Baumeister: You grew up in many different places as a child. Could you tell me a bit more about your upbringing?
David Adjaye: I was born in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in East Africa and my parents are from Ghana. My father was part of a generation of independence diplomats who were being trained very rapidly and sent around the world. My own experience was about moving from the Southern to the Northern hemisphere: from Tanzania to Ghana, to Egypt, to Beirut and finally to Europe. I travelled with my parents and my two brothers to all these places, before we arrived in London when I was thirteen.
How was it living in London after all the travels during your childhood?
From the ages of 13 to 19, London was home for me.
I didn’t really travel during that time. As soon as I started doing architecture, I began travelling again, eventually going all over the world to look at architecture and see the examples I was reading about.
Do you think your upbringing influenced your work as an architect?
It is difficult to say what exactly is the big influence in my work, but I definitely have a sense that, wherever I am in the world, I don’t feel it is complete in itself. I am always referring to it in relation to other places and to other things I have experienced. For me, the world is a collection of ongoing experiences that are being negotiated and maybe that is how I ultimately think about my architecture.
You made a ten-year study of African cities. What was the motivation for this?
Initially it was about making a personal journey because at architecture school people often asked me about the continent. This is now 25 years ago, when most people didn’t know very much about African cities, so I was always the person that had to speak up for the continent. But I realized that I only knew six or seven countries when there are 54 of them! Being in this position made me feel inadequate and that stimulated me to find out more.
What did you find out?
In the beginning, it was a journey to the countries my father spoke about, which I had not been to as a child, but I also went to the places that I grew up in and had not seen for a long time. The second stage was when I started visiting the countries associated with the ones I already knew. I had been to 16 countries within a few years and I included them in an exhibition I organised at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, when I was teaching there. Many of the people who visited the show had not seen so many images of African cities before, and I realized this was a serious omission in the knowledge- base of architecture and decided to spent the rest of my time completing the journey.
Did you find out something about your roots when you made those journeys?
They reinforced certain intuitions, which gave me more confidence in what I was doing. Going back to the street where I had lived in Kampala or going to the Hospital in Dar es Salaam where I was born – and putting together, with an architect’s eye, the picture that my parents had painted for me from their memories – addressed many issues. Remembering houses that I have lived in and then seeing the type of houses nearby, like the courtyard houses of North Africa or the colonial houses of East Africa, clarified many questions for me.
In the meantime, the perception of Africa has massively changed. There are exibitions about African architecture and architects like Francis Kéré are designing the Serpentine Pavilion in London. How do you feel about this?
I am excited! But there is so much more to be done: the work of Francis Kéré is just the tip of an iceberg. In the last 200 years, African architecture has fallen off the table. At the moment there is an interest in the basic conditions on the continent, which teaches us a great deal about the fundamental organisation of many of the things we have made in western countries. It teaches the root form of things.
The perception of African architecture is that it is very much about social design, such as schools and hospitals. How could this change?
If you take a close look, you can see an undercurrent that is growing in strength, which has to do with a new generation of African architects who understand the power of their DNA and what they can offer to the discourse in architecture. This is the exciting prospect. The arrangements for aid and assistance are important but should not be an end point in themselves. Africa is much more about the fundamentals of human dwelling, the nature of form-making in different climates and how cultures manifest and work with geography in different ways. That is the architectural DNA of the continent.
You just mentioned the relationship of climate and form-making, which plays a very important role in this issue. In your essay “Climate Moderators” (featured in the May issue of Baumeister, editor’s note), you say that you have been aware of the impact of climate on architecture since you were a student. Where does this early interest come from?
It comes from the experiences of my childhood, realizing the differences involved in visiting a Hindu Ashram in East Africa, a mosque in North Africa or a West African shrine house. I was very aware that several things were in play in each of these places. One was to do with religion and another concerned the climatic conditions. My own experience of these conditions was almost haptic in nature and left me with very powerful memories.
“Africa is much more about the fundamentals of human dwelling, the nature of form-making in different climates and how cultures manifest and work with geography in different ways. That is the architectural DNA of the continent.”
Did you have teachers at your architecture school that supported this interest in climate and form-making?
For my MA at the Royal College of Art in London, I was taught by Alison and Peter Smithson (p. 64) for one year, which, looking back, was the most profound encounter for me. Their influence cannot be underestimated because they helped me become more aware of my underlying tendencies. My interest in cities comes from my childhood and my travels, but also from Alison Smithson’s incredible lectures focussing on how to understand cities and the way they are. Peter Smithson had a special way of talking about built form, and the notion of the “climate moderator” comes from conversations with him. This phrase had a profound significance for me because it impacts on all aspects of building – from understanding gutters, lintels or shade, through to porches, verandas and thresholds. If you expand it to include global ideas and cultural norms, you can understand how powerful it becomes as a tool of form-making.
How do you transfer this academic approach into your everyday work as an architect?
In the Elektra House, which is the first house I ever made, I became obsessed with the way in which London ignores the beautiful northern light you get in the city, and instead concerns itself with facade-making and brickwork. This is why I designed a whole house with a large window, just to take in the light. The house functions as a light and environmental collector, to draw attention to the specifics of the place. Another important theme in this house concerns the way you move from the public to the private realm. The door is not on the facade, you have to go down a short passage and then you enter discretely into the private realm. In this case, we made a threshold with an English quietness, which doesn’t often happen in the East End of London – because you usually open your front door straight to the street.
In your essay “Climate Moderators”, you also describe this Baumeister issue as a “soft manifesto on the nature of form-making”. Is it also a manifesto against the signiture architecture of the last decades?
Probably … I was a student when this architecture first appeared and I wasn‘t convinced by it, although I found it technically interesting. This was definitely a generation that was pushing emerging technologies to realize complicated ideas. I belong to a generation for whom the computer is no longer a novelty. For me, the computer’s ability is not about realizing some sort of spectacle, but to give me more insights in relation to the precision of my forms.
What I find really interesting about your approach is the idea of solving climatic issues by developing form, rather than technology. Today, it’s usually the other way around.
I think the way that environmental design was reformatted in the 1970s disregarded the history and the intelligence of form-making in architecture. This has brought us to the early years of the 21st century believing that technology can solve everything. It’s like thinking that the heart is simply a vessel for pumping blood, when it is much more than that. It is the first sound we hear; its regular pulse gives us rhythm and it is deeply human. This is why I found myself wanting to return to the fundamentals, because cities are growing and everything is rapidly changing. The beauty of architecture is that it is continually having to remake form, through a climatic cultural response that is relevant for the evolution of people as they change.
If you take a look at the early work of Le Corbusier, you can see that he was very interested in vernacular architecture, for example in the architecture of North Africa from where he took the inspiration for the brise soleil. I think what happened to modern architecture is some sort of misinterpretation of the early modernist movement.
I completely agree! This is why I feature the work of Alvar Aalto (p. 54) and Lucio Costa (p. 22). They are often seen as secondary figures in the canon of modern architecture. But this is a misunderstanding of the profound translation that was going on in the work of these architects. Their work was not about the style or the image of modernism. It was about the reading of the place and its significance in the modern world that we are all born into.
“The beauty of architecture is that it is continually having to remake form, through a climatic cultural response that is relevant for the evolution of people as they change.”
Another architect you refer to is Louis Kahn. In your essay about Kahn’s work in Bangladesh (featured in the May issue of Baumeister, editor’s note), you write that “Kahn represents the beginning of a planetary architecture”. Could you describe what that means?
Every architect has a methodology and all of them are valid. But what is important to other people concerns the way in which the methodology represents the places they are familiar with. I think Kahn’s approach is global because he was able to reinterpret each of the places he worked in by using the information that was available there. If you look at his work in America, his work in India and Bangladesh, or even his work in Israel, you can see that each design is different – his attenuation of form to deal with climate, and his use of layering to mediate between the internal and external condition. Kahn’s methodology might not be the only answer to this but it is definitely a very strong answer.
An interesting aspect of Kahn’s National Assembly Building in Dhaka is that he was able to create a place with a very specific identity that was accepted by its citizens. Does this mean that form can evoke identity?
Form in itself does not evoke identity but form creates associations. When it triggers an emotional feeling or meaning, it begins to relate to identity. It is not about saying: “This is German or this is Bangladeshi” because these statements are abstractions. It is more about the observation: “This makes sense where we are and makes sense to who I am because I am from this place.” That is the identity I am speaking about, not something intellectual or manufactured. I don’t believe that there is such a thing as British architecture, but there is an architecture that comes from a specific climate. There are effects related to particular geographies, which are well known to the people who inhabit those places, but if you say that these geographies end at the border, then I am really worried.
Order your copy of David Adjaye’s guest-curated issue of Baumeister here.