future, it’s sort of an isolated bubble. It’s like a spaceship
that just lands. Spaceships are fun,
I love spaceships. But cities are a
continuum, they’ve been going for
10,000 years, right? That’s the history of cities. It goes back to
that’s the earliest that we know, about
10,000 years old. And it’s a kind of
technology, it’s a kind of mechanism
that continually is growing and adding to itself. So one is struggling
with this thing. But I think that it’s
implicit that architecture pays attention to that notion
of history, and urbanists do, and to find a way to always
grow it to the next thing. Because we have to evolve
it and we have to grow it, but there are ways to do that. And that has to become
much more the norm. I mean, I’m hoping that
by the end of my career when I’m no longer around,
but actually the methods that I use are just
not even anything that some people
say, wow, that’s so interesting and radical. It’s like, this is basic. It’s like, oh, yeah, I
mean, just that’s whatever. We just talk about
history and stuff because that’s what we do. It’s like, OK, success. Yeah. SHIH HUA LIONG: Thank you. One more question. AUDIENCE: Hi. I’m Matt. Hey. Something you said at the
start really resonated with me, and that was the idea of for
everyone in access and so on. It’s something
leaders here say a lot when they talk about the scale
about technology and so on. And I’m wondering if
you’ve got as a company the staff to do
engineering and now we have a lot design people to work
with, people from those fields, and look at process and so on. As we create objects that
now are in people’s homes, as well as through the
internet and on devices and so on, if you’ve got any
words of advice for how we might think about designing
systems and their relationship to people and how we keep so
we’re making hardware that gets more and more expensive–
this is like a $600 phone– how we keep that
open and accessible and we still retain
that for everyone idea at the heart of what we do. DAVID ADJAYE: It’s
a huge challenge and it’s really at the
heart of the struggle in the modern world. The purpose of technology is
to democratize information and systems and to kind
of bring us to a point where we’re able to do things
in this collective, right? But there’s these
difficult things to do with inequalities
and imbalances that create these problems. And so there isn’t
a kind of moment which I think is the
solution that solves it, but there’s always
this constant struggle of trying to always
turn the scales which are kind of in balance
back to kind of parallel. And I think that’s
the game, right? So if it is about
always struggling to straighten the thing,
then what do you do to always democratize the work? So if you’re making
the high thing, what are you doing
also at that other end? So in a way for me, we always
look about in the studio that you’ve got to
work in balance. So we may be working for
a very wealthy person, but also we want to work for
somebody who really can barely pay for our fees and we
want to give the same brain power to that person
that we’re doing there. So that in a way,
we’re making inequity. For us, that’s the way to
bring the thing into equity. It’s harder in
products because you have a product that has a kind
of definition of the thing. But I think that
as a company, it’s about what the entire
totality kind of achieves. And we haven’t got to
a place in our society where we no longer care about
the value of our product. I look forward to that– I mean, it won’t be my time. But it would be great
to get to a time when product is no
longer relevant, right? It’s like, whatever. We have bigger things to
think about than the value of the things that are things. That would be a
profound moment, right. Yeah. SHIH HUA LIONG: Great. David, thank you
so much for coming. It’s an honor to have
you here at Google today and we hope to see you
again in the future. DAVID ADJAYE: Great. Thank you so much. SHIH HUA LIONG: Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

8 thoughts on “David Adjaye: “Place, Identity, and Transformation” | Talks at Google

  1. heard him offer up several new developments in the building field: current/future technology awareness seems fundamental to this craft and is very exciting to hear that that's just one of many considerations he's on top of in orchestrating his design solutions – very intelligent designer overall..

  2. As an african, i find this videos truly amazing cause the african new generation who lacked successful example for a while, could self-identify himself into Sir Adjaye experiences for his clear vision of architecture and more specifically his perfect understanding of local Architecture.

  3. Thank God the interviewer knows how to ask an architect questions. I saw another interviewer asking him to define his
    "style." Dear God. What an amazing man.

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