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Radical Secrets

A century-old Upper East Side façade conceals the aggressively modern design of David Adjaye.


Photographs From David Adjaye: A House for an Art Collector

With the flamboyant orneriness that limitless wealth allows, the art collector Adam Lindemann and his wife, Amalia Dayan, have staged an act of architectural dissidence on the Upper East Side. Lurking behind the limestone scrolls and wrought-iron gate of the carriage house at 77 East 77th Street is an eccentric concrete château, a gray five-story tower scarified with angled window slits like some demonic jack-o’-lantern. It’s the first Manhattan opus of David Adjaye, the architect of the Smithsonian’s future National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. A new book, David Adjaye: A House for an Art Collector, published by Rizzoli, documents every room, wall, and basement nook of the ­Lindemann-Dayan house, revealing both garish taste and a formal inventiveness that hasn’t been seen in a private New York residence since the days of Paul Rudolph. But Rudolph inhabited his own experiments; Adjaye has created a dim, almost gothic lair for a family with idiosyncratic predilections.

The house is a private museum, at once exhibitionistic and secret. (The owners declined my request for a tour.) A gallery for Lindemann’s and Dayan’s outsize, aggressive, and theatrical collection occupies nearly the whole ground floor, and the house wraps itself around the art. A glass bridge offers a disturbing view of Maurizio Cattelan’s dead Pinocchio lying in a pit below. The living-­dining room accommodates Damien Hirst’s vast painting of hugely magnified cancer cells, sprinkled with shards of glass and razor blades. The most intimate part of the house is the vertiginous stack of bedrooms; at the top of the tower, one of Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair” silk-screens hangs across from the conjugal bed, right where its occupants can gaze on that aestheticized instrument of death just before they slip out of consciousness.

At a time when the rich typically measure their status in views, Adjaye has sequestered his clients in a thick-walled redoubt. He has beaten back the historic district’s rules by grudgingly following their letter. New construction must be invisible from the street, so the house pulls back from the sidewalk, leaving a sliver of court between the gate and the front doors—an airlock dividing the preserved past from the defiant present. The regulations forbid blind windows in a false façade, so Adjaye has shoved a minuscule, free-floating library up against the street-facing windows and joined it to the house by a little glass bridge. This tiny space, which gets direct light while the public rooms retreat into the house’s darkened heart, expresses all the perverseness of this project. Part flashy art space, part medieval keep, the building toggles between showiness and seclusion, radicalism and respectability, roughness and luxe. Adjaye has disposed the interior spaces inequitably, in grand halls and cubbies; in this home, the residents can choose between being dwarfed or caged.

A Ghanaian-descended Londoner, Adjaye has taken (and exhibited) hundreds of photographs of African cities, and here he riffs on an improvised urbanism where edges refuse to line up and the sun is a violent opponent. He brings in light by piercing the shell with vertical cavities (in a tenement, they’d be called air shafts). The exposed concrete is dark, pitted stuff, full of air holes and gravel, corrugated in places to resemble tin siding. That calculated coarseness gives the house a raw power and also infuses it with menace. But in the end, there’s something distasteful about invoking a hand-built shack in a high-gloss neighborhood: It smacks of architectural slumming.

A pile of art-filled concrete boxes, receding from the city and scattered with eccentrically geometric windows; the echoes of Marcel Breuer’s lyrical and severe Whitney Museum around the corner could hardly be clearer. Just as Breuer made climbing or descending on foot part of the Whitney experience, Adjaye has lavished obsessive attention on staircases, promoting the fire stairs from obligatory safety feature to a climbable sculpture made of steel plate and exotic zebrawood. Another staircase leading to the roof garden recalls Paul Rudolph’s floating risers, practically begging the children to leap off the balustrade-free side.

To say this design is not for everyone is to understate the obvious: It’s not for anyone besides the family that lives there. But if Adjaye distills from this oddball project some wisdom he can apply to public works, then he might confound Washington’s monumental blandness the way he did the Upper East Side’s aversion to novelty: by combativeness and stealth.


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