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review

David Adjaye: The Asymmetric Chamber At CUBE, 113 Portland Street, Manchester, until 22 November

David Adjaye was asked by CUBE curator Graeme Russell to give people a 'way in' to his architecture. Whether or not this was meant literally, Adjaye has taken it so, and visitors step Alice-like straight into this, his first UK exhibition. Which, of course, isn't an exhibition at all but an installation; a seven-and-a-half-tonne timber box - 'The Asymmetric Chamber' - shouldered cheekily into CUBE's rather austere space.

Adjaye - who took a foundation year in art before studying architecture - has talked about how he wants his buildings to elicit emotional, sensory responses (though it is hard to imagine an architect who doesn't), so instead of passive drawings, plans and models, we go inside, to see and experience how his buildings might look and feel to be in. He wants us to feel, not think.

The chamber is a simple threefold space - a wider 'nave' flanked by two ribbed cloisterlike corridors - only a few hundred metres square in all, and floor-lit from the sides by strips of coloured light. It's controlled but also full of fascinating contradictions. The sense that is immediately assailed is, unexpectedly, smell - the strong, sweet smell of the untreated timber, like honey and rosin, the one sense here that can't be contained or curated.

A soundtrack that comes perilously close to 'ambient' music, composed by Adjaye's brother, is soothing but unsettling. The wood - actually some kind of high density fibreboard - is warm but rough and splintered.Walking through the chamber offers a heightened physical experience, like being in the opposite of a sensory deprivation tank, but it's also cerebral and (sorry, David) thought-provoking.

Adjaye's anti-intellectualism is undermined by his clever naming of the piece.

Chamber is a highly emotive word, charged with a mass of often opposing physical, spiritual, sexual, serious and jokey meanings and associations. From ancient catacombs to computer games, from nuclear bunkers to bedrooms, a chamber is always an inner sanctum, sometimes safe but sometimes scary, even deadly.

But I'm getting carried away. Does Adjaye's chamber tell us anything about his architectural approach, about his response to spatial and design challenges? Judging by some of the sulky comments from the Manchester architectural elite at the opening, his wanton disregard of the perceived distinctions between art and architecture gets right up people's noses.

'My architectural politics are the politics of inclusivity, ' Adjaye counters. He has bold ideas and grand ambitions, but so far is known mainly in this country for designing 'conceptual' homes for Hoxton artists, and for his reworking of two libraries in Tower Hamlets as 'idea stores'.

For idiosyncratic architects such as Adjaye, globalisation is good, and his practice, Adjaye Associates, is working on designs for the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Boston's Performing Arts Centre, and a prototype house in Nanjing, China. He may not overly respect context, but he sees the possibilities rather than the limitations of a site, and he needs more visionary clients to take the leap forward and trust his ideas to stack up.

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist

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