A strong contender to build President Barack Obama’s presidential library, David Adjaye is a rising star.

David Adjaye was already well known when he became the lead architect for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, nearing completion on the National Mall in Washington. In the late 1990s, his career launched with a series of houses for artists in London. He went on to design a new concept for public libraries in London (2004); the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver (2007); a school of management in Moscow (2010) and an affordable housing complex in Harlem (2014). He is currently a strong contender for designing President Barack Obama's presidential library in Chicago.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. © ADJAYE ASSOCIATES

Mr. Adjaye’s public architecture often poses questions about the value systems historically associated with building types. Libraries were once defined as repositories of a culture’s canonical knowledge and as a result often look like imposing citadels, potentially intimidating to new users. Today libraries also serve as the first, sometimes only, place for underserved peoples, most notably the poor and recent immigrants, to find resources. With his IDEA Stores in London and two new libraries in Washington—notably, the Francis A. Gregory Library with its shed-like overhanging roof—Mr. Adjaye makes that new role much more explicit with designs that both look and function more like open marketplaces for information.

The exhibition deftly shows the architect finding new ways to engage with wider groups of people. His explorations into African textile patterns, tribal mythologies, the legacy of slavery and postcolonial modernism are far from predictable sources for architecture. There is a lyrical filigree motif seen throughout the exhibition: at the entrance screened in gold leaf over the entrance in the cathedral-like Griffin Court; in the pattern covering the excellent catalog; and in images of the shimmering bronze-colored metal screens that envelope the National Museum of African American History. That pattern for the museum’s screens is an abstracted reiteration of ironwork crafted by slaves from Charleston and New Orleans, and the evocative, three-tiered shape of the museum itself was inspired by the crown on a figurative carving by a Yoruba sculptor in West Africa. The exhibition gives extensive space to the museum project, the architect’s most ambitious assignment to date and designed in collaboration with three other firms: the Freelon Group; Davis Brody Bond; and the SmithGroup.

Some might quibble with the lack of detailed information about how individual buildings actually work and their size, but “Making Place” is very good at showing inspirational sources, whether it’s the turreted gastropod snail that led to the coiling shape of the as-yet-unbuilt Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory on the isle of Portland in England, or a mock-up of the zigzagging red ceramic louvers that refigures the pattern of Arabic basket weaves as a lattice shade screen for the Aïshti Foundation, a cultural and shopping center nearing completion in Beirut.