Day Three of Architecture ZA 2012: Part 2

Future Cape Town spent the third and final day of Architecture ZA 2012 touring the lesser-known sides of our city and debating the merits of starchitect David Adjaye’s work. Here Brett Petzer writes about David Adjaye’s talk.

David Adjaye’s talk at Architecture ZA 2012 was deeply exciting to me, as I had been during my undergraduate architectural studies a glassy-eyed footsoldier of the Adjaye faction. I only wanted to talk about Dirty House and what could be wrought by an architecture of finely equilibrated discipline and delight.

Dirty House by David Adjaye.
Photo (c) Dave Gorman.

In the course of today’s highly anticipated Adjaye speech, my hopes fell in the way that a tumble-dryer would fall off a cliff. The British starchitect – young, talented and black; a born showman uniquely able to woo and enrage the Establishment and cultivate the attentions of great pop-cultural icons; a proven and precocious talent in a supremely middle-class and middle-aged profession – was probably the major draw of the Biennale, alongside Mehrotra. And yet, he might as well have stayed home.

By this I do not mean that David Adjaye’s work is less important than it is generally agreed to be (which is “very”). I also do not mean that David Adjaye is not capable of winning over a somewhat specialist audience to the arcana of his design process and built projects. I just mean that David Adjaye didn’t try very hard.
To begin with the simple fact of his presentation style, his delivery was crisp and distant, as if from a telecue, with few if any extempore asides or musings or banter. This can matter greatly for an audience in a country that remains a long-haul destination for major thought leaders in our field. We know that this is so because Rahul Mehrotra, the day before, had brought the room to a standing ovation with his brave, direct, conversational and often surprising talk (see Day Two of Architecture ZA 2012). David Adjaye was content to essentially list his projects and list the most essential technical and design points of interest.

My disappointment with this former hero was by no means unanimous but I think that it was widely-enough shared. Not every architect is a showman – but David Adjaye happens to be one, par excellence. Instead of a debate with a major voice and talent in the global profession of architecture, the audience got a brief, quite safe seminar.

Personally – and here I know that I will be leaving behind quite a few readers – I did not care for any of Adjaye’s new projects. These date from Adjaye’s Associates explosive growth from cult housebuilders to the rich and edgy to a multi-city global practice, and I would go so far as to say that they suffer for it.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture under construction in Washington DC.

Taking Washington, DC’s National Museum of African American History & Culture as a case in point. This place, on the very last site on Museum Mile, must do important work: commemorating slavery and emancipation, and the African-American journey to a full and vibrant role in America’s national life through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggle. However, despite its freight of history, the museum’s design (although Adjaye’s presentation is certainly a part of this) is basically a stack of storeys that is most intelligible as an exercise in pure form-making (and no more). This suspicion of mine rapidly entrenched itself as we saw other projects.

Anything can go wrong in a presentation and we all have off-days, but David Adjaye clearly a man with larger fish to fry than most of us.

The evening ended in some very harmless student films and feature films, after a post-Adjaye address by the new president of SAIA. AZA Biennale 2012 was a great success, despite the relative thinness of the practising-commercial-architecture.

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at