In Africa Adjaye became intrigued by the way life spilled from the home into the marketplace, where all strata of society seemed to mix. “You’ll have this wealthy ambassador’s wife trucking through with her staff, as well as the girl who is selling stuff,” he says. “I was fascinated by how the market makes a democratic commonality.”
If Adjaye’s private homes are about retreat, his public buildings are all about engagement. Like his first Idea Store—a glass-fronted library built in 2005 in Whitechapel, a neighborhood that’s home to thousands of immigrants from Africa and Asia—Adjaye’s design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture does away with the 19th-century notion that civic buildings are meant to ennoble. “I’m not interested in these threshold moments where you rise up to enter,” he says. “We’re done with that. I don’t want to go up to the temple.” Adjaye’s glass-fronted main hall, flush with Constitution Avenue, “hoovers you in,” he says, showing me a model of it in his New York office. “It’s a terrible term, but it’s very deliberate—and it wasn’t in their brief.” The building, essentially a three-tiered crown atop a stone base, is clad in a perforated bronze skin that provides what the museum’s director, Lonnie G. Bunch, calls “something that’s been overlooked—a dark presence on the National Mall.”
Adjaye’s design looks to both Africa and America, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as the porches of the Old South and tribal Yoruban art. “It recalls the crowns on West African sculpture,” Bunch explains, “but also suggests upraised arms in prayer, which gives a strong feeling of America. It’s a wonderful blend of who we once were and who we are today.” For his presentation to the selection committee, Adjaye ended his virtual fly-through of the building with an image of the museum glowing at night at its prime location on the Mall adjacent to the Washington Monument. “That was really the topper,” says Bunch, who chaired the jury that selected the winning team. “It made me realize that he understood how his building has to be distinctive, but also dance with the other buildings on the Mall.”
A major museum—let alone a national one—is the defining commission for any architect. For Adjaye it’s also deeply personal, because it “absolutely describes the kind of trajectories I’ve experienced,” he says, adding that from the beginning he saw the museum as being about cultural identity, not just African-American culture. For the museum to be successful, it has to resonate equally “for an African-American kid from Arizona and the Kenyan kid who’s just arrived from Mombasa for a holiday in D.C.