David Adjaye’s 21st century monuments and memorials explored at London’s Design Museum

David Adjaye’s 21st century monuments and memorials explored at London’s Design Museum

Designing architecture exhibitions can be notoriously tricky. Attempting to represent the experience and impact of being in any particular building or interior, while in the constraints of an entirely different space, often thousands of miles away, is an elusive goal. Add to this the challenge of embedding exhibitions within a strong theoretical base, and curators are often faced with a tough task. The newly opened ‘David Adjaye: Making Memory’ exhibition at London’s Design Museum, successfully manages to avoid the common pitfalls, launching a succinct and to-the-point display that opens to the wider public from 2 February.

The show focuses on work by Sir David Adjaye and his London, New York and Accra-based architecture practice, Adjaye Associates, while examining the idea of the monument – a theme that, as the exhibition proves, has long been aligned with the studio’s thought processes. Elaborating on ‘how architecture and form are used as storytelling devices’, this showcase is informative and captivating, using clean design and an uncluttered language, while touching upon issues such as memory, experience and representation, and of course architecture’s role within them.

‘The monument is a device to talk about the many things facing people across the planet.’

‘The monument is no longer a representation, it is an experience of time and place that is available to everyone’, says Adjaye. ‘Whether it’s for a nation, a race, a community, or a person, it is really used as a device to talk about the many things facing people across the planet. Democratisation does not mean that monuments cease to be relevant; it requires the monument to be transformed, so that it has an inbuilt openness and can be approached and understood from many points of view.’

Sir David Adjaye OBE was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and formed Adjaye Associates in London in 2000. He now works internationally. Photography: Ed Reeve

The visitor’s journey takes place through the lens of seven of the practice’s key works – some completed, some in progress and some still in development stage. Included are the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C, the new National Cathedral of Ghana in Accra; the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London (with Ron Arad Architects as Memorial Architect, and Gustafson Porter + Bowman as Landscape Architect); the Sclera Pavilion for London Design Festival 2008 (in collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council); the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory; the Gwangju River Reading Room in South Korea (in collaboration with the writer Taiye Selasi); and the first opportunity to see an ‘in-depth display’ of the Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Boston (with contributions by African-American artist Adam Pendleton and type designer David Reinfurt). 

There are drawings, photography and architectural models – perhaps as expected – but there’s also a lot of welcome video documentation of Adjaye talking about the projects, as well as input from his creative collaborators on some of these projects. 

The show was designed by Adjaye Associates together with the Design Museum – perhaps a challenge in itself (one could argue that it requires some distance to engage with a subject with a fresh eye), but one that the studio responded to with flair, offering an exhibition that’s truly in sync with its subject matter. §

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