Calling Ada Louise Huxtable!

A recent review by Nicolai Ouroussoff neglects the messy nature of design authorship.

Last week Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote a strange piece in the New York Times celebrating the announcement of the winning design for yet another new museum on the already overcrowded National Mall, in Washington, D.C. What was curious about the story wasn’t the subject matter (altogether worthy) or its news value (also important) or even its political agenda (there’s nothing wrong with using the bully pulpit of the Times to put clients on notice that the Paper of Record is watching). All good.

The problem for me began in the third paragraph of the review, when Ouroussoff wrote, “So the first reaction to the announcement that the team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup has been selected to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture should be a big round of applause. David Adjaye, the project’s 42-year-old lead designer, is a rising star in the architecture world.”

Ouroussoff then proceeds as if this “rising star” were the sole designer of the project. He writes “Mr. Adjaye clusters all of the galleries at the center of these floors…” and “The layout allows Mr. Adjaye to isolate the main circulation route…” and, irony of ironies (given the composition of the rest of the team), “Mr. Adjaye has never designed a cultural building of this scale.”

Here’s some news: every member of Adjaye & Co (except for Adjaye himself) has designed cultural buildings of this scale: SmithGroup has ten offices in the U.S alone; Philip Freelon leads the Freelon Group, one of the most successful African American–run firms in the country; and the late Max Bond was a longtime partner of Davis Brody Bond, a large New York firm with a lot of experience handling complex projects.

And yet if you came to Ouroussoff’s review cold, as most readers of the Times surely did, you would have thought those firms were merely caddying for the talented Mr. Adjaye. Ouroussoff must know better; he has to know the messy nature of design authorship. He might even know that for David Adjaye projects (without collaborators), the precise nature of authorship is likely to be complicated, at best. Architecture is a messy team sport, played by groups of designers. I don’t know whether it’s laziness on Ouroussoff’s part, or a simple desire to smooth out the process for his own aesthetic purposes (single authorship is just so much cleaner on the prose!), but his authorial shorthand does a real disservice to the profession—and misses some interesting stories, too.

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