Hugo Oliveira – As a younger architect, at the beginning of your practice, you saw yourself as a spatial artist. But watching your lecture just some minutes ago, I get the sense that you really give great importance to social commitment and conditions, more than just spatial quality. There were actually more images about the people and the places, than technical drawings. When did you realize that you weren’t only dealing with physical space but also other kinds of issues (social, economical, emotional, etc.)?
David Adjaye – For me, it was actually, I never evolved to this position. For me it was the beginning of me recognizing what architecture was. Architecture for me, you know, was a kind of epiphany through my youngest brother, really, who’s basically mentally and physically handicapped and goes to a special school. And I remember the first time that I went to his school, and I was kind of shocked how architecture curetted his life. How poorly curated his life. And I started to sort of realize how actually, you know, the whole business of this thing is to kind of help, not help, but to make this scenario better than what it is. Not just something for itself, but about an agency. So, in a way my first degree project was a project for him. So I was always socially kind of motivated. It’s just, when I started my work, I made houses for artists, because they were the first people to commission me. So people thought that what I was interested in was spatial abstraction but it was just… it’s just a detail of my practice.
Do you agree that architects are more like technical and cultural moderators of city development?
I absolutely don’t think that they are moderators, I think they are the writers. I think that basically economics and finances, and the age that we are in write the scripts for the cities that we live in. But actually, architecture in the end imagines and visualizes these things. And through that architecture has much more a powerful agency, because they can either choose to be complacent in the diagram or choose to manipulate the diagram for other means.
What was it like to work in the time space of one year in the offices of David Chipperfield and Eduardo Souto de Moura?
For me it was incredibly important because, as a young student, you know, you saw lots of architects present, it was always kind of, very glamorous or fantastical things. But actually to work in the studios of architects that I respected, confirmed to me that there was a way of making practice which was not kind of crazy, but it was about a certain intellectual pursuit, and really a way of life. And, you know, especially with Eduardo, when I worked at Eduardo’s office it confirmed to me that architecture was a way of life. It was an atelier practice and it was a very powerful intellectual pursuit, a public intellectual pursuit. And, for me, I would never have had understood this if I had not worked at his office.
Can you remember that exact time when you thought: “hey, I can open my own studio, and express my own ideas more clearly?
Well, it was never really deliberate like that. I basically came back from Japan in 1993, after spending a year in Kyoto, and I came back to London. And you know, Blair had just won the elections, there was no work, and I was basically given a teaching job at a university, because I couldn’t get any work in London, I had to leave to find work and I didn’t want to. And from my teaching job, I started to meet people who asked me to make furniture or little extensions. So, it started at my bedroom, it wasn’t really deliberate, it was just working. Then it moved to my living room with some people helping me, then it moved to my garage, like I converted my garage into a studio. Then we moved into a studio. All of this in my late 20s.
Do you see yourself as a young teacher or as an old student?
(laughs) A young teacher. I wish I would be an old student. I don’t think I’m an old student.
In an interview Richard Rogers said this about you: “He can talk, he can write and he can build… and specifically he can design”. Are these 4 skills equally as important to you in creating and transmitting an architectural thought?
No. In the end, for me it’s the building. I mean, there are two things that I value more and more as I practice. One – of course – making buildings. And I thought it was it. But, two now, making books. Making books has become very important. That actually, that you can transmit ideas about architecture, both with buildings and with books.
What is the importance of architecture in manifesting ideas to the public using form? I mean, we’re not building Egyptian temples full of hieroglyphs that mean things but, it still is meaning expressed by morphology, right?
I think this is kind of the age that we are in. We are really in the economic age, where architecture is no longer built for this image of civil life, but it’s built to support the capitalist machine of the age we are in. Architecture is a kind of engine for commerce. So, in a way, and commerce is about change and flexibility. So it’s no irony that we are living in an age where everything as to be flexible. Flexible, flexible, flexible, flexible, flexible. Because everything has to be ready to be able to respond. So it’s no irony that skin becomes so perversely like the thing of… But actually for me, in this… architecture for me is about resistance. Not about assimilation. Because architecture moderates between the kind of cultural desires that are emanating and the kind of idea civilization. It’s a moderator. So, for me architecture has to perform much more than just surface, much more than… it has to question radically what flexibility means. And has to be clever enough to offer models which can be smarter then what the machine says it wants in terms of flexibility. So for me, you know, form is not about formsake, but form is about the exploration of a correct manifestation of physical things in the times that we live in. It has to be this, it’s about the search, only.
And functionalist architecture showed us that if we think only on function, probably the building won’t last more than ten years.
If we only think about sociological phenomenon (and having in mind how quickly they appear) probably we could be making a mistake. Isn’t flexibility planning really the key-point in preventing these scenarios?
There are two types of architecture. You can say that flexibility operates as a way of kind of giving longevity. But you’re talking about the operation of that longevity… You know, you can argue in two ways: you can argue that a church is a very static thing, yet you can transform it into an auditorium or whatever else. A house is – you could say – a very flexible thing. But it’s only flexible in the sense that, its flexibility has to do with its economics. If you build a brand house, it’s not flexible. If you build a kind of production house, it’s ultimately flexible because of its materiality. So, there is a kind of mythology that some how flexibility enhances life. It doesn’t really because each generation finds the appropriate mechanisms that they want out of the architecture, to transfigure, to change. So, I don’t think it’s the job of the architect to prefigure what the flexibility will be for another generation. You just don’t know! It should be about the people now because, really, in an hundred years time, or fifty year’s time or twenty year’s time, flexibility might be a totally new idea! It won’t be the flexibility of change, it might be the flexibility of environment, it might be the flexibility of anything else! So this is a kind of false direction to kind of pursue this idea or somehow a justification of work, it’s like, ultimately, in no way it justifies your work. In fact it cripples your work. It compromises your work.
Why do you think that Dirty House became such a strong icon?
I think that Dirty House really captured a certain mood of a certain generation. I think that by some strange accident, I think I ran into a mood.
Just like Pitchblack?
Yeah, Pitchblack is like another version of this… It’s a mood again. For me houses need to kind of… they need to kind of be alliances to some sense of an idea about working, rather than what we think things should be. So, I mean, Dirty House was for me was the moment where I just decided that I was not going to work in a way that the scene wanted me to work, but that I was going to use a strategy which was more like art-like strategy, it was an art-strategy. To manifest something where I didn’t actually fully know what the end product was. I went to the process to discover the end product myself.
But that’s more interesting, when you don’t know where the process is going. Materiality theme is something highly evident in your work. Do you think of materials since the beginning of the process, or is it something that you try to reinforce after the more conceptual starting phase.
It’s all-through the process. Materials almost start with the strategy.
Informality of elements in defining space could be considered has a lack of rational intervention, however that’s not the case right? In fact social and economical issues are strongly dealt in places like the Rio de Janeiro favelas, or Soweto.
I think that you have to look at it in very different ways. I think can’t look it has a good or bad thing, because the good and bad argument presupposes that there’s an “end-game”. That suburban house is paradise. This is not the reality of the world and never will be the reality of the world. It could be an utopic discourse, but really, it’s really naïve in a way.
But what will be the future importance of cities like these?
I think the reality will be with all of these things we have but compressed and more. There is this kind of idea that something is going to change, that everything will get worse or better. Neither. What it’s clear about “human urbanization” is that it articulates high and low, all the time. Because always there’s a grading of empowerment. We don’t have ideals. The Roman city was not ideal, the green city was not ideal, Nigerian villages are not ideal, non of them are ideal. All are residues. So, within residues, which is the informality…. You know, what I found fascinating about favelas or townships is that they cannot propose, not an architecture of objects, but a network of spaces. Because really for me they propose networked spaces. And it’s a much more humanistic architecture than the architecture we do. I get embarrassed when I look at… like when I went to Kalisha. And all of these places, I got embarrassed as an architect because there was no way that I could imagine complexity like this as a system. That there was this kind of community that could imagine the entire network communities. And it was based on poverty.
Necessity sometimes allows creativity.
True invention! That one: too busy with my rational that my brain – which is polluted by economic and development constrains – doesn’t push itself past the cage that I’m given. So for me, I hugely admire that architecture. I don’t look at it as economic depravation. It is economically deprived! Of course! And I’m not saying that, you know, having no water is a good thing. No, of course you want water. But as a model, as an architect, looking at it, it’s astonishing. More original than most architecture I know.
Bob Geldof was here some weeks ago. He mentioned that Angola is governed by criminals, that the wealthiest houses in the world are being built at Luanda’s bay. Just like other African countries, Angola has a great potential with important natural resources. Do you think that European countries (and more specifically those who colonized African countries) have an important role for the (re)development of its cities?
There’s a twofold agenda. African cities need to be free from their colonial masters to sort of emanate their own kind of destinies. There’s that problem. But, at the same time, because of the kind of relationship of history, cannot disconnect themselves. There’s no tabula rasa in life. You are the sum of the things that you do. And there’s 500 years of realationship – good or bad – between Africa and Europe. So, it’s almost impossible to say that we could go on without. It’s impossible. So there’s a kind of reciprocal relationship. I think what is important is to readjust the terms. The terms need to be readjusted as in: how do you engage has to change. It no longer is acceptable to play the game of: “we know best, you don’t know. That’s the way it is”. It has to be a kind of renegotiation process. The problem with Africa is that, its having to now think fast – in a world that is changing so fast – about what it is. Otherwise it will just become assumed, subsumed within the kind of global speed of development that it’s occurring. You know, it’s happening a lot everywhere. But I know that also politically these guys are now, these politicians, are now thinking: “so who are we in suit of globalization?”. But I think it’s impossible for them to do it in a vacuum. They have to learn from Europe, they have to understand what Europe did. But they also have to understand what they are. Because when they try to import Europe into Africa, it’s really not sustainable. It doesn’t work. It crumbles. Because in the end, it kind of needs a shit-load of money to sustain it.
Each project gives us experience and knowledge in dealing with some areas, and it just influences us in our architectural path. I’m going to mention some past events and could you tell us why was it important in your path.
Living in Middle East and Africa
Living in the Middle East and Africa allowed me to understand urbanism which was not about objects, but about space. The middle eastern city is the construction of non-objects. It’s a spatial strategy. So, when you look at it as pictures it’s vast walls, small aperture and courtyards and voids. But to live in a whole city like this… it’s kind of weird. Because, actually to live a European city is to understand objects and space. But to live in an Islamic city it’s to understand people in space, bodies in space, the choreography of bodies in space.
Working for David Chipperfield
David was good because David exposed me and my generation, very much almost single-handedly to Europe and Architecture. David was the agency by which we found Portugal, we found Spain, we found Italy, we found Germany, through David. Because England was a bit of an island, and there was a strong movement of high-tech, and it had its own culture. And actually, only David was one of the few architects who were not following the English kings, you know, Richard Rogers – high tech, post-modernity, James Sterling. You know, all great, but he was the only one saying “there’s another agenda here, which I’m more interested in”. And we were all like: “Uhh. Wow. What is this stuff?” We didn’t know. We didn’t know where to get the books from. David knew! David was getting all of the books, he knew the people… So we all gravitated around this. We also didn’t want, this other heritage.
Working for Eduardo Souto Moura
As I said, Eduardo was about learning the idea of architecture as life, in the studio. Architecture as an intellectual pursuit, beyond the technical, but as a passion for life. That for we was what I loved about Eduardo.
Being a teacher
For me it’s about having continuity. In a way, what is the good about the things you learn and know if you don’t share it and see it reproduced and change and evolve into different things?
Do you get surprised with your students?
Yes! I do things, and they do things back, and I’m like: “oh my God”.
Interviewing Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Niemeyer was amazing. I just wanted to meet one person who came from the age of Le Corbusier. I wanted to meet one man… I mean, they were all dying, they were all dead! In fact, they are not dying, they are all dead. So Oscar, at hundred is the last fragment with modernism in its beginnings. So I was dying to meet him.
Do you remember your first question?
Yes, yes… and I remember his answer.
What was it?
I asked him what was still interesting him about architecture.
And what interests you about architecture?
There are many questions, many questions. Because for me, what it’s interesting about architecture is that: I think we live in an age which actually has so much opportunity in it, but I think that it’s…. for me it represents a fantastic opportunity to find a future. So, in my world politicians define their world legistively. For me, architecture provides an opportunity to define what the future is. And I’m deeply moved by that.
© João Morgado – David Adjaye
© Lyndon Douglas – Elektra House (London, 2000)
© Ed Reeve – Sunken House (London, 2007)
© Tim Soar – Nobel Peace Centre (Oslo, 2005)
© Lyndon Douglas – Dirty House (London, 2002)
© Lyndon Douglas – Dirty House (London, 2002)
© Ed Reeve – Rivington Place (London, 2007)
© Michael Strasser (T-B A21) – David Adjaye & Olafur Eliasson: Your black horizon art pavilion (Lopud/Croácia, 2005)