Building Dispatch 9 Questions for David Adjaye
As The Studio Museum in Harlem moves forward with plans to build a new, state-of-the-art, custom facility—designed by Adjaye Associates with executive architects Cooper Robertson—Sir David Adjaye sat down with Studio to speak about his longstanding relationship with the Museum and what he finds most inspiring about the vibrant Harlem community.
What excites you about working in Harlem?
Harlem has such a rich history, and in many ways the neighborhood represents the quintessence of black urban modernity across the globe. That influence has certainly resonated throughout the twentieth century. It has also changed rapidly this century, so having the opportunity to contribute to the evolution of a neighborhood that has so much representational force, to help craft its future, is exciting.
Can you explain some of the ways the neighborhood influenced your thinking about this project?
Each of my projects emerges from its context, including the physical, historical and cultural components. I've sought to incorporate and recalibrate many elements of Harlem's architectural vernacular into the design. For instance, I drew inspiration from the masonry architecture of Harlem, and I’ve played on familiar architectural tropes, such as frames, apertures and doorways. The Hall—located at the Museum's entrance—recalls both the intimacy and the engagement of iconic brownstone stoops, as well as the grand scale of the soaring, cathedral-like interiors of local churches.
When did you first form a relationship with the Studio Museum? What makes museum projects special?
The Studio Museum was the first institution in the United States to stage an exhibition of my work. Back in 2007, it held an exhibition focusing on my public projects and their relationship to their sites and contexts. In many ways, this project feels like I have come full circle: This has been a crucial institution to the development of my career, and now I have the opportunity to return that gift.
How will the new Studio Museum building be different from other museums?
Thelma Golden has a clear vision for the Studio Museum that is very much about support for artists, education and community engagement. It has been my task to craft a building that can reflect and support that vision. So we have tried to push the museum typology to a new place, with a fresh approach to the display and reception of art. The gallery spaces are specifically crafted to respond to contemporary artists’ needs for exhibiting a mix of two- and three-dimensional works, often of different scales. It is critical for the galleries to be closely connected to the education spaces, to forge a dialogue between viewing and creating art. This project is very much about celebrating the community and its context, so there are moments of clear interplay, transparency and prioritized connections between interior and exterior.
Thelma Golden has a clear vision for the Studio Museum that is very much about support for artists, education and community engagement.
How has your relationship with the late J. Max Bond Jr. inspired this project?
Max is truly an inspirational figure for me, and working with him on the National Museum of African American History and Culture was an honor. His designs have a clear sense of context and they are incredibly generous to their surrounding communities. To have the opportunity to build upon this legacy is humbling.
You are known for your collaborations with artists. How does that work inform this project?
I have always sought to cross creative platforms, collaborate with artists and designers from different disciplines and focus on the creative discourse surrounding the act of making things. It is the dialogue—the cultural intersection—that excites me. I believe that art visualizes very important things that are happening in culture. The visual arts are usually the first to manifest these things in some kind of form or gesture. I find that really stimulating. We help each other: When things shift in architecture, it influences art, and when things shift in art, it informs architecture in a very immediate way. Technology also has an impact, but art gives us the language that we move forward with.
How can museum architecture influence the experience of looking at art?
Thinking about what an institution should look like, and how a museum should work with its audience, is something that is still playing out and has never been absolutely cracked. It’s something that’s an ongoing experiment and, I think, thankfully, will never be solved, because it keeps shifting. We live in a time when what I call the “archival” or the “collection” museum has slightly faded in the sense that we now love temples to beauty. What is needed instead are museums that are about an engage-ment with people, an engagement with a dialogue, with a discussion of art, and an engagement with different ways of collecting and different ways of seeing the world. Design is critical in this, because the allocation of spaces, or the adjacencies, can either mark art off as an elevated and untouchable form for passive consumption, or can invite dialogue and con-versation. Decisions about the porosity of the spaces, the way the spaces unfold to visitors, give very clear cues about what kind of relationship is expected.
What do you hope residents of the neighborhood feel when entering the new building?
I hope that they feel welcomed, that this building is for them and that they feel empowered to navigate it with confidence. I also hope that they feel a level of own-ership, that this is a building they can embrace and feel proud of. It is truly a celebration of the community and the neighborhood.
Describe 125th Street in three words.
Vibrant, iconic, dynamic.