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David Adjaye is having a moment: Will it redefine architecture?

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Our critic, Alexandra Lange, examines the British architect's recent body of work

David Adjaye's Sugar Hill Housing Development in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.
David Adjaye's Sugar Hill Housing Development in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.
Wade Zimmerman

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. ICYMI, catch up on her past columns about architectural gamer paradise Monument Valley, the changing face of Buffalo, sidewalk-level impact of waterfront development around the Brooklyn Bridge, and her piece on LA's newest art museum.

We are indisputably having a David Adjaye moment.

A retrospective of the work of the 49-year-old Tanzanian-born British architect just opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. The striking, bronzy shell of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is now complete. He's mentioned in every article about the competition to design President Obama's presidential library in Chicago.

The public spaces of his $84 million Sugar Hill Development in Upper Manhattan, which combines 124 units of affordable housing with an early childhood education center and a children's museum, are finally open. What sets his work apart, both for private clients and the public realm, is the importance of pattern. His work is a saturated, color-laden zig when so many other architects have zagged toward a faux lightness and ethereality.

Pattern in contemporary architecture becomes a simplistic way of convincing a community that a work is site-specific, that it "fits" despite being a different size, shape, material, or program from everything around it. Projects in African-American neighborhoods get kente cloth, the Southwest gets Navajo blankets, the Middle East gets mashrabiya geometries. All of these patterns can be meaningful, and acknowledging their history pushes architects more comfortable with unadorned surfaces toward ornament. But too often they engage only the surface, a skim-coating of context that justifies shapes the architects use anyway and use elsewhere.

I could not help but read "David Adjaye Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection" (at the Cooper Hewitt through February 7, 2016) as the architect's corrective to kente cloth's ubiquity as an African reference point. The one-room exhibit features Adjaye's selections from the museum's West African textile collection hung on a room-filling bentwood armature as if they were facades-in-the-making. The examples vary in color, weave, technique, and scale, while sharing the basic architectural principles of grid and repeat.

As Adjaye points out in his essay in the accompanying booklet, local materials create textiles (from iron-rich mud in Mali to indigo leaves in Nigeria – both deployed by women) just as they may create local architecture. Pattern in both cases goes beyond surface to engage material and production, creating exteriors that are rich in the round.

At the Sugar Hill development, Adjaye Associates designed a precast concrete façade, colored charcoal gray and acid-washed to bring out the shiny quartz aggregate in the concrete mix. While panels around the base are smooth and striated, those on the upper stories were poured using a "custom rose-pattern formliner." The floral pattern is said to reference heritage roses grown on Sugar Hill in its agrarian past, as well as the naturalist ornament often found on lintels and railings in the nearby rowhouses.

This does not read—I didn't see flowers but raindrops on a pond—but I don't care about the specific relationship of narrative to pattern. (This, by the way, is a building with roses on it.) I care about the obvious consideration that has gone into the combination of material, pattern and installation, making the façade a billboard for the small luxuries made within the budget, for the housing portion, of $276 per square foot. The apartments, distributed by lottery, were available to those whose incomes range from 30 percent to 80 percent of area median income ($86,300 for a family of four in 2015). The pattern is earned, not just easy.

A close-up of the precast concrete facade at the Sugar Hill Housing Development. Photo by Wade Zimmerman.

Luxuries like walnut slats and brass trim in the entrance to the 124 low-income apartments, luxuries like ceramic tile in the halls, larger windows, and, on the side of the building facing the entrance to the C train at 155th Street, the scatter of small square openings on what could have been a blank façade. The rounded forms (drops or blossoms) are a necessary interruption of the squared corners, the heavy cantilever, the sawtooth side, that are themselves an interruption of the straight up-and-down public housing in the neighborhood. The front of the building abuts the property line, so apertures are tightly regulated. Yes, it looks a little fortress-like up top, but the whole first floor is glazed, and the corner pops with the brilliant green linoleum and laminate of the on-site preschool. A bright and geometric Frank Stella painting is visible through the glazing further along, on loan from the Studio Museum in Harlem to the brand-new Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling. New plantings in the wedge-shaped front plaza add another layer of softness. This building works, and not just in a nicer-than-you'd-expect-for affordable-housing way. It's just nice.

The adjoining children's museum, open Thursday to Sunday beginning Nov. 5, is a first for Broadway Housing. It doesn't have a collection, a permanent exhibition, or even the barn-like room of primary-colored games that often signifies "children's museum." Most of the museum's 16,400 feet are underground, daylit in part by a long narrow skylight that cuts across the width of the building. There are two rooms for hands-on making, brightened by flame-red laminate cabinets, and a long hall for performances, storytelling, and other pop-up activities decorated with a pastel-hued and folk-inspired mural by Saya Woolfalk (in collaboration with her small daughter). Several of Adjaye's urban house projects have played with similar deep cuts, hiding glassy facades behind apparently blank, and dark, streetfronts, or creating underground rooms with unexpected, compressed urban vistas. The children aren't treated to that level of spatial manipulation, but the underground galleries felt light and fresh. Broadway Housing, which also has its offices on the 9th floor of the building, sees the housing, preschool and museum as a virtuous circle, one which includes hiring residents for all building jobs, creating a community that will care for the architecture both within its walls and in the surrounding neighborhood.

The relationship of interior and exterior here reminded me of another successful, public project by Adjaye, the Francis A. Gregory Library, built in Washington in 2012. The library is also a fancied-up box, this one two-story, and in a green low-rise residential neighborhood in southeast DC. The walls of the box are made of a diamond-pattern grid, alternating mirror and transparent glass, each diamond the length of a compact car. Above the walls hovers a steel lattice also diamond patterned, that shades the enclosed structure and complicates your perception of it. Driving by, the mirror sections can fill with green, making the building almost blend into the trees. In other lights they fill with the sky. It's simultaneously chunky and dark, like the Sugar Hill Development, and then bursting with color and play inside, where more mirrors, nooks and tree-house seating await.

Inside Adjaye's Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C. Photo © Ed Sumner, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

Adjaye's other completed DC project, the Bellevue (William O. Lockridge) Library (2012), has its moments, but is far less successful. The façade treatment felt residual: inexpensive-looking wooden slats applied to an untextured stucco surface. Not narrative, and not surface-pretty. Adjaye's colors and reflections and patterns may work best on simple, sugar-cube forms. The plan for Bellevue is more complex, with rooms and stairs intersecting at less than right angles. The spaces inside often narrowed into awkward slot-like rooms in order to thrust, on Breuer-esque mastodon legs, across the site, impoverishing the middle of open simple space. Section cuts through the floors, faced in more fruit hues, created moments of disco intensity that didn't feel in balance with the library's scale or program. Having seen Bellevue, I wondered about Adjaye's ability to handle more complex plans – though there's certainly a lot going on at Sugar Hill – or maybe his desire to make things more complicated than they need to be. The Moscow School of Management (2010) involves a plan that's neo-folkloric—in this case, the work of Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich—but it's too much when combined with a geometric patterned skin to a complex that another writer describes as a "hovering Ice Station Zebra in the middle of nowhere." Decoration is easier to manage on a shed.

A view of the Moscow School of Management. Photo © Ed Reeve, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

The NMAAHC (opening Fall 2016) will be Adjaye's American proving ground, but it isn't far removed from the work we can already visit. Designed as part of a partnership known as Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, the museum keeps its profile relatively simple by placing approximately half of its public spaces underground. This means that its physical presence at the end of the National Mall (the Washington Monument is its neighbor) has the same squarish profile as the other museums. But rather than a colonnade, or a donut, the architects have created a ziggaurat-shape crown or "corona," referencing the columns of Yoruba shrines (as well as a few other top-heavy museums of modernist note.) The exterior cladding of this glass box is bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels whose lacy open-work pattern Adjaye has described as derived "from the ornamental metal castings that were done by slaves and former slaves in Charleston and New Orleans before and after the Civil War—using techniques that had been developed much earlier in Benin and other African cultures."

Rendering of Adjaye's design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Image courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

A section of the facade of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Photo by Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It's a beautiful narrative, but as with the Sugar Hill roses, I can't see the narrative in the final product. I (and Google Images) think of New Orleans metalwork as lacy. That doesn't affect my admiration for the corona, which in recent photos looks appropriately rich and textured. But I don't think the architect can have it both ways. At Adjaye's Art Institute retrospective, the screen was translated into a gold vinyl sticker applied across the museum's Piano-pure walls and windows. On the Chicago museum walls it looks like the background of a Klimt painting. But the same pattern, when applied to Adjaye's Washington Skin and Washington Skeleton chairs for Knoll, suggests the costume of Venom, Spider-Man's evil alter-ego.

These other applications put the story to the side. Which begs the question of why the inspiration story needs to be so literal, pushing toward kitsch, as if ornament were still the bogeyman of contemporary architecture.

The combination of the Chicago retrospective and the high-profile Washington project sent the Adjaye presidential speculation into overdrive. Since I believe the final choice for the Obama library will be a superteam—high-style architect for the museum, respected library firm for the archives, landscape architect for the outside, local executive architect to coordinate—Adjaye's lack of citizenship doesn't seem as decisive as it might have when these libraries were less behemoth, and could be designed by one office. (No presidential library to date has not been designed by an American citizen.) Nonetheless, it gave me pause that I can only name a handful of African-American architects doing public work who could alternatively benefit from this project's powerful symbolism (one of them, Phil Freelon, is part of the design team for the NMAAHC, and his firm also designed two DC public libraries; his independent practice is now part of corporate giant Perkins + Will).

In 2013, fewer than 2 percent of licensed architects identified as African American, a statistic the recent Black in Design conference at Harvard addressed. Participants in the conference also spoke about expanding the definition of design, to include, from history, people like the unnamed ironworkers of Charleston and New Orleans, and people making in other modes, like textiles, today. If David Adjaye's success pushes more architects into a deeper engagement with pattern, material and patina, that must be to the benefit of users, future architecture critics, and a more diverse array of designers wielding algorithms or indigo leaves.

· All Critical Eye posts [Curbed]
· All David Adjaye coverage [Curbed]