Architect Puts Africa in New African-American Museum

David Adjaye, the designer of the upcoming national museum, shrugs off his fame and focuses on adding West African themes to his work.

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Adjaye hopes that these touches, many of them subtle, will connect with the many African Americans who visit the site. "I believe in collective memory." Yet he has not dwelled on the past. Adjaye is not worried that this new architectural language will seem out of place in a city whose public buildings have long been identified with the neoclassical Greek Revival style. He points to the Washington Monument and describes it as a "pharaonic object." Indeed, that monument was inspired by obelisks like Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park and in the one at the Place de la Concorde in Paris -- designs that are Egyptian, not European.

Adjaye pays a lot of attention to texture. For the Moscow School of Management, he has created undulating walls of multicolored glass panels that are playful and distinctive. In New York, he has developed a special molded, textured material to cover a residence for retired jazz musicians in Harlem's Sugar Hill section. He's especially proud of the windows, dancing in irregular patterns that contrast sharply with the military rigidity of windows in an adjacent public housing project.  "I think of that as jazz improvisation," he says.

Some critics have said that his work hasn't developed a distinctive style, but Adjaye has responded that he does not want to repeat the same design over and over again. He's clearly not a classical musician, satisfied to play the same piece repeatedly. Adjaye is more like jazz: creating under pressure, improvising, borrowing, discarding and delivering a performance that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.

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National Museum of African American History and Culture (Courtesy of Adjaye Assoc.)