There has been much debate, speculation and excitement among architectural enthusiasts about who is on the shortlist to design the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. After spending an afternoon viewing “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye,” now on at the Art Institute of Chicago, I’m more convinced than ever that Adjaye is the right person for the job.
For several obvious reasons, Adjaye is generally understood to be the frontrunner in the silent competition. His diverse personal biography closely parallels that of the president—Adjaye, born in Tanzania to parents from Ghana, then raised in multiple countries as a child before settling in the UK; Obama, born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and American mother, then raised in multiple countries and as a child before settling back in the US. His sensibilities are definitively shaped by his heritage and heterogeneous worldview, much like the current leader of the free world. His career trajectory also aligns quite well with the president’s—both men rose to prominence in the late 1990s (Adjaye’s first major commission coming in 1998; Obama’s first elected office in 1997) each quickly gaining widespread recognition for their work. These careers steadily increased in scale, complexity and importance—Obama emerging as the first Black president of the United States; Adjaye as the first viable Black candidate for the Pritzker Prize. Who could question such a match?
Predictably, the Barack Obama Foundation has compiled a list of the usual suspects—a series of technically capable, globally successful architecture firms we all know and love. One wonders, however, whether these corporate giants and superstars will prove more interested in creating monuments to their own achievement rather than the president’s. Though the full list is still obscured from public scrutiny, any name other than Adjaye Associates is sure to cause more heads to be shaken in disgust or scratched in disbelief than to nod in approval.
So, please, give it to him already! Then the rest of us can discard our baseless predictions, sit back in our seats and watch as the newest object of the Adjaye opus takes shape within the Second City. Or, on second thought, let’s not hand him the contract just yet.
A concurrent event at the Art Institute entitled “Call and Response—Activating Public Spaces,” with Adjaye’s retrospective as its backdrop and primary provocation, orchestrated a lively panel discussion between three leaders within Chicago’s fine arts community. I was moved to add to the conversation held in the majestic Griffin Court of the Renzo Piano-designed addition by asking a question intended to present a different kind of provocation. I shared how incredibly impressed I was that we were celebrating the social impacts of Adjaye’s work on communities in London, Brooklyn and Washington, DC with a panel and audience primarily comprised of non-architects. I underscored the power inherent in Adjaye’s approach to his work, the types of projects he takes on and the cultural sensitivity with which he practices.
This is where I took my first decisive leap off the fast moving Adjaye bandwagon. I injected into the conversation the fact that, though he is Black, he is a self-proclaimed “British-Ghanaian architect” rather than an African-American architect. This, of course, doesn’t in any way disqualify him from designing projects relevant to African-American communities. However, his superstar status does distract from the truth that all of his early opportunities and much of his well-deserved success was gained in a distinctly different (though no more favorable) socio-political environment than his contemporaries in North America.
Most importantly, the continuing conversation around his work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture repeatedly omits the other members of the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup JJR team. Neglecting to mention Philip Freelon, one of the most prolific and decorated Black architects over the last 20 years, and J. Max Bond Jr. (1935 – 2009), a pioneer for Blacks in architecture, is unforgivable—even more so when we consider the groundwork done by Freelon and Bond in the pre-competition phase before inviting Adjaye to join their team.
I never tire of mentioning the startling statistic that only about 1% of all architects licensed in the US identify as Black—this number does not include Adjaye, of course. And those who do find a way to make waves within a regressive profession are often ignored, overshadowed or forgotten. The light that shines so brightly on David Adjaye need not cast a glare on sparks within this marginalized group.
Maybe the Barack Obama Foundation will surprise us all and take a completely different tactic. They could decide that blackness—or any other Adjaye-Obama affinity—is not a prerequisite for collaboration with the first Black president, bringing into contention fellow Chicagoans Jeanne Gang (possibly already on the list) or John Ronan. Both run decidedly non-corporate offices and continue to expand their footprint within the urban landscape of their hometown. Gang’s Aqua Tower is a stunning example of maximum impact on the city’s skyline with minimum technological and financial investment. Ronan’s Poetry Foundation reflects both his intimate understanding of the city fabric and his mastery of architecture’s ability to affect senses other than sight. Maybe the foundation will decide that Freelon’s firm, though recently absorbed by heavy-hitters Perkins+Will, is the safer bet to interpret Obama’s African-American experience. Maybe they will look deeper down the bench and give a unique chance to a lesser-known member of that forgotten 1%—a practitioner who may otherwise have to wait several more years to make their debut onto the world stage. Maybe a fellow island-born (Jamaica, not Hawaii) Harvard grad could fit the bill? I continue to dream.
Sekou Cooke is a Harvard Graduate School of Design and Cornell University educated, Jamaican-born, practitioner and educator. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture and has taught architectural studios and seminars at New York City College of Technology, California College of the Arts, and Academy of Art University. Sekou is a licensed architect in the states of New York and California. Read his previous articles on ArchDaily, "The Fifth Pillar: A Case for Hip-Hop Architecture" and "Keep Talking Kanye: An Architect's Defense of Kanye West."
Correction update: This article originally referred to Smithgroup JJR as the executive architects for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was incorrect - in fact Philip Freelon is primarily performing this role as the architect of record, in addition to his work on the pre-competition phase as noted. Smithgroup JJR's role on the team regards the construction documentation of the exterior envelope including the below grade retaining wall and panel systems for the building's "corona," and leading the on-site construction phase services efforts. The article has been updated to reflect these facts.