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Innovative Architect

British architect David Adjaye has been hailed as one of the leading architects of his generation, his accomplishments including an OBE for services to British architecture. Among a host of prestigious commissions, he won the commission to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., set to open in 2015. It’s something of a coup, then, that David is one of the key speakers at the AZA2012 Biennale Festival, hosted by The South African Institute of Architects in partnership with the Cape Town Institute for Architecture and Architecture ZA.NOW. Running from 13 to 16 September at the Cape Town City Hall, the theme for the conference is ‘Re-scripting Architecture’. We got a little insight from David as to what to expect. For more information about the Biennale or to book, visit What defines your style of design? My work is defined by its process, which tends to be collaborative, seeks to engage with other disciplines as well as a social agenda, and is research based. When I design, I think about how people relate to each other and what that means in our society. Every context is different and I seek to find the soft nuances that people disregard. What’s your design philosophy? I believe that if architecture is excavated of its social and political potential, it’s a bit empty. Architecture in itself is not an act of politics, but it can form – or make physical or real – the ideas that we have for society and politics. Our ideas about a civilized world are manifested through the architecture we make. For me, design has to work practically but also emotionally and intellectually. These cornerstones come into play, whatever the result – be it a piece of furniture, a building or an installation. You have designed homes for other accomplished designers, such as Alexander McQueen– is it a difficult task to design for someone like this? On the contrary– I feed off the creative exchange! I’ve always been interested in an artistic sensibility and I did my master’s at an art school (the Royal College of Art in London). I’ve found art and other areas of design as stimulating as the latest developments in architecture. Because I have this interest in other creative fields and know points of reference, there’s an easy synergy when we collaborate. I’m hugely respectful of their practices, and in turn, they are of mine. Who would your ultimate client be? I don’t think in terms of singular projects. Rather, my ideal is to be able to explore new typologies, experiment with different materials and establish a meaningful connection to contemporary culture while exploring a social discourse. It is the act of engagement, the methodology, which excites me, more so than the physical manifestation of that process. What are you most looking forward to at the South African Biennale? I think the theme this year is exciting because it presents a wide discourse on architecture, urbanity, politics and global economies, etc. It is a broad dialogue, which appeals to me. Why do you think a festival such as this one is important? It is important to create moments where the expression of the spatial, political, cultural, and social dimensions comes together. What is the main point you hope to communicate at the festival? I hope to explain my work and illuminate my own creative practice while appealing to the wider discourse on architecture and urbanity, within the context of Africa – as well as globally. How did it feel to win the pitch for the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian? It has been a humbling experience. It is a monumental site and project, and it has taken nearly 200 years to get to this place. Of course, several things absolutely come to mind in thinking through what this building should be and how it should work with the programme that we were given. How do you add to such a fantastic master plan—this incredible core for the capital city of the most powerful country in the world? Why is it important for you to work on what will inevitably be an important contribution to American architecture? The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a dream commission. I’ve been working on it for three years, and we have another four years to go (it will open in 2015). It’s finally recognising the contribution of the African American community to the definition of America, so the building very much takes its cues from that incredible history. But it’s also a space for discovery– it’s a building that allows the American people to learn about their history in a very direct way. I can only hope that it has relevance and becomes something that contributes specifically to the discourse of American architecture and its people. What are you most excited about for this project? The form of the building suggests upward mobility. It is a ziggurat that moves upward into the sky, and it hovers above the ground. For me, the story is one that’s extremely uplifting. It’s actually a story of a people that overcame and transformed an entire superpower into what it is today. The sacrifice of the African American people has made America better and I hope that this building will communicate that. What does 're-scripting architecture' mean to you? Cities are growing faster than ever. I think that how we interact with each other, how we tolerate each other, and how architecture mediates these sorts of things will become more important than just how well you can build structures and what sorts of techniques and tools you have at your disposal. For me, this is architecture’s ‘re-scripting’. Whose work are you most inspired by? I don’t have a favourite architect of all time. Rather, I am inspired by specific buildings or some of the ideas of particular artists and architects. I admire the work of the late Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, who pioneered an architecture that responded very directly to climate, local materials and the culture of place. Examples of favourite buildings include the Egyptian Karnak Temple, The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, and the Neue National Gallery in Berlin. Luis Barragán’s Ciudad Satelite in Mexico has been inspirational, and I see the Tea Houses of Kyoto as a profound investigation of the relationship between the garden, the folly and the spirit. What made you want to become an architect? I’ve always been good at drawing and was advised to do an Art Foundation course. It was this that set me on the path to becoming an architect. My upbringing also shaped my appreciation of space. I am of West African heritage and yet was born in East Africa, so already there is a dual cultural influence– I came into contact with different ways of living in a space. It wasn’t until I came to London that I appreciated how privileged I had been to be able to sample so many spatial conditions. What advice would you give to aspiring architects? There is great potential for young architects – especially in Africa where growth is rapid. My advice would be to get out there and engage. For more details about David's work visit Text: Raphaella Frame-Tolmie  Image of David Adjaye: Ed Reeve