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David Adjaye: 'Making Memory' Review - The Design Museum

2 February - 5 May 2019

Adult £10.90 Concession £8.20


Descending into David Adjaye's Making Memory exhibition is not to be passed off as a standard entrance. It seems rather fitting for a tribute to memorials and monuments to begin with a transformation downwards and into the shadows, the known/unknown, much like memories themselves. A tabula rasa, a state of neutrality with white walls, white lights, down the narrow stairs, allows the viewer to clear the senses, which is surprisingly important for this exhibition. Clearing the mind and starting with an introduction to memorials and monuments selected and curated by Adjaye himself, one can begin to consider the impact such buildings have on our psyche, following the pattern of rooms, twisting at corners, an architectural engagement in itself.

Sclera, Adjaye Associates. Image by Leonardo Finotti.

Whilst David Adjaye: Making Memory begins in shadows, each room injects a little more light, as though acting like the very memorials it displays; shedding light incrementally so that upon reflection, thoughts are mingling, feelings are evoked. With no desire to shy away from the contentious grounds that many monuments are built on, issues of colonialism were immediately addressed: Adjaye is quoted on the wall discussing a move away from an imperialist outlook and towards the transformation of looking at the ‘democratisation of the monument’. The viewer is forced to face the uncomfortable realities of many colonial (and preferably forgotten) memories of the past. This is presented in a very physical way, with large angled photographs, bearing down upon you as you stand alone in the centre of a darkened room - the enlightenment is beginning.

The importance of remembering the uncomfortable is dealt with sensitively, and revisited throughout the exhibition, including plans for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London, with an emphasis upon transparency elucidated by the model in the centre of the room, partnered with a timeline of the intricacies of planning. The replica library area from the Gwangju River Reading Room in South Korea, responds to Gwangju’s pro-democracy uprising in May 1980, again dwelling upon memories of a sensitive and fractious nature. Weaving a thread of the uncomfortable throughout, Making Memory puts emphasis strangely on the future and upon education. Elucidated most strongly perhaps by the room dedicated to Adjaye’s design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington D.C., the direct result of understanding and remembering, memorialisation and homage, is shown to be learning - know of what has gone before, in order to be prepared for what is to come.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Image by Alan Karchmer.

But it is not just the light increasing that shows the seemingly incongruous emphasis on the future, the final room delves into the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory, a monument which will be dedicated to the preservation of remembering extinct species, located in the English Channel on the Isle of Portland. Once again, this room serves as a homage to the past, combined with a warning for the future, using the same material from the nearby quarry that built much of nineteenth-century London, and fossilising many extinct species, as the primary material for the structure. Alluding to the importance of sustainability, along with the educational purpose of the building, we cannot help but consider the future as a recent past or familiar history waiting to be rewritten, just a little better this time.

Moments for reflection are deftly achieved throughout, seeing through one room into the recreation of the Sclera Pavilion, which was conceived as a contribution to the 2008 London Design Festival, reminds you of a similar snapshot of the Washington Memorial from inside the Smithsonian that is shown earlier, interweaving the importance of links throughout history, peoples, culture, and memories. This sense of collectivity is strong, potent, shifting in and out of the exhibition, from Adjaye’s collaboration with writer Taiye Selasi for the Gwangju River Reading Room, to the National Cathedral of Ghana (which will accommodate up to 15,000 in a Christian and Akan-inspired structure for the benefit of a myriad of peoples and purposes), to the Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial proposed in Boston to stand as an icon of discursive action.

Gwangju Pavilion, Adjaye Associates. Image by Kyungsub Shin.

Chasing the shadows throughout the exhibition becomes a more difficult task, as shards of light and notions of the future continue to penetrate. However, from the prototypes of the façade of the Smithsonian, a sombre nod to the contribution of slave labour to the ironwork industry in the United States, to the hanging Asante umbrellas, leaking vibrancy into the plans for the National Cathedral of Ghana, shadows remain. Shadows continue to act as a reminder for us throughout the exhibition, paralleling the very replicas of the monuments they are based on. Shed some light upon the past and watch the shadows emerge, ready to be remembered. This exhibition is certainly unforgettable.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford