Gold Medal winner David Adjaye deserves a better brief for the Holocaust memorial | Rowan Moore

The outstanding architect’s remit for his latest project is badly flawed

Some time in the 1990s I went into a noodle bar, the look of which had a certain something. I asked who had designed it and was given the card of the then unknown architects Adjaye and Russell. Half of that now former partnership, David Adjaye, has just won the Royal Gold Medal for architecture. It is deserved: he has a particular skill for making the surfaces of buildings animate and arresting. His National Museum of African American History and Culture does an outstanding job of holding its own with the great white monuments of Washington DC, while also, as it must, announcing its own identity.

Yet I find myself lined up, in a public inquiry later this month, to give evidence against a project on which he is working with two other practices, the UK Holocaust memorial and learning centre proposed near the Houses of Parliament. This is not because I think Adjaye is a terrible architect, still less because I oppose the aim of remembering the Holocaust. It is because I believe that, ever since this project was announced by David Cameron in January 2016, it has had the hallmarks of too many of the former prime minister’s ideas: a seemingly cost-free political win (who could object to such a memorial?), accompanied by glibness in conception and laziness about detail.

The outcome, I believe, will be a confused and ponderous construction, too big for the small public gardens in which it is to be placed, which will be unworthy of the serious purpose it is meant to serve. It doesn’t matter how good an architect you are: you can’t do much with a poor brief.

When Jackie Kennedy met Louis Kahn

Jacqueline Kennedy in 1964.
Jacqueline Kennedy in 1964. Photograph: George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty

Harriet Pattison, a ninetysomething American landscape architect, has brought out a memoir, Our Days Are Like Full Years, about her 15-year relationship with the celebrated architect Louis Kahn. She describes the day Jackie Kennedy came to talk to Kahn about the presidential library planned in memory of her late husband, John F Kennedy. Ashtrays were distributed about the architect’s shabby Philadelphia studio to give a veneer of sophistication to the visit of the most beautiful woman in the world. Kahn, scarred by a childhood accident, was not beautiful but he was seductive. “I wonder how long it will take him?” joked one of his staff.

As he unfolded to her his poetic thoughts on the spirit of architecture, they were interrupted by sirens and emergency vehicles in the street below. “I’m terribly sorry,” said Kahn, “but I believe my building must be on fire.” “Mr Kahn,” said Mrs Kennedy, whose visit had caused a crowd to gather outside, “I don’t think there’s a fire, I just think it might be me.” The commission eventually went to a smoother architect than Kahn, but word got back to him that he had made an impression. “Louis Kahn,” she said, “he is the one man I could put my arms around.”

Nanny town

Carlisle: welcomes careful cyclists
Carlisle: welcomes careful cyclists. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“No person,” says a peeling sign in Long Lane, Carlisle, “shall ride any bicycle, tricycle or similar machine upon this footpath unless he is bona fide going to or away from premises adjoining the footpath”. I like the use of “similar machine” to cover the eventuality of cycles of unknown numbers of wheels: pentacycles, heptacycles? I note both the unconcerned use of the male pronoun and the blithe confidence in its pernickety authority, the faith that people will both read all these words and obey them.

The order is signed by the town clerk and dated 1 January 1953. And people worry about the nanny state now? They don’t know they’re born.

• Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture critic

• This article was amended on 16 October 2020. An earlier version referred to Love Lane in Carlisle; this should have been Long Lane.


Rowan Moore

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