Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE recently worked with curators at the Design Museum in Kensington, London, to present “David Adjaye: Making Memory” (2 February – 5 May 2019) – an exhibition examining seven projects from his oeuvre that foreground and materialise the important relationships between lived experience, history, memory and memorialisation.
Displayed in the lower-ground floor galleries – within a renovated building that originally housed the nation’s Commonwealth Institute, dating back to 1962 – each section of the exhibition included intricate, centrally placed architectural models of the structures and monuments in focus, accompanied by artworks, building materials, sketchbooks, photographic projections, film clips and other audio-visual presentations communicating the genesis of each design in words, pictures and object assemblages.
Importantly, the designs discussed in the first three sections of the exhibition were all set against a subdued black backdrop, with carefully placed spotlights to illuminate the content and encourage focussed contemplation. The atmosphere induced a sense of reverence, solemnity and a desire to show deep respect for the subject matter – especially as these projects addressed difficult, traumatic and tragic histories of enslavement, genocide and the violent suppression of human rights for communities from different time periods and contrasting regions of the world.
The opening room illustrated the development of the Gwangju Pavilion, also known as “The Gwangju River Reading Room” (2014) – a concrete and timber structure built on the banks of the Gwangju River in South Korea. The building was specifically constructed to commemorate the uprising and massacre of 18 May 1980, during which 200 young people were killed by armed forces trying to suppress a pro-democracy student demonstration. Sir David’s company, Adjaye Associates, collaborated with author Taiye Selasie to create a memorial reflective of traditional Korean building design, whilst also adding contemporary features to the “Reading Room” that allowed space for 200 books to be inserted into apertures within the walls and pillars in memory of the students’ lost lives.
Following the Gwangju Pavilion presentation the exhibition divided into two larger gallery spaces – featuring Adjaye Associates’ plans for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Westminster, London, and work completed in 2016 on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Washington D.C.
A significant feature of both displays was the inclusion of poetry and famous quotations, providing additional context to the models and narrative descriptions to help visitors reflect on the centuries of oppression, violence, discrimination and struggles to survive experienced by the racial minorities and religious communities remembered and memorialised through these architectural projects. Alongside the proposed designs for the Holocaust Memorial was a famous quote by the Romanian-born Jewish-American novelist, political activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), which stated:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.Elie Wiesel (1966)
The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”
Similarly, the full-text of the famous Harlem Renaissance poem “I, Too” (1926) by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was printed in bold white text against the black background and displayed next to the poignant film clips and design descriptions about Adjaye’s work on the NMAAHC:
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Besides,Langston Hughes (1926)
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed.”
The architecture of the Sclera Pavilion (2008), developed by Adjaye Associates in collaboration with London Design Festival and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), was discussed in the fourth section of the display area, using blocks of American tulipwood suspended from the ceiling to replicate the effect of standing inside the original hardwood structure that was displayed near the capital’s Southbank Centre. Photographs of the pavilion also helped to recreate the impression of walking through the vented, circular framework that was themed around the physical characteristics of the eye and the camera lens.
The largest section of the exhibition showcased a large rectangular model of Adjaye’s plans for the National Cathedral of Ghana, currently in development in Accra. Inspired by a variety of traditional sculptures, stone carvings, textiles, craft objects and ceremonial symbols reflecting Ghanaian cultural heritage the planned 5,000-seat auditorium at the centre of the structure is surrounded by a series of outer buildings that will ultimately house a music school, art gallery and Bible museum.
Projects six and seven were presented in a brightly-lit, yellow gallery space and discussed two important commemorative projects designed in collaboration with environmental campaigners and rights activists working to bring about positive global changes from cultural, political and ethical standpoints inspired by the past – namely, the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) in Dorset, designed in association with the Eden Project; and the Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Project for Boston Common, USA, developed in partnership with Future/Pace and African-American conceptual artist and activist Adam Pendleton.
Plans, sketches and models for the MEMO Memorial Project were first developed by Adjaye Associates in the early 2010s and featured a spiral-shaped stone structure commemorating the nation’s lost and threatened species of flora and fauna. Following several revisions to transform the project into one more closely themed around supporting biodiversity, the re-designed MEMO is currently under construction in Portland along England’s World Heritage Jurassic Coast and will open to the public in 2020.
Sir David Adjaye and Adam Pendleton’s designs for the King Memorial in Boston were inspired by the couple’s civil rights activism and framed around quotations from famous speeches presented in the 1960s – most notably the poignant text of MLK’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which was delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on 3 April 1968 – one day before he was assassinated.
In addition to the incorporation of typography from the original speech featured as digital and carved text on the wall displays, the exhibition also included an audio recording of the sermon and accompanying archival photographs of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. For both Adjaye and Pendleton it was very important that this contemporary memorial referenced the current and ongoing struggles of the Black Lives Matter campaign just as much as it commemorated the brave and stalwart actions of the past.
Further information about the exhibition, “David Adjaye: Making Memory,” is available on the Design Museum’s website and extracts from Sir David Adjaye’s interview with museum director Deyan Sudjic can be viewed online via Vimeo.