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EXHIBITION REVIEW

David Adjaye: Making Memory at the Design Museum

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)
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Architectural models are the stars of a compact show exploring monuments through seven projects by Adjaye Associates, writes Rupert Bickersteth. Photography by Ed Reeve 

The past few years have already seen a couple of retrospectives of David Adjaye’s work. First came Form, Heft, Material in 2015 at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, soon followed by Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2016.

London’s Design Museum has a long relationship with Adjaye, having previously exhibited his 10-year study of the capital cities of Africa, Urban Africa, in 2010. Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, thought to bring the Munich show to the UK but, when the conversation with Adjaye began, a different focus arose and the show that has just opened at the museum’s new home at the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, west London, instead poses a ‘provocation or question’ – a rumination on the possibilities and capabilities of ‘monuments’.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

David Adjaye: Making Memory, which opened on 2 February, showcases seven projects by Adjaye Associates, all on the theme of monuments.

In a text in the opening room, which surveys the idea, history and typology of the monument, Adjaye writes that the revisionary period we are in, one of ‘rethinking ingrained histories, […] makes us look more critically at the monuments we’ve made in the past and question the relevance of making monuments for the 21st century.

‘Rather than the imperialist idea of enshrining a singular view,’ he continues ‘I am interested in exploring the democratisation of the monument. I find narratives that unfold and splinter are more representative of our collective consciousness. By including such narratives, the monument can be transformed to reflect a broader experience of time and place’

UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre

UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre

UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre

While at points ambiguous, his thoughts on monuments provide a lens through which to consider the following rooms, which chart the work of a decade. This helps to focus the show and makes it feel manageable (in a way that, perhaps, the 50 projects on show in Chicago did not). The result is a thematic retrospective that highlights the breadth and variety within the practice’s work and the wider typology itself.

It might have been more interesting to see a show illuminating what monument design beyond the work of one architectural practice currently looks like but, with his star ascending, this was always a David Adjaye show. 

Sclera Pavilion

Sclera Pavilion

Sclera Pavilion

Unsurprisingly, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), arguably Adjaye’s most significant building, is given top billing and the most space. But it’s great also to see unbuilt projects exhibited, some not without controversy, such as the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre planned for Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster (designed in collaboration with Ron Arad Architects).

Thoughtful curation brings some aspect of each project to life – whether that is a full-scale section of the Sclera Pavilion from the 2008 London Design Festival, in collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council, or a replica of part of the Gwangju River Reading Room from South Korea.

Sclera Pavilion

Sclera Pavilion

Sclera Pavilion

The real stars, however, are the beautiful models. It’s worth going to see these alone – they are works of exquisite detail and delicacy and really give coherence to the varied array of projects. But they also convey a comprehensive sense of each monument in question, which is explored in more fractured glimpses on the surrounding walls.

Adjaye’s work has a flavour that remains consistent across the different scales and contexts of his work. Whatever your taste buds make of that flavour, this exhibition gives a good chance for visitors to sample and judge for themselves.

National Cathedral of Ghana

National Cathedral of Ghana

National Cathedral of Ghana

David Adjaye’s brother, Peter, is a DJ and has created soundscapes for the exhibition. It plays most loudly in the room dedicated to the forthcoming National Cathedral of Ghana. While the sound of African drums is apt, if obvious, for this project, it permeates the entire show and strikes one of only a few bum notes. Is it an appropriate soundtrack to the Holocaust monument? Does it contribute to a greater understanding of the Sclera pavilion or the Korean reading room (if any of the projects)?

I asked Sudic what the thinking was behind the music and he mused that ‘it is always interesting how sound is used in exhibitions’ and went on to say how he thought the aural highlight was the spoken word for the, as yet unannounced, competition entry for the Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Boston – one of the simplest and most effective projects and displays.

Regardless of what you make of the music, or the limiting of the scope of the show to only Adjaye’s work, it is worth going to see not only for those models, but also to view a prominent UK architectural practice’s development in the past 10 years, and (protests not obstructing and competition wins pending) where it could be headed.

David Adjaye: Making Memory is at the Design Museum until 5 May 2019

 

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