These days, British architect David Adjaye is designing blockbuster museums, sky-high towers, and entire neighborhoods. Most of his new projects are for the public, like the forthcoming spy museum in New York and the Holocaust memorial in London. But he nurtures some of his biggest ideas at a much smaller scale: private living spaces.
“Although the public and private realms are separate fields, I need to know how to design living spaces in order to design successful public buildings,” Adjaye writes in Living Spaces, a forthcoming monograph from Thames & Hudson. “My houses are an exploration–experimental, but not for the sake of conducting an experiment–of the conditions we inhabit at this particular time.”
In Brooklyn, Adjaye Associates designed an infill live-work space for two artists. The architects explored privacy in a dense neighborhood by leaving the street-facing facade fairly opaque with just three windows, while making the rear wall, which faces a walled courtyard, all glass. Meanwhile, two Denver art collectors commissioned Adjaye Associates to design a private home in a lot adjacent to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which the firm also designed contemporaneously. While one is public and the other private, Adjaye exploited similar motifs–like a facade composed of rectangular panels, but used solid Cor-ten steel for the house and glass for the museum as an allegory for accessibility. Since the clients frequently use their home to entertain, Adjaye took care to play with different levels of privacy throughout the building. The ground floor was conceived as a semi-public space features high ceilings, the next level up features guest rooms–and a view of the museum–and the third floor has the master bedroom.
“Building houses is an opportunity to explore what constructed form can mean in the city and the wider environment, how it involves setting up layers of privacy and public engagement, and the implications for material expression,” Adjaye writes.
Most of Adjaye’s residential commissions are for wealthy clients, but the architect also designed four post-disaster houses for victims of Hurricane Katrina, in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, through the Make It Right organization. While they nod to region’s shotgun houses, they also reflect a more sensitive approach to environmental conditions, like being elevated to protect against future flooding and offer ventilation. Porches offer a place for residents to await rescue if another natural disaster occurs, while covered roof decks do double duty as safe retreats from flood waters and places to escape summer heat or rain.
Each design reflects specific living conditions for a specific place and for this specific time. Adjaye points to the “ever-mutating quality of private life” as fuel for his residential designs. He believes homes of the 19th century and earlier were primarily about “shelter or asserting status.” Twentieth century architects reduced that formality and made homes more casual. Now, people are experiencing the distinct conditions of the 21st century.
“Architecture has to support that evolution, whether we are talking about fragile ecologies or conditions in which lifestyles are shifting because people are leading multiple lives, about domestic environments that are pseudo-public spaces, or about places that are retreats for inspiration–places to meditate and work,” Adjaye writes. “The ways in which architecture creates enclosure and frames these conditions can allow mutations to occur. By accepting this process and helping to make it visible, architecture becomes a special kind of device for recording the way in which our society is evolving and shifting.”
Today, thanks to tech, we can work anywhere, socialize anywhere, do our “errands” anywhere, and take on as many personas as we want. In turn, our architecture has to support these experiences in new ways. With his houses, Adjaye is exploring what it means to inhabit our always-on world. See more in his book, due out November 21.