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Exhibition Architecture: Monumental choices

MICHAL BONCZA reviews an exhibition exploring the function of memorials and how we respond to them

David Adjaye: Making Memory
Design Museum
London W8

THE IDEOLOGICAL intent in “making memory” via memorials and monuments which relate particular architectural narratives demands nuanced consideration, quite aside from the mere aesthetics involved in housing such endeavours.

Where, for example, is the moral equivalence between the patriotic war memorials of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington?

British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye seems to be aware of the potential for the manipulation of our response to a monument when suggesting that it is “no longer a representation… whether it’s for a nation, a race, a community or a person, [it needs] to be transformed, so that it can be approached and understood from many points of view.”

Point taken and, of the seven architectural projects by Adjaye on show at the Design Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington DC makes the biggest impact in inducing a range of responses.

Designed with Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, its reverse pyramidal design was inspired by the headwear of a “caryatid” by renowned Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise and its filigree facades acquire an impressive luminosity as the interior is lit at dusk. In the first 10 months of 2018 alone, it received 1.7 million visitors.

Similar in scale, and far more controversial, is the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre planned for Victoria Tower Gardens next to Parliament. The design by Adjaye Associates, Ron Arad Architects and Gustafson Porter+Bowman as landscape architects was selected in 2017 by the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation.

Mostly located underground, it is to be accessed through a series of “shards” framing narrow sets of steps. The contentious issues are its scale on an already overcrowded site and a confusing duality of purpose. Rather perplexingly, it faces away from Parliament.
There is far greater clarity in the Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr Memorial proposed for Boston Common, the city where the Kings studied and met.

It is a gathering place, much in the Greek agora tradition, with its stone surfaces engraved with text from the Kings’ speeches, typographically set with contemporary purposefulness by Adam Pendleton using a typeface based on Artisan and especially designed by David Reinfurt.

David Adjaye in conversation with Deyan Sudjic director of Design Museum: https://vimeo.com/309140804

The National Cathedral of Ghana in Accra, a vast auditorium for 15,000 Christian worshippers, comes across as the odd one out, while the Guggenheim New York-inspired Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) is to be located on the Isle of Portland in the English Channel.

MEMO will be lined with illustrative carvings of the 860 species that have become extinct since the dodo — a redundant offshoot of the National History Museum?

Huge scale does not always have the biggest impact and there is something touching in the small pagoda-like Gwangju Pavilion designed to encourage reflection on the Gwangju Massacre in South Korea in 1980, when the army massacred 200 protesting students.

All in all, an exhibition which mixes the ephemeral with the poignant, not always successfully.

Runs until May 5, box office: designmuseum.org

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