The Real Reason Architect David Adjaye Is the Best Bet to Design President Obama’s Library

A closer look at the controversy.

David Adjaye pays tribute to Theaster Gates.

The public’s appetite for starchitects has made the competition for President Obama’s library an ongoing, glamorous story, and on December 21 seven firms made the shortlist to present their vision of the library and foundation to the President and the First Lady. This embodiment of Obama’s legacy will be enshrined on Chicago’s South Side, a place with a rich, and fraught, history for black Americans.

The presidential library is the Kentucky Derby of architectural competitions, which means that every firm on the list (Adjaye Associates, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, John Ronan Architects, SHoP Architects, Snøhetta, and Tod Williams Billie Tsien) is a thoroughbred. But who will win this coveted prize, and why?

A dozen years ago, when I was the managing director of the London-based architecture firm Adjaye Associates, I took a phone call from Gregg Pasquarelli, one of the cofounders of SHoP Architects. He was in London and wanted to stop by the studio to say hello. We were in our new offices on the edge of Hoxton Square and David Adjaye was weary of peers who wanted to see how he operated in his studio. So we pivoted and suggested a drink.

To my surprise, David and Gregg hit it off, an unexpected collegial camaraderie considering that their professional tracks were completely divergent. David was building a practice one project at a time, an iterative process that favors craftsmanship and details. His laser focus has resulted in a global practice that is currently unrivaled in his generation. First there were residential houses like Elektra and Dirty (London), the libraries (three in England, two in Washington, DC), then a museum (Denver), a business school (Moscow), and now the largest office park in Africa (Kampala, Uganda), along with the new building for New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem.

In the meantime, Gregg started his practice from the opposite end of the spectrum and was spending most of the studio’s time and resources on a university campus masterplan (architecture-speak for mapping out how new buildings integrate with old ones and reimagining circulation and streets). They had already garnered a reputation for being able to tackle the big picture without having realized any significant built work. They completed their first major building project just several years ago with the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, for which they made stadium-sized waves in the design world.

And so right before the holidays, when I perused the shortlist for the Obama Library, I smiled when I saw that both David and Gregg were on it.

MIAMI BEACH, FL - DECEMBER 01: David Adjaye speaks at Design Miami 2011 Design Talk hosted by W Magazine & moderated by Stefano Tonchi at the Miami Beach Convention Center on December 1, 2011 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Design Miami)

Architect David Adjaye speaks at Design Miami in 2011.
Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Design Miami.

The pervading sentiment in the architectural community is that Adjaye, a Ghanaian British architect, is the odds-on favorite. Many architectural blogs including Metropolis Magazine, Dezeen, and Architectural Record tout unsubstantiated rumors and vague declarations that “Adjaye has been referred to as Obama’s favorite architect” or “Adjaye is seen as the front runner.” Robert A.M. Stern, the architect for the George Bush Library, provided this comment in Architect Magazine:  “Everybody says it’s going to be David Adjaye. He’s a great architect so that’s great.”  The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin wrote, “The rumor mill already has the job going to Adjaye, whose projects include the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.”

What no one has suggested publicly (though its oft-mentioned in social settings)  is that Adjaye will be chosen because he is black. The rationalization is President Obama will “naturally” tap him for the job.

Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania to Ghanian parents, and holds British citizenship, has a very different experience than his African American peers. The UK-born artist Chris Ofili expressed succinctly the difference in a 2014 public talk when a curator suggested that artists Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon’s work seemed angrier than his, he replied, “my parents paid for their ticket to move from one country to another.” In this personal remark, Ofili unpacked the glaring difference of histories for blacks. The black British experience is a far cry from the African American experience, and it’s undermining and lazy to presuppose that the first black President will favor an architect simply because of the color of his skin.

In the current charged political climate, there is also consternation over the fact that three of the seven finalists are foreigners (Adjaye is British, Renzo Piano is Italian and Snøhetta are Norwegian.) I constantly hear that it would be un-American to choose a non-American to build a presidential library. Chicago Tribune’s Kamin has reported that if Adjaye or Piano “gets the job, he would be the first foreign architect to design a U.S. presidential library.”  This is not entirely true. I.M. Pei, who was born and raised in China, became a naturalized citizen in 1954. A decade later, Jacqueline Kennedy chose him from a shortlist to design the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

With the successful inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial wrapping up, the Windy City is making a major play for global recognition. From a storytelling angle, arguably it’s more exciting and newsworthy to announce an architect who has yet to build in the city. And yet, four firms on the shortlist have or are currently building in this storied urban center: Diller Scofidio + Renfro (campus building for University of Chicago); John Ronan (youth center and a poetry foundation); Renzo Piano (Modern Wing to the Art Institute); and Tod Williams Billie Tsien (arts facility at University of Chicago.) The three firms who would be first timers are Adjaye Associates, SHoP Architects, and Snøhetta.

The word “community” is peppered throughout the RFQ (Request for Qualifications) that was issued by the Obama Foundation. The library will have to reflect a sense of place that is both local and global, for citizens and for heads of states. Making community in architecture is not something that can be gleaned or modeled in hundreds of options. The library is equally a cultural and a civic space and amongst the architects, only Adjaye has that wealth of experience working in neighborhoods (Tottenham, Deptford, Whitechapel in London, Harlem in New York and Bellevue in Washington, DC) with the same spirit as the South Side of Chicago — a place that is diverse, complicated, and vital to the national conversation.

If Adjaye wins the premiere US commission to design the Obama Presidential Library, along with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Studio Museum in Harlem, this would be the final jewel to an impending Triple Crown.

Karen Wong was Managing Director of Adjaye Associates from 2000-2006. She is currently the Deputy Director of the New Museum. 

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