Adjaye was the lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (photo: right), which opened in Washington, D.C. in Sept. 2016.
LONDON – On a cool mid-September afternoon in the east London Borough of Hackney, pedestrians on busy Old Street scurry past trendy pubs, cafes and retail sops to catch the arriving double-decker bus. Visible to the north is the distinctive spire of St. Leonard’s Church.
The immaculate structure dates back to the 12th century and was damaged during Nazi Germany’s relentless bombing campaign here more than 60 years ago. At the nearby Shoreditch Park, a team of archeologists recently led an excavation to unearth World War II-era artifacts, serving as a grim reminder that on just about any street in London, there’s no escaping history. In fact, nearby, close to the eastern edge of the park, modern history is being made.
On the first floor of 23-28 Penn Street, home to the architectural firm Adjaye/Associates, the atmosphere is loose but professional. Designers discuss plans to add skylights to a planned building as staffers busily flip through sketch manuals and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” blares out from an adjacent room. Moments earlier, an overworked-but-still-enthusiastic man dashed into an office. For him, it’s just another manic Monday.
His name is David Adjaye, and he just spent the past several hours with the BBC. He was taping an appearance at one of his latest projects – a newly opened public library, dubbed the “Idea Store,” in a struggling working-class neighborhood in London’s historically impoverished East End.
After the Borough Tower Hamlets Council voted to replace its entire public library system with seven Idea Stores, Adjaye was chosen in 2001 to design two of the buildings, the first of which opened in 2004.
The widely praised $14.6 million Whitechapel project is serving as a model for the public library of the 21st century, complete with its day care center, chic café and multimedia services. Equally impressive is the library’s dazzling craftsmanship, from the glittery exterior of glass panels to its colorfully spacious interior.
“Libraries are supposed to play a vital role in the social fabric of a community,” says Adjaye. The architect sees the new libraries, replacements for ones that were neglected and crumbling, as critical to generating local development while spreading knowledge.
Such projects help to elevate Adjaye’s stature in the world of art and design as he not only revolutionizes London’s architectural landscape, but attempts to make inroads worldwide, including 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in America’s inner-cities.
At 39, Adjaye already ranks as one of London’s most revered contemporary architects. He is known for his visually striking designs that play upon the public’s perception of space, light, form and texture. “David is not only an incredibly gifted architect, he’s an intellectual,” says Thelma Golden, director and curator of The Studio Museum of Harlem. “He uses architecture as a tool to explore art and politics.”
Adjaye was born in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in the east African nation of Tanzania. His mother, he says, was a “beautiful housewife” and his father was a Ghanian diplomat. Because of his father’s work, Adjaye spent his childhood on the move, living in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt, an experience he recalls was both “fabulous and disorienting.” In 1979, Adjaye’s family settled in North London.
“I had been immersed in the politics of many different societies,” recalls Adjaye, “so I learned how to navigate at a very early age.”
In those days, Adjaye displayed no penchant for what would later become his passion. “I didn’t even know what an architect was,” he muses. But he did possess an interest in art, which drove his decision to pursue a degree in architecture at London’t South Bank University.
Not until he enrolled in the distinguished Royal College of Art in London, though, did he learn how to view architecture through an artistic lens. “I came to discover that the artist and the architect are really one-and-the-same,” he says.
The university’s rigorous curriculum sharpened his technical skill, but equally significant was his exposure to a provocative group of creative Black intellectuals, known simply as the Young British Artists.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the avant-garde band, whose membership included painter Chris Ofili, sparked a rebellious movement in London cultural arts scene before earning eternal notoriety for its infamous “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York in 1999.
And while, comparatively speaking, the shock value in Adjaye’s work is far more subtle, the spirit of defiance his artistic cohorts helped to reinforce remains crucial to understanding the man and his vision. “I think shock is a good thing. It’s like a wake up call,” says Adjaye.
Soon after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1993, the friendships Adjaye forged there, particularly with Ofili, proved fruitful. The two collaborated on a number of projects, including Ofili’s home and studio in London. As word spread about Adjaye, he quickly developed a solid A-list clientele, designing homes for the likes of actor Ewan McGregor and fashion impresario Alexander McQueen.
Even then, it was evident that Adjaye didn’t believe in designing for appearance’s sake. Always, there was a deeper context at work. Take Elektra House in East London. In stark contrast to the brick homes in its immediate vicinity, the house-gallery – with its windowless, resin coated plywood façade – appears to be nothing but a dark, forbidding fortress.
But hidden from view are the roof lights that bathe the rooms with a warm, radiant glow. “I’m interested in working within a context that allows me to create something new. So if my work causes people to have questions, then I’m very happy,” says Adjaye.
Also striking is his imaginative use of space, which he traces back to his childhood. “My brother was in a wheelchair, and I used to push him around the house, so I was always sensitive to having rooms with space for him to maneuver,” recalls Adjaye. “I’ve carried this notion of space with me ever since.”
In London, where history and continuity are paramount – from Victorian-era homes and cathedrals to famed landmarks such as the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace – some critics dismiss the work of modern designers bent on pushing the envelope. Adjaye not only shrugs off such criticism, he savors it. “I like challenging our perceptions because it’s in my nature to question scenarios,” Adjaye says. “And I like things that are ever-changing.”
Adjaye’s commitment to the concept of change goes well beyond the canvas as evidenced by the 35-person staff at Adjaye/Associates, where he has nearly achieved an equal female-to-male ratio. “I’ve never been comfortable with this idea that architects can only be men. It’s been my experience that some of the best architects are women,” he says, citing Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born Brit who in 2004 was the first woman to receive the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Adjaye is no less dedicated to employing Black architects – a task he he concedes has been difficult. “I think there’s a tendency, particularly here in London, for Blacks to shy away from traditional professions,” he says.
“When you don’t see something, it’s harder to envision. It’s like the concept of a Black president. But what’s so difficult about a Black person being president? And what’s so difficult about a Black person being an artist who builds really huge complexes? It’s really nothing. It’s about envisioning your goal and making it happen.”
Adjaye, whose stellar portfolio includes an array of lofty projects like the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, has recently been making things happen in the United States. Construction is underway on a new three-story artist studio in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. Adjaye’s next U.S.-based project is a 25,000 square-foot facility for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, slated to open by early 2007.
“He really connected with our mission. He’s a young architect on the rise, and we’re a young organization with the community behind us. It’s a perfect fit,” says Cydney Payton, the museum’s director/curator.
And some observers believe that Adjaye’s work could potentially spark a new era. “A lot of modern architecture in this country is about function and not form, so we accept mediocre buildings. But what David brings is an incredible perspective on changing the landscape,” says Golden.
For the immediate future, and well beyond, Adjaye has a full plate. Besides promoting his new coffee-table book, “David Adjaye: Houses – Recycling, Reconfiguring, Rebuilding,” that was released last year, Adjaye also has an exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London through March.
This spring, he’ll teach a research studio course at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. And for the past few years, he’s been a fixture on BBC television and radio, as host of a show about modern design and a highly-acclaimed documentary series on the world of architecture in Africa.
While Adjaye says he will always pursue lucrative large-scale projects, he’s inclined to accept those assignments that fulfill a broader social function – whether it’s libraries in East London or the new Bernie Grant Centre, a performing arts and education center in North London dedicated to the late Guyanese activist and Labour member of Parliament.
“I see my work work as something that can reestablish our shared sense of community,” notes Adjaye. “If I can inspire, change or enhance one’s perception about something, then that’s definitely a good thing.”
UPDATE: In January 2017, Adjaye was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to architecture.
This appeared in Jan. / Feb. 2006 issue of The Crisis magazine.