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Place-Making: Exhibit brings masTerful Adjaye into focus

Place-Making: Exhibit Brings masterful Adjaye Into Focus

History-making: DC's new $500M National Museum of African-American History and Culture will open in 2016.

History-making: DC's new $500M National Museum of African-American History and Culture will open in 2016.

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by JOHN GREGERSON, Fifth in the series | Dec 11, 2015

In search of a respite from the hectic holiday hubbub downtown this month? Look no further than the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing, where a stunner of an exhibit, Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, traces the career trajectory of one of contemporary architecture's most versatile practitioners.

Adjaye takes his place.

Adjaye takes his place.

Held in conjunction with the ongoing Chicago Architectural Biennial, which concludes Jan. 3, the three-part exhibit infuses the museum's first- and second-floor galleries with all manner and form of drawings, sketches, mock-ups and models spanning from Adjaye's early career— when he gained early recognition for a series of unique London homes designed for artists — to projects that have yet to break ground, including Ghana's National Museum on Slavery and Freedom.

Taken together, models of his non-residential work, including the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, the Idea Store in London, and the Francis A. Gregory Library in Washington DC, are perhaps unrivaled in their execution, in part due to their painstaking detail and flawless representation of scale. It comes as no surprise that the exhibit was three years in the making. It achieves full immersion in Adjaye's work. Horizon, an asymmetrical 1:1 scale wood pavilion, one of several such facilities he designed, is reason alone to drop by.

If you're not familiar with the Tanzanian-born, London-based Adjaye, it may be because he is a “suitcase architect,” as architecture critic Blair Kamin puts it. To date, the 49-year-old designer's practice has spanned four continents: Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Having designed only a handful of projects in the U.S., including Sugar Hill, a facility that combines affordable housing, a children's museum and early childhood center in New York's Harlem neighborhood, Adjaye could become a household name in 2016. That's when his grand, $500-million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture  a commission he received in 2009 is set to open on the National Mall in Washington DC. Already said to be the President's favorite architect, Adjaye also is seen as the presumptive frontrunner to design the Barack Obama Presidential Center on Chicago's south side. So far, the celebrated architect remains mum on that subject.

“Making Place,” on the other hand, speaks volumes. 

By any reckoning, Mr. Adjaye is a star architect... And (He) has had to work especially hard at the unfair task of proving he’s got the talent to match the early fanfare.
— Julie Iovine, The Wall Street Journal

As its title suggests, this exhaustive, multi-media retrospective of Adjaye at mid-career demonstrates his uncanny sense of place and a seemingly boundless vernacular to address the particulars of locale with materials and forms that address unique civic, cultural and social concerns. A common denominator is Adjaye's passion for public projects, from museums, to schools to libraries. But as exhibit curator Zoë Ryan notes, “The interesting thing about David is that he doesn't have a signature style, and when he first started working, it was quite hard to see the threads that were going through his practice, from one project to the next, but now he has almost 50 projects that are built, and you begin to see that it's not really a style, but an approach. Every project is really grounded and rooted in its context. It's very much specific to its place.”

Living Spaces, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Living Spaces, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Some portions of the exhibit do a better job of placing Adjaye's work in context than others. For instance, Living Spaces, a display devoted to homes designed by Adjaye, elegantly mounts white scale models on white pedestals, supplementing each with floor plans, sections and elevations. Though the models represent an impressive portfolio, the overall effect is of disembodiment owing of a lack of accompanying photography, renderings, site plans and the like.

Due to extensive use of wall and floor space, all that and more supplement models in remaining portions of the exhibit, named Democracy of Knowledge: Public Buildings. The title should come as no surprise to followers of Adjaye, since he has spoken extensively about the democracy of knowledge, particularly as it pertains to Africa, where he spent the first 13 years of his life before his parents relocated the family to London.

Moscow School of Management

Moscow School of Management

“It's about transferring skills and having the opportunity of doing architecture of any scale,” Adjaye has said. “It's really important that techniques that are very commonplace in the West are also transferrable to Africa, and that lessons learned on the ground in Africa inform the practice.”

The takeaway of Public Buildings is the vast knowledge Adjaye is capable of imparting through his work. Though he is a self-described modernist, the majority of his designs defies easy categorization. As attendees view the exhibit, his mastery of multiple geometries becomes manifest, as exemplified with the Moscow School of Management, Skolvoko. Here, a disc containing teaching facilities, auditoriums and a restaurant, together serve as a base for rectilinear residential buildings above. The all-in-one facility is a response to severe Russian winters, according to text accompanying the display.

Applicability of material is also evident in the outward appearance of the upcoming Smithsonian facility, where bronze-colored metal latticework encloses the corona-shaped building. It clearly references the ironwork that newly freed slaves engaged in producing after the Civil War 150 years ago.

Adjaye has referred to the DC museum as the dream project of his career. Yet his is a career still very much in the making, a tale only half told. No doubt future exhibits await the places he has yet to make. 

Note: The Chicago Architecture Biennial ends Jan. 3. For all remaining events and exhibits, click here.

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