The Design Museum’s latest offering is their first major architectural exhibition since they moved to Kensington to take over the Commonwealth Institute over two years ago and I have to say it is my favourite exhibition to date at their new site.
‘Making Memory’ focuses on the work of British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye and explores seven major projects. In no way a simple retrospective, the exhibition explores the role of architecture in memorialising our past and looking to our future.
These seven projects, some realised and some still to be built really made me think about the power of architecture to evoke feelings and emotion. As Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic says in his opening address ‘the power of architecture is not just how it looks but how it feels’.
Adjaye is the master of transforming wood, metal, glass and stone into living breathing forms that reference traditions and our past but in a way that is accessible to everyone.
“The monument is no longer a representation, it is an experience of time and place that is available to everyone.”
The selection of projects includes work that tackles complex topics from the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Palace of Westminster, due to be completed in 2022, to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is not easy to create spaces that are open to all yet reference so many challenges we face as a society coming to terms with our turbulent past in a turbulent present.
The exhibition begins by confronting us with what we know, monuments as arches, statues and tombs. The first Adjaye project is the Gwangju River Reading Room in South Korea, a living library that not only offers space to meet, access and discuss new ideas but connects river and street. The natural landscape is not shut out but welcomed in, the 200 books were on bookshelves made from concrete cast in situ against a wooden formwork, the woodgrain and pattern were visible, giving the bookcases the feeling of concrete and the look of timber.
Adjaye collaborated with writer Taiye Selasi who selected the books which were not just about ideas from other countries but connecting to those ideas in South Korea, a response to the pro-democracy uprisings from May 1980 when 200 students died (unofficial estimates suggest the actual figure may be closer to 2,000).
I love the exhibition design, each room envelopes you in a project, beautiful photographs and intricate maquettes bring each project to life. The highlight for me is seeing Olowe of Ise’s Yoruba sculpture, the crown or corona of which inspired the design of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH). I selected a Yoruba sculpture for display at the Horniman Museum as part of my Access Advisory Group work on the perspectives display in their new World Gallery. There is something about these carvings that really capture me. There is a power to them that holds my attention every time I see one.
The design process is explored in greater detail with prototypes of materials for the intricate facade of the NMAACH and for a monument yet to be built, the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre which has not been without controversy. ‘Making Memory’ explores the consultation process and the practical considerations of meeting the requirements of a sensitive memorial in a central London location. No idea comes without the compromises involved working with so many different groups and views.
The Sclera Pavilion, a contribution to the 2008 London Design Festival, is evoked with a ceiling and wrap-around of American tulipwood. The Pavilion was a place of respite and reflection, taking the ambience of a religious space and recreating it in a busy London thoroughfare on the Southbank.
The exhibition design cleverly replicates the dappled light and shade, a reminder that Sclera was open to the elements. Whilst creating a space that was calming and uplifting it was also a space to connect with light and air, rooting you to the natural environment.
Standing in the re-creation you get a small sense of what the original experience would have been like. I love the smell of the wood, it ignites other senses that heightens the moment.
It is great to see the inspirations in architectural design, the proposed National Cathedral of Ghana for example drawn from the curves of a traditional stool, an important symbol of power in Ghanaian culture. It is a new building that references shared history and tradition whilst also making a statement of national identity.
If I were to have a criticism of ‘Making Memory’ I wish it were bigger. I remember the immersive experience of ‘Sensing Spaces’ at the Royal Academy and the unforgettable experience of being able to walk in, sit and touch such a wide breadth of different styles of architecture. Adjaye’s work is so inspiring I want the chance to do just that, a fragment of the Sclera Pavilion just leaves me wanting more.
I found ‘Making Memory’ intriguing, never about walls, roofs and windows it is exactly what Adjaye and the Design Museum set it out to be, a conversation, a debate on memory, on monument, on emotional architecture and it is a conversation I want to return to again and again.
*extended to 4th August 2019
David Adjay: Making Memory is on at the Design Museum from 2 Feb – 5 May 2019 For details on ticket prices and opening times please see the website. https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/david-adjaye-making-memory