Adjaye's New Building For The Studio Museum In Harlem

Will Be A Beacon For Harlem, The City & The World

Bradford Grant

Detail of David Adjaye rendering of the Ghana National Museum on Slavery and Freedom MuseumDavid Adjaye, the international and interdisciplinary architect of Ghanaian-British origins, continues to deepen his affiliation with the art and museum worlds. His design for the Ghana National Museum on Slavery and Freedom is a veritable Cubist sculpture. That museum is expected to open in 2017.  As part of the Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group, Adjaye designed the Smithsonian’s much-heralded National Museum of African American History and Culture which opens in 2016.  Adjaye’s plan for a venue of the 2015 Venice Bienale art exhibition is an outgrowth of his close friendship with international art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor. An elaborate exhibition of Adjaye’s designs will be on view, September 19, 2015–January 3, 2016, at the Art Institute of Chicago.  His redesign of an existing building to serve as the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art (a part of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research) opened in fall 2014. 

Rendering of conceptual design. Adjaye Associates, designer, in collaboration with Cooper Robertson, executive architectAnd now the Studio Museum in Harlem has announced that David Adjaye will design the museum’s new building.  In a joint venture with Cooper Robertson as the executive architect, Adjaye will design the $122 million, five story, 71,000 square feet complex that will span the space occupied by the current museum building on 144 West 125th Street and an adjacent lot.  Construction starts in 2017. 

Close view of Adjaye's rendering Nancy Lane, an art collector and a former vice president of Johnson & Johnson, is a long-time member of the Studio Museum’s board of trustees.  In explaining the board’s decision to tap Adjaye for the project, Lane says that he is one of the “most brilliantly talented architects” on the international scene. “He has an extraordinary gift for addressing the urban context in a deeply thoughtful and in a uniquely pioneering way and with an exceptional depth of experience in the visual arts,” she explains. “He also has unparalleled experience working directly with artists and engaging within the urban context and these are two of the most important aspects of the work of at the Studio Museum in Harlem.” 

In contrast to the adjacent commercial buildings, the Adjaye-designed facility will be a striking, artistic extension of the cultural legacy of 125th Street (home also to the Apollo Theater), nearby Lenox Avenue, and the central Harlem community.

The current building of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Dominic Hackley For this project Adjaye has followed the design sensibilities of the late J. Max Bond Jr., the designer of the original Studio Museum in Harlem space in an existing building.  In designing several significant African American institutions, Bond combined African American cultural elements with contemporary modernist design, creating an ethnocultural, modernist design. 

As with Adjaye, Bond’s ethnocultural design elements are nuanced and process-oriented, not blatantly apparent, but they are there. Adjaye regarded Bond as one of his most helpful and respected senior black architects.

While not using design to transform and contest the status quo beyond what Columbia University visiting architecture professor Mario Gooden argues are cultural stereotypes (in his “Problem with African American Museums” thesis), Adjaye’s colors, materials, fenestrations, transparency of the elevation, along with “the inverted stoop,” continue the idea of a cultural modernist design. 

David Adjaye at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art in September 2014. Photo: courtesy of the Ethelbert Cooper GalleryThe “inverted stoop” feature is described in the Museum’s statement about the plan:  “To add to the building’s street presence and emphasize the museum’s function as a gathering place, Adjaye has conceived a 199-seat ‘inverted stoop’: a set of descending steps that begins at the sidewalk and leads down to the lower level, which can be used as a stage for lectures, screenings and performances. Thanks to the transparency of the building at sidewalk level, people on 125th Street will feel drawn into the liveliness of this unprecedented gathering place and be able to join it at will, since the Studio Museum anticipates that the entrance and lower levels will be accessible free of charge during normal museum hours.”

The stoop has long been a significant architectural and social element of black Harlem experience.  Adjaye’s symbolic and functional use of the inverted stoop is both a strategic nod to African American tradition and a functional device to foster community interaction and engagement.

The inverted stoop also continues Adjaye’s investigation into the notion of cultural symbolism and extension into community as part of a building’s essential function.  For example, as lead designer for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture , Adjaye designed an enlarged front entry area that he called a “porch” — “an extension of the building out into the landscape” to create “an outdoor room that bridges the gap between the interior and exterior” space on the Mall (text fragments from Adjaye’s firm).

Studio Museum in Harlem officials the museum's opening on September 24, 1968 (l-r): Eleanor Holmes Norton, vice president; Carter Burden, president; Charles Innis, director; Campbell Wylly, trustee; Betty Blayton, secretary; Frank Donnelly, vice president Nancy Lane has watched the evolution of the Studio Museum almost from its founding in a loft on upper Fifth Avenue in 1968. “I recall the building at 2055 Fifth Avenue and my first visit.  It became a location that was beloved but the museum outgrew that location just as — fortunately — it has now outgrown the current site.”

The Museum’s board of trustees decided that the Museum should remain on the present site because of the prominence of this Harlem location and the museum’s function as the cultural anchor of a bustling 125th Street.  

David Adjaye’s design draws on and transforms characteristic aspects of Harlem’s architecture, including its brownstones and churches, in ways that are not readily apparent to the viewer.   The Museum’s description of the building plan explains these community-oriented design concepts: “The masonry-framed windows of the neighborhood’s apartment buildings have inspired a rhythmic facade composed of windows of varying sizes and proportions. Inside the museum, the radiant, soaring volumes of church sanctuaries will find an equivalent in a toplit central hall, with ample wall area to install large-scale works of art. A switchback stair rising through four floors will create multiple look-out points from the landings.”

The new building  also symbolizes a reach that extends far beyond Harlem. 

1985-86 Studio Museum in Harlem artist in residence Kerry James Marshall at the 2015 Venice Biennale's international art exhibition. Photo: Erin Dooley That “increasingly global” context was described on May 27, 2015 by the museum’s director, Thelma Golden in announcing a fundraising drive for general operating support.  She said she felt privileged to attend the opening of the Venice Bienale art exhibition with “a group of Museum trustees, curators and Global Council members and to view the works of many friends from our extended Museum family, including Ellen Gallagher, Theaster Gates, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall (pictured), Wangechi Mutu and Gary Simmons”; noted the museum’s history of supporting such artists, and said the Museum “continues to give emerging talent a vital platform in an increasingly global contemporary art world.” 

In the mezzanine: Primary Sources: Artists in Residence 2011–2012 (exhibition view). The Studio Museum in Harlem, June 14–October 21, 2012. Photo: Adam Reich The Museum’s trustees echo this from-Harlem-to-the-world sentiment. Nancy Lane says that for almost 50 years, the Studio Museum has been at the forefront of “one of the most sweeping changes ever to take place in the history of the visual arts — a movement that has been part of a broader, ongoing transformation of the world of culture, American politics and society. Our museum has been a powerful force in the transformation of the global art world, launching and furthering the careers of hundreds of artists of African descent and exposing generations of audiences to powerful experiences with art and artists.”

A view of the main gallery.  Fore (exhibition view). The Studio Museum in Harlem, November 11, 2012–March 10, 2013. Photo: Adam ReichAnd Studio Museum board of trustees chairman Raymond McGuire summed up the global outlook in his statement about the new building:  “But for The Studio Museum in Harlem, hundreds of artists of African descent would have limited recognition and certainly not the international acclaim that they do today.… This phase (marked by the new building) promises to be of the highest importance both to global culture and to the civic fabric of New York.” 

The new building will be funded through a public-private partnership that includes the City of New York. 

Fall opening reception for Fore. The Studio Museum in Harlem, November 11, 2012–March 10, 2013. Photo: Scott Rudd“Frankly, we’re thrilled by the City’s support for this project,” says Nancy Lane. “City support began under the Bloomberg administration and has continued with the deBlasio administration. Our museum is so grateful for the support we’ve received from the Mayor, the City Council and the Manhattan Borough president. They and other city officials are committed to New York City’s amazing and diverse group of cultural institutions and we are happy to be working in tandem with the City on this exciting project.”

With the May 2015 opening of Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney Museum in the former meatpacking section of New York and the new Studio Museum in Harlem building on 125th Street, New York City’s major art institutions are leaping beyond the midtown Manhattan and Fifth Avenue “museum mile” typology to become outstanding satellites to the north and south. 

David Adjaye describes the aspirations of the museum’s directors, trustees and supporters in a very succinct way: “This project is about pushing the museum typology to a new place and thinking about the display and reception of art in innovative ways. It is also about a powerful urban resonance—drawing on the architectural tropes of Harlem and celebrating the history and culture of this extraordinary neighborhood with a building that will be a beacon for a growing local, national and international audience.” 

Bradford Grant is professor of architecture and former dean of the School of Architecture and Design at Howard University.  He also was the first African American president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

All Studio Museum in Harlem photographs in this article are courtesy of the museum.