How David Adjaye Became the Worlds Most Beguiling Public Architectand Its Most Subversive – Robb Report

Posted By on November 25, 2020

A little more than a decade ago, David Adjaye hovered on the verge of bankruptcy, his budding architectural practice devastated by the Great Recession. Budgets were slashed, he recalls. I was employing about 30 people at that time and had about six decent projects, which was a lot for a young architect. But I was winging it. I wasnt a businessperson. I lost all my savings, going through the insolvency system and paying off everyone personally.

It was a rough comedown for an architect whose early works had gained notice for their rigorous and subversive designs. But only a year later, in 2009, Adjaye won the heated competition to design the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., marking a stunning reversal of his fortunes. Just when people thought that I was done with, he marvels, the Smithsonian revived me and introduced me to America. It felt supernatural. He describes the experience as a form of baptism.

As well as being a personal redemption, the museum, which opened in 2016, won the Ghanaian-British designer several awards and catapulted him into the starchitect stratosphere. The following year, thanks to a knighthood, he added Sir to his name. Adjaye stands among the most acclaimed architects working today and has become a go-to man for monuments and museums, including a planned Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament in London. He has also become something of a spokesman for Black architects, a role he inhabits eloquently, though reluctantly.

Inside Adjayes Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.Alan Karchmer

Sir David, 54, is now the very model of a modern celebrity architect, with homes and offices in London, New York and Ghana. He has designed houses for other creative luminariesalways a badge of honorincluding Ewan McGregor, artists Chris Ofili and Jake Chapman, photographer Juergen Teller and Brad Pitts Make It Right Foundation, as well as for the late United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. Adjayes 130 William luxury condo tower is under construction in Lower Manhattan, and he is working with Four Seasons on its new private residences in Washington, D.C. The latest book to feature his work, David Adjaye: Works 19952007, will be published by Thames & Hudson this month.

Pre-pandemic, he spent much of his time at 30,000 feet, between visiting professorships at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and projects in Australia, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon, Norway, Senegal, Israel and Ghana. He sat at the top table with President Obama during a White House dinner for then prime minister David Cameron of the UK in 2012.

He now has this amazing life of working in so many different places, says Rowan Moore, architecture critic for The Observer newspaper in London. I dont know how he does it. Its insane. Adjayes popularity aside, Moore adds that he is not wholly embraced by the architectural profession, partly because hes not easily classifiable, not part of a gang. Moore says his strength is an ability to respond to a situation with something new. Hes good at the external wrappers of buildings. His weakness, according to Moore, is that hes not a details man.

The museums exterior.Nic Lehoux

In Britain, that kind of faint snootiness toward Adjaye is sometimes detectable amid the generally positive commentary, characterizing him as a fashionable lightweighta consummate networker and ambitious producer of novel, eye-catching projects popular with celebrities and the masses.

Sometimes this media caricature wears a bit thin. Obamas favorite architect, as he was dubbed by the design press, was not, after all, awarded the commission to design the presidential library in Chicago (that went to Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects). He did not grow up in wealthy Hampstead, as is regularly reported by the press on both sides of the pond, but in the decidedly unglamorous nearby suburb of Cricklewood.

In person, Adjaye is more cerebral and vulnerable than his media persona suggests. Its clear that he cares much more about his public works than any ritzy condo tower. Im attracted to projects that have transformational qualities and justice qualities, he says. Thats what turns me on.

The stark facade, left, and light-filled interior of Adjayes Elektra House in London, which gained him early notice.Lyndon Douglas

He speaks to Robb Report via Zoom from Accra, his carefully modulated statements sweetened by an infectious giggle, his gray office backdrop enlivened by a brightly patterned yellow shirt, though he chooses a more somber palette for Robb Reports photo shoot. His African practice has been booming, and hes spending the pandemic in the Ghanaian capital with his wife, Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye, and two young children, toying with ideas for a new family home there.

Adjaye had a peripatetic expat childhood. The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, he lived in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia before the age of 13, when the family settled in London. His unrooted youth, as he calls it, was further disrupted by trauma when one of his two younger brothers, Emmanuel, contracted an infection as a toddler that left him mentally and physically disabled.

Adjayes mother, Cecilia, became Emmanuels caregiver; he still lives with her in London. His father, Affram, took a demotion to move the family there to get the best care for the child. It changed the dynamics of the family, Adjaye says quietly, because essentially, you know, this one-year-old boy suddenly became the only focus that my parents wanted to deal with.

Adjaye in Accras Black Star Square.Edem J. Tamakloe

Thrown into a London state school after a childhood spent at private international schools, the teenage Adjaye got into a lot of trouble, as he puts it. He found the English school shockingly provincial. In retrospect, however, he values his itinerant upbringing. The best education is an education you dont realize youre being given, he says. Youre not frightened by new situations. He still feels at home when traveling. Im most comfortable working in every part of the world that I am allowed to go, he says, grinning.

Lesley Lokko, dean of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York and a fellow Ghanaian Brit who has known Adjaye for about 20 years, attributes his success to having grown up as the consummate outsider. Adjaye has, she says, always been half in and half out of situations. That gives you an antenna. He is incredibly sensitive to contexts.

This insight into context, according to Lokko, is the key to understanding a trait of Adjayes that bothers architectural critics: He has no signature style, except that whatever he comes up with will be deeply thoughtful. She adds that his vision is large scale, and so hes not somebody who obsesses over the micro-details of projects.

The Abrahamic Family House, which will feature a mosque, a church and a synagogue, in Abu Dhabi.The Abrahamic Family House/Adjaye Associates

Moore characterizes him as an architectural diplomatcharming and persuasive in person and in his most successful buildings. He is able to move between different milieus and communicate across them. Whether its the East End of London or [Washingtons National] Mall or Ghana, there is an equal level of respect.

Success was not a foregone conclusion. Adjaye remained uninspired by school, despite his parents efforts. They were typical West African, he says. My father was hell-bent on education. To enter a profession was the way to escape all the ills of the world. That was drummed into us. Yet Adjaye persuaded his father to let him go to art school, a concession he still feels grateful for. Thats when I fell in love with my dad again. (Another brother, Peter, became a conceptual sound artist.) Adjayes principal concern when his business went bust in 2008 was that he would embarrass his father.

After art school, he went on to study architecture, earning a masters at the Royal College of Art in London, where he became friends with many of the Young British Artists promoted by Charles Saatchi in the 1990s. His student design for an inner-city respite center for disabled children (inspired by his brother) won a prestigious national award from the Royal Institute of British Architects. The same body recently named him the 2021 recipient of the Royal Gold Medal, one of the worlds most prestigious architectural awards.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.David Shankbone

During his studies, Adjaye spent a year in Japan, at the Kyoto University of the Arts, an experience he describes as a profound time, probably the most important time in my education. Ultimately, it led him to a new appreciation of African aesthetics and the beginnings of what he now calls his obsession with helping African countries develop architecturally.

Japanese reverence for the simplicity of their indigenous buildings, and the way they elevate plain, natural materials to an art form, struck him as applicable to African huts. It made me start to look at Africa again, not as a place that was undeveloped and weak but as a place of immense aesthetic potential, he says. I would go into a teahouse and I would think, This is like a hut. Its basically thatch and a bit of timber and mud. So why is my grandfathers village not special but this is? It was like seeing two different worlds, where one was revered and the other was despised. It was a revelation.

Back home, after college, Adjaye struggled to get work in a profession that is notoriously hard to break into without connections.

A model apartment in Manhattans 130 William.C Binyan Studios

Architecture is like the art world in the sense that it needs another artist to anoint an artist, he says. Artists dont just emerge on their own. Architecture is the same. It requires patronage. He believed that his race marked him as an outsider. I felt like a misfit. I spent my entire time trying to fit in, reading as much as I could about European architecture.

Adjaye spent a few years scraping by, building sets for music videos, and then his friend Chris Ofili, a painter who had just been propelled into stardom by Saatchi, asked him to design a studio. That led to a commission in 1999 from an artist couple for what became Elektra House in East London. The house, inspired by the Japanese practice of putting all the windows in the back to maximize privacy, garden views and light, had no windows onto the streetjust panels of inexpensive, plain, dark-brown phenolic plywoodand a rear facade almost entirely of glass. They let me do what I wanted, within the limits of their money, which was nothing. And it made the cover of the RIBA Journal, Adjaye says.

In Britain, with its devotion to bay windows, his concept was seen as radical. Suddenly it was like, who is this Black kid building very weird buildings?, Adjaye says with a giggle. Elektra House attracted the attention of Richard Rogers, the Pritzker-winning modernist architect, who has been his friend ever since.

A rendering of the National Cathedral of Ghana.Adjaye Associates

The house still exemplifies Adjayes creative method. He first compiles a body of knowledge and research and context on the local area, he says, then considers how to use form and structure to express the buildings purpose within that framework. Im always reading the context and trying to better the context, he says. Thats my first trick.

The point of contextualizing is not to fit in but to subvert. Architecture is about politics with a big P, he says. The aim is to change the way in which people perceive buildings in that area and to entice them to aspire to something better. How does a building do that? Just very simple things like not having walls or being completely accessible. Once the idea is clear, the building self-generates, he says. All questions about what kind of windows or energy systems [to use] are answered through that initial lens.

For example, in Elektra House, the brief was to capture light. So I thought, Im going to make a house that tracks the sun, not deals with the street, he recalls. And so the house is blank but absolutely full of light. People said, This is not a house. Its not a house thats about the street and windows. Its a house thats about the world and light. Its really about having a different perspective.

inside the Idea Store Whitechapel in London.Edmund Sumner

Elektra House made Adjayes name, but it was almost his undoing. The local authority took him to court for breaking planning laws (that windowless facade), and Adjaye says he was saved from a possible criminal conviction only by the intervention of Rogers. The head of the local governing body was so impressed that he invited Adjaye to enter a competition to design a neighborhood library, which, naturally, he won.

That foray into public infrastructure led to a pipeline of civic works, beginning with the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2002 and culminating with the Smithsonian. He was invited to enter the competition for the Malls latest museum on the basis, he says, of his recently completed Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and his design for a vast business school in Moscow.

Asked why the Smithsonian invited him to compete, he says, There are lots of African-American architects, but none had an international profile, and I emerged as someone who had worked in the US and Europe. I was the first Black architect that theyd seen operating continentally.

The Webster in Miami by Adjaye.Laurian Ghinitoiu

Worried that his threadbare practice was too small to take on such a challenge, Adjaye teamed up with Philip Freelon and J. Max Bond Jr., two well-established African-American architects. Their winning bid beat out such A-list names as I. M. Pei, Norman Foster and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. (Bond died in 2009, but his company carried on the project; Freelon died last year.) The resulting triple-tiered building, designed to resemble a West African crown, is clad in glowing bronze-colored aluminum panels perforated with delicate lattice patterns, which vary in color with the changing light.

Alexandra Lange, a design critic and author, describes the panels as a great calling card. Adjaye, she says, understands pattern and intricacy in a way that a lot of contemporary architects dont. I was really blown away by how well his choices fit in while also making a distinctive museum. It needed to hold up to the neoclassical marble buildings, and he picked a great way to do that.

She links this approach to Adjayes design for the Sugar Hill affordable-housing complex in Harlem, completed the year before the Smithsonian, where the stark gray concrete exterior walls are etched with an ornamental rose pattern. The effect was dismissed by New York magazine as crude, the product of an evening spent fiddling with Photoshop, but Lange sees it as a beautiful pattern, evidence of Adjayes sensitivity to material. Concrete, metal, mirrors and glasseach has its own beauty and quality, she says. His exteriors are like a carapaceone thing is happening on the outside and something different on the inside.

Adjayes The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo.Tim Soar

Adjaye is now on speed dial for prestigious government commissions, including a master plan, with other firms, for a new Parisian quarter close to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France Francois-Mitterrand and the reconstruction of Haitis National Palace. In the US he is designing the Princeton University Art Museum, and his new home for the Studio Museum in Harlem is under construction. His blueprint acts as an extension of the very spirit of our Harlem community, says the museums director, Thelma Golden. Adjaye has drawn on the surrounding architectural vernacular for inspiration while reframing it in an unexpected way that makes the museum more welcoming to the public. He re-envisioned the soaring sanctuaries of Harlems churches as the museums top-lit atrium, says Golden, while local brownstone stoops became tiers of wide steps leading down from the entrance to the program space, with each step doubling as a place where the audience can sit.

Adjayes main focus now is Africa, and hes working on a new campus for the Africa Institute, a research center in the United Arab Emirates that specializes in the study of Africa and its diaspora. He describes his current residence in Ghana as a third chapter, after his early work in London and a second, Smithsonian-focused phase in the US. He says he feels hes being summoned to deliver for a country. We are now working on the National Cathedral for Ghana and, as a result, in West, East and South Africa. This seems to be a very powerful new time.

With global success has come racial role-model status, a responsibility Moore says has been partly put upon him by the architectural profession being so damn white. Adjaye finds this labeling reductive and somewhat patronizing. He recounts how, when this whole Black Lives Matter thing happened, the number of magazines that called me to ask, Can you just say what its like to be a Black architect? . . . I refused most of the time because I dont feel like its my job to educate [people on] that issue anymore.

Adjayes Ruby City in San Antonio, Tex.Dror Baldinger FAIA

But he also acknowledges that his pioneering accomplishments have profound personal meaning. Its not a burden. Im very proud, so proud of the Smithsonian, he says. I feel so thankful. Now when I look at my children, I feel like theres something in the world that speaks to them.

His fame is also genuinely inspirational to young Black creative professionals. Hes a complicated figure partly because theres no precedent for someone like him, says Lokko. He resists the label of the Black architect, and yet its the elephant in the room whenever anyone considers his work. Hes very clear about being British African, and his references come from a deep understanding of the African continent. People dont always know how to read that. Lokko once brought Adjaye to lecture in Johannesburg, where she was teaching at the time. It was like the second coming of the Messiah, she recalls. He is incredibly meaningful for the students.

On the role of race in national historical and political narratives, Adjayes views are nuanced. He opposes the removal of controversial statues. Taking them down, he explains, warps history. Erasing the memory of problematic historical figures creates all the confusion that were now experiencing in the 21st century with Holocaust denial and people not understanding American history, he says. Their continued presence, on the other hand, activate[s] questions, he says, and helps prevent our forgettingand repeatinghistory.

Adjayes Bernie Grant Arts Centre in London.Assen Emilov

In the same way, he believes Britain needs to stop treating its former empire as a taboo topic and instead engage with its real history, perhaps by way of a museum. Most Brits only understand the end bit, the froth of empire, he says. To navigate in the world in the 21st century, Britain needs to understand its own evolution . . . the good and bad, he reflects. I think that a great nation says, Lets try to resolve it, not Dont talk about it.

The purpose of memorials, and the process by which nations decide what and how to commemorate, are among his favorite subjects for reflection. Traditionally, monuments enable closure, Adjaye says. Youre supposed to reflect on immortality and that [the dead are] in a good place. So you make it out of marble and you make it feel eternal, so it feels like its sorted, its done, and youre allowed to forget. His own memorial buildings, in contrast, are trying to create questioning and thinking.

He reveres Maya Lins Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall because its immense list of the dead and missing does not try to edit history into a hierarchical narrative. No single name or rank matters more than any other. The experience of that long walk, reading the names etched into the wall, can be seen in the physical journeys that he created in the Smithsonian and his plans for Londons Holocaust memorial.

Adjayes Moscow School of Management.Timokhin Stanislav

Both immerse visitors in uneasy darkness before drawing them out into the light. The proposed Holocaust memorialwhich is mired in planning disputeswill force each visitor, including children, to pass through a bronze-lined chamber alone. Its a little window into what the Holocaust did to millions of people, says Adjaye. In all the surveys, 20 percent of English people think the Holocaust didnt happen. Were using architecture to reenact empathy within people, empathy towards the subject. Not [to create] the sense that its finished, but the sense of, Oh, my God, I really need to pay attention.

From his house in Africa, Adjaye muses on human history and how its stories can take physical form. How do we create an honest account of the past to teach our children? How do we guard against the erasure of unpleasant history and the risk of repeating our mistakes? How do we empathize with excluded groups? His mission is a hopeful one: the knitting together of humanity and of the present and the past.

As for the future, hes bullish on cities, post-pandemic, pointing to the improvements in sanitation after tuberculosis epidemics and in building safety after 9/11. He envisions more breathable buildings, more varied ecologies and improved access to sunlight. The good thing about human beings is that we are good at evolving, he says. Once we see the problem, we evolve past it and deal with it. It will make the density which we cant escape better. Were going to build bigger buildings. Were going to make bigger and better cities. He grins. Its coming. Its already here.

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How David Adjaye Became the Worlds Most Beguiling Public Architectand Its Most Subversive - Robb Report

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