Essay by Josephine Breese
Having long secured his role as one of Britain’s leading architect, David Adjaye’s work still commands high praise. Deservedly so. Adjaye’s objective is total architectural integration as spurred on by his lack of conviction in the accepted and damaging separation of the visual arts. This approach seeks a re-evaluation of the conventional treatment of architecture, replacing it with a permeable exchange with other disciplines, forming a new experience outside traditional typologies. Consequently his collaborative projects with artists are some of his most well known. Adjaye’s pursuit of organicity in his work prioritises cultural and environmental identity, whether of the context of the project, the artist’s work or commissioning body, to achieve the ‘tectonic’ relationship he favours.
One of Adjaye’s first, and enduring, artistic pairings was with Chris Ofili, a colleague from the Royal College of Art. The architect and painter realised their shared objectives in one of their earliest projects together, The Upper Room, overhauling the relationship between the Vitoria Miro gallery and artwork within, for a show of Ofili’s work at the Victoria Miro gallery in 2002. Bought and displayed by Tate from 2005, The Upper Room presents a seamless partnership, challenging the norms of ‘the container’ and ‘the contained’, as Adjaye puts it, with an indivisible authorial voice. Conceived in response to Ofili’s anxieties of viewers’ altered perceptions of his work by the commercial context of the gallery, the structure stands in protest to its host environment.
The paintings are stunning in themselves, composed of translucent layers of shimmering colours, they are typical of Ofili’s tactile, sensuous style. Adjaye’s architectural response is sensitively attuned to the atmosphere of the works, with the result that it is difficult to imagine either the paintings or their surrounds independently of each other. The effect of a darkened, wooden corridor lit enticingly at intervals along a slim walkway, opening onto a rectangular exhibition area, with twelve spotlit monkeys arranged on either side of this aisle-like space before a shining, presiding monkey, immerses the viewer entirely. The parody of an inner sanctum sets the stage for a sacred drama of anticipation and revelation.
Adjaye’s role is defined by his facilitation of an immediate remove from outer reality. Furthermore, his synchronicity with an artist’s vision shows their work in optimum conditions, with an imaginative understanding of what these could be. His environments for artists gently manipulate the viewer, carefully funnelling their direction as they become accustomed to the experience. Adjaye’s next major project with Ofili, the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, conscientiously attended to the viewer in this manner. Entitled Within Reach, Ofili’s deeply sumptuous and erotic Afro-paintings of lovers carried the colours of the Union Blacks hung outside the pavilion, the Pan-African colours of red, green and black derived from the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, symbolising African blood, natural resources and skin. The neo-classical pavilion was redesigned into obscurity in the spirit of anti-colonial protest, with Adjaye’s help. Guided through the colour scheme, visitors were swept into Adjaye’s loosely spiral design for the interior rooms, culminating in the Afro Kaleidoscope, a perilous arrangement of vast red, green and black glass shards hanging over the viewer and Ofili’s works. This theatrical engineering formed the central spectacle, with Adjaye pushing Ofili’s immersive scenes to full experiential saturation.
Adjaye fluidly transcends the boundaries between architecture and art through an intrinsic understanding of the artists that he collaborates with. The number of these partnerships, while significant, is still relatively small, suggesting a consideration on Adjaye’s part of specifically seeking like-minded artists. Adjaye’s work with Olafur Eliasson strikes of a recognition of such shared objectives. Eliasson’s conscious operation within, reconstruction of, and response to the natural world seems to resonate with Adjaye’s heightened consciousness of his environment. Both play with perceptions of reality and their ability to shape their surroundings.
These mutual directions are revealed in Your Black Horizon, Eliasson and Adjaye’s art pavilion first shown at the Venice biennale in 2003, currently exhibited for its fourth season on the island of Lopud in Croatia (facing Venice). Its pared down design consists of a walkway cased on one side by thin wooden vertical planks, casting lengthening shadows according to the time of day. Conversely, the interior of the rectangular pavilion is defined by a thin, continuous horizontal slit in the walls. This bright line, pencilled in sunshine, morphs as the day goes by, channelling a constantly changing variable into the pavilion and subsequently each individual experience of it. The subtlety of activity is concealed by the passage of time, with the work relying entirely on the local weather conditions, irrespective of whether those of Venice or Lopud.
Adjaye’s projects are unfailingly faithful to an innovative and personal architectural rationale. His practice aspires to a new condition of architecture, whereby operating within different artistic fields is not defined as such, as there is no necessity for him to make a ‘nimble’ transition between disciplines. This approach is consistent; whether public, private or artistic commissions, Adjaye insists on maintaining an acute awareness of a project’s identity in order to ease into this new fabric authentically.