Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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BOOK REVIEW: African Metropolitan Architecture and David Adjaye: Authoring

A massive portfolio of photos on African cities, and a collection of discussions at Princeton on the relationship of art and architecture show two sides of a provocative British architect who is beginning to make his mark in America. “Africa has always been a point of reference for me,” writes David Adjaye, who had a peripatetic childhood as the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and has now reconnected with his roots. He traveled to all but one of the 53 African states (wisely omitting Somalia) studying the relationship of buildings to climate and landscape, and photographing the gritty reality of their capitals. This research fed into his competition-winning design for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC—a building of extraordinary originality amid the banalities that line the Mall—and a series of commissions in Africa.

The photos are grouped geographically—desert, forest, mountain etc—in six paper-bound volumes, plus a slim collection of essays. It’s a dramatic way of articulating the radical differences within a continent that most Westerners ignore except for the latest civil war or massacre. Adjaye wants to play up the diversity and vitality of his homeland, observing that “the colonial city existed primarily for purposes of trade and administration but, since independence, the same cities have become symbols of modernity…The identity of each modernity can supply incredible richness.” That sounds good and it may be true, but Adjaye’s photos don’t support his assertion. What we see is squalor bordering on the chaotic; shabby relics of colonialism swallowed up in a tide of gimcrack construction and unregulated signage. Even Asmara, which a veteran Ethiopian architect describes as a “modernist city of unparalleled beauty and serenity [that] has survived unscathed from years of war,” appears derelict in these images.

African Metropolitan Architecture
by David Adjaye
Rizzoli International, $100


Authoring is an edited transcript of discussions Adjaye had with three artists—Teresita Fernandez, Jorge Pardo, and Matthew Ritchie--while teaching at the Princeton School of Architecture. It recalls a similar dialogue between Frank Gehry and Richard Serra that the Weisman Institute hosted 20 years ago. Adjaye studied art and has, to an even greater extent than Gehry, achieved a fusion of the two disciplines—in houses, galleries and installations. He is an outspoken critic of form for form’s sake. “Architecture is, at its essence, a way to think about civil society and translate the building requirements beyond the basic needs of the clients,” he declares. “Thinking, and the process of idea generation, is far more important than perfecting a technique.” It’s an ideal he practices (his Idea Stores in London’s East End have created a new model for branch libraries) and one hopes his students at Princeton take it to heart.  Authoring challenges received ideas and much current practice in art and architecture, and, like all of Lars Müller’s books, it is elegantly produced. It’s a stimulating read that should get you thinking.

David Adjaye: Authoring; re-placing art and architecture

Lars Müller, $45

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