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David Adjaye’s “Making Memory” at London’s Design Museum

London’s Design Museum

What does it mean to memorialise ideas in a society? And how does making built form contribute to that? Can anything be ritualised and turned into a monument in the 21 century?

These are some of the lofty questions explored in “Making Memory”, the new exhibition of seven projects by the celebrated British-Ghanaian architect, Sir David Adjaye at London’s Design Museum.

Three of the completed projects are the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, Sclera Pavilion in London, Gwangju River Reading Room in South Korea.

Two are secured commissions: the National Cathedral of Ghana and the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, while the last two – the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory and Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial – are proposals by his practice, Adjaye Associates, that are yet to be approved.

The National Cathedral of Ghana is a commission by the current president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo.

It is situated within 14 acres of landscaped gardens in Accra, the capital, the 5 000 seat auditorium will include podiums for standing that will accommodate a total of 15 000 people.

This space for national celebration either religious, democratic or traditional which will house a music school, gallery, chapels and the first Bible Museum and Documentation Centre on the continent.

Design exhibitions have the unfair advantage of displaying projects of practical and emotional value outside the gallery over visual art; an import that weighs on the individual who visits the assembly of replica buildings, explanatory texts, ambient music and tastefully edited video installations that include generous interviews by the architect (or artist), explaining their ideas and applications.

Each of the seven “monuments” in “Making Memory” has a dedicated exhibition room, and in this one for the cathedral, a model of the 14 acres project is set in the middle of the room.

More fascinating are the selected source materials that are said to have influenced the design process: an Akyem stool (1900s), traditional Akan umbrellas, a set of Adinkra stamps (around 2000), whose patterns have been abstracted and used to design the landscape of the cathedral.

Adjaye and his team employed a similar approach to the external skin of the Smithsonian Museum in the US capital, by isolating patterns found in the ironworks developed by slaves from West Africa where iron smelting flourished for over two millennia.

The choice of bronze and grey colours were inspired by the metal sculptures adorning the Royal Palace of Benin (today in Nigeria).

As well as a replica of the museum itself, images of the historical metal work and palace walls are displayed in the gallery, alongside their abstracted forms hung in a set. Commanding attention is a wood sculpture by Olowe of Ise (1910-14) whose craftsmanship earned him the title “Sculptor to Kings”.

A lay visitor with a cursory knowledge of architecture could easily be persuaded by the “story-ing” in Adjaye’s thinking and designs, which work to deepen the psychic immersion of the seven exhibited projects beyond physical beauty, especially when functionality is never neglected.

Key to the exhibition is the clever and sensitive use of light which is used to softly focus on important and impressive aspects of a design, while the dimmer casts of light does indeed soothe and invite contemplation.

The same is true of his design of Chris Ofili’s Upper Room (Tate Britain, 2010) for which the architect’s use of ambient light strongly invoked meditation in chapels.

This is where Adjaye’s brilliance runs into trouble. Are such associations with worship too close to self-deification? And is this truly unimaginable, given his brilliance and the scale of his achievements.

Adjaye is only 51 years old, which in his profession, is still relatively young. But youth means vitality and the age of an idea that succeeds.

The size and socio-historical importance of any one of the seven projects in “Making Memory” is enough to be one architect’s crowning glory. In Adjaye’s case, they take the form of his greatest hits thus far.

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