Sir David Adjaye On Hallmark House

sir david adjaye
Sir David Adjaye

WORDS Lindi Brownell Meiring PORTRAIT Alex Fradkin

Renowned architect Sir David Adjaye takes VISI through the design thinking behind Hallmark House, his first major project in Southern Africa.

Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye is the designer behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings, including the much-talked about $540 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC, the biggest project undertaken by Adjaye Associates thus far.

What has us really excited, however, is his current project in Johannesburg. Situated in Maboneng, Hallmark House (which we recently featured here) is being redeveloped into a luxurious residential building and retail space. We caught up with the acclaimed architect to talk about the building’s design, architecture in South Africa, and the importance of sustainability.

How do you feel the design of this building works in a South African context?
Johannesburg is a city born of incredible division, and its architecture reflects that. But it is also a city undergoing massive change, and very vibrant creative and artistic communities are emerging in the inner city; the city is reinventing itself for the 21st century. This project is very much part of the plan to create urban infrastructure that reflects and supports that. I saw this as a transformative opportunity to combine an African aesthetic with a contemporary vision, and also to show that the relics of the old mode of the city had the capacity to adapt and to change. It was very important to me to show that this building could address changing lifestyles, and take a more fluid approach to the way we inhabit cities. The building has a long history, having been used in the 1970s as a diamond polishing facility.

How have you incorporated the original structure into the new design?
Hallmark House is one of the signature icons of the industrial heritage of Johannesburg; it really reflects a belief in modernity to
create light-filled industrial spaces. It has this incredibly versatile structure that we wanted to reveal, not disguise. So the raw structure, which we’ve sandblasted and cleaned, is exposed throughout the building, in the living spaces as well as the retail spaces. Paired with the newer, smooth finishes, the frame gives a distinct experience of the layers of history contained in this building.

How does sustainability play a role in the design?
My approach here has very much been one of responsiveness, so the project engages the local climate in an organic way, using passive strategies. For instance, the brisesoleil, a key new feature of the facade, mitigates heat gain. We’ve also stepped the facade back, creating new balconies and allowing for natural cross-ventilation.

What do you admire about architecture in South Africa?
Most cities have division, but it’s implied. South Africa, sadly, is one of the few countries in the world that has a specific spatial architecture that is born from division. To undo that division requires a radical change in the operating mode from which you see the city. You have to be prepared to create new overlaps that do not make immediate visual sense, but actually make sense as an integration project. I admire that there has been a real concerted effort to refocus with architecture in the country. The laissez-faire default position is to accept certain status quos and picturesque views, because that is a comfortable position. South Africa, more than anywhere else, has had to challenge these positions because it really needs to invent new practices to overcome its history. If it doesn’t, that paralysis will persist. You may create laws, but architecture is the ultimate arbiter of our psyche.

Don’t forget to read our Q&A with Sir David, where he also discusses other Adjaye Associates projects, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. You can also explore the interiors of Hallmark House here.