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New David Adjaye Profile Reveals Details of Architect's Work and Life

The starchitect talks to Vogue

With the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening in September, David Adjaye is leaning into what will most certainly be his best year ever—and he’s not yet 50 years old.

In a revealing profile in Vogue magazine by Dodie Kazanjian, the British-Ghanaian architect discusses the new museum, submitting designs for President Obama’s library, and how he balances his home-work life despite a breakneck travel schedule. Read on for a sampling of illuminating quotes and news, then head on over to Vogue for the complete profile.

On the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on September 24:

It’s about architecture, but also about memory and history. I got exactly what I wanted on the exterior, which was a dark, brooding, bronzelike building.

On the "oculus," a raised platform at the west entrance of the museum that reveals a room below:

We found out that this spot was once a slave market, right on the Mall. The oculus is like a slave pedestal, levitated off the ground. I’ve tried to make every decision here have some history.

Working with the government on the museum meant dealing with budget limitations. For instance, Adjaye envisioned the facade to be made of bronze, instead of bronze-coated aluminum, but that would have been too costly and heavy. Adjaye also wanted to install a "shower of timber" of thousands of split-pine two-by-fours "raining" down from the ceiling of the entrance hall to represent the African slaves brought to America, but that too was ruled out as prohibitively expensive. "If you get 60 to 70 percent of your original idea, you’ve won," Adjaye said, "and I got 80 percent."

After receiving his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art, Adjaye, rather than seeking work at a large architecture firm, decided to set up his own shop. One of his first major projects was renovating artist Chris Ofili’s rowhouse. This earned Adjaye the reputation for working well with artists, who made up the majority of his earliest clientele.

Adjaye met his wife Ashley Shaw-Scott, then a young Stanford graduate, when she waited after a lecture he gave to speak to him. She is now the head of research at Adjaye Associates. Despite his travel schedule, they’ve established a rule to never be apart more than ten days, though they try to make it five.

On the importance of the Obama library, for which Adjaye’s team is submitting designs:

They want it to be more than just an archive. They want it to be a center for the community, for activism, for debates. I’ve looked at all the presidential libraries, and there’s nothing like what’s being discussed here. Up until now, presidents just choose who they wanted and got on with it; they didn’t have a competition. But Obama is doing a very different thing. He’s making it a public process.

The president doesn’t want to make a building that’s glorifying him, a monument, but one that serves the greatest needs. To me, it’s a very powerful message to the world about what you can do with architecture.