A Sense of Place

The New Yorker | September 23, 2013
by Calvin Tomkins

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David Adjaye
Photo: Pari Oukovic

Sugar Hill, in Harlem, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Willie Mays all lived there, and in 2010 there were angry letters over David Adjaye’s plan for a low-income housing project in the heart of the neighborhood, on the corner of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. According to Ellen Baxter, who brokered the project, and who has worked for thirty years to create housing for low-income and homeless people in West Harlem and Washington Heights, some residents didn’t want a modern building, and they didn’t like the one Adjaye designed. In situations of this kind, Adjaye’s personality warm and engaging, diplomatic, highly articulate but without a hint of professional swagger-can be very persuasive. “David was remarkably patient,” Baxter told me. “We received proposals from twenty-seven firms, and our design committee decided unanimously that David’s was by far the best.”

The thirteen-story building, which will accommodate a hundred and twenty-four apartments and has substantial city funding, will be completed next spring. Its slate-gray cast-concrete exterior is striated in a seemingly random pattern that resolves, when the light hits from an angle, into images of roses the same images can be seen on cornices and above the front doors of neighboring brownstones, Adjaye pointed out to me when I visited the site with him. He said, “Context is so important, not to mimic but to become part of the place. I wanted a building that acknowledges its surroundings.”

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