If there were a year to crown David Adjaye’s list of considerable achievements, 2015 would certainly be the one in which to plan a coronation and confirm the importance of the African-British architect.
Less than six months ago Adjaye attended the groundbreaking ceremony for his new $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington DC, which was attended by Barack and Michelle Obama. Hailed as one of the most important new US cultural centres of recent years, and destined to be the last major museum on the National Mall, work is underway and the press interest surrounding its build is huge. Adjaye reveals: “It’s a new kind of new museum which is really about a narrative about people and a country.”
Back home, Adjaye’s practice, Adjaye Associates, has just announced a radical new £600 million scheme to redevelop six individual buildings on Piccadilly, Dover Street and Berkeley Street into one single ten-storey block, renamed One Berkeley Street. The new London icon will transform this corner of Piccadilly and create a significant landmark testament to David Adjaye. “The design objective is to provide a beautiful addition to the Piccadilly streetscape and create a building worthy of being opposite The Ritz,” say the firm.
At the [still] tender age of 45, Adjaye has achieved what other architects of his calibre take a lifetime to master. With notable international projects in Moscow [Skolkovo School of Management], Oslo [Nobel Peace Centre], the USA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver] and the Middle East [Msheireb Downtown district in Doha] to name but a few, as well as a body of superlative work in the UK, Adjaye was recognised for his services to global architecture with an OBE in 2007.
The son of a Ghanaian diplomat whose formative years were spent in Tanzania, Ghana, Jeddah, Cairo, Yemen and Beirut before the family settled in London 30 years ago, Adjaye is something of an ambassador for his art, promoting the virtue of new ideas to those with a mind to embrace them. Just as the breed of new British artists and designers that he has designed homes for, Alexander McQueen, Sue Webster and Tim Noble, and Juergen Teller amongst them, claim him as their own, so Adjaye has spread his wings and made his mark with his architecture, represented in Europe, Asia, Africa, The Middle East and the USA. One of his clients, artist Lorna Simpson, for whom Adjaye designed a studio building in Brooklyn, remarks on his qualities, influences and interests: “There’s Bauhaus in it”, she says. But also the places where he grew up as a child – ornament, pattern, the way light comes in, different things from different places. He’s very keen on the way architecture serves the people in it.”
Adjaye graduated in 1993 and in the same year won a RIBA bronze medal, awarded to Part 1 projects. Soon after, short terms of work followed at David Chipperfield Architects in London and Eduardo Souto de Moura in Porto, “For me it was incredibly important because, as a young student, you know, you saw lots of architects present, it was always kind of, very glamorous or fantastical things. But actually to work in the studios of architects that I respected, confirmed to me that there was a way of making practice which was not kind of crazy, but it was about a certain intellectual pursuit, and really a way of life.”
With such inspiration, Adjaye established a practice with William Russell called Adjaye & Russell within a year. In 2000 he took the plunge and opened the doors on his own business, and never looked back. Early successes were largely generated around private residences and properties such as Dirty House , the home that he designed for artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble. Pair this with Sunken House , a blackened timber clad house that is a complete contrast to the Victorian Villas in the surrounding De Beauvoir street, and Silverlight , the re-imagination of the canal-side site of an old powder puff factory in Kensal Rise, which is now available for sale for the first time, through Domus Nova.
It would have been very easy to continue building the reputation of the architect and his practice on such firm foundations, but Adjaye’s yearning for involvement in public spaces and civic buildings took over. From there on Adjaye’s professional presence on the stage of world architecture began to build, and through his choice of projects we perhaps begin to see something of a man behind the drawing board. In London, the Ideas Store in Poplar  and Whitechapel  turned the idea of presenting public information to a multi-cultural local audience on its head.
In the same vein, the creation of the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Lewisham  is both a testament to the murdered architecture student and a place of knowledge and support for the local Caribbean and African communities. Adjaye's acclaimed Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo  challenged the perception of the organisation with a permanent presentation of the work of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo  is equally thought provoking and will showcase the academic capabilities of Moscow to the west. In the same vein, the Smithsonian Museum will show how far African American culture has come.
Roused by the prospect of opportunity, Adjaye continues to be inspired by the world we live in now and the world we will live in tomorrow, “What’s interesting about architecture is that I think we live in an age which actually has so much opportunity in it, but I think that for me it represents a fantastic opportunity to find a future,” says Adjaye. “For me, architecture provides an opportunity to define what the future is. And I’m deeply moved by that”.
Yet for all of his glory money does not maketh the man, and it’s through his love and support of Africa that some of Adjaye’s most personally important projects have emerged. The Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation building in Libreville, Gabon will educate women about their entitlement, protection and education, whilst the Cape Coast Slavery Museum in Ghana will portray the culture of the country and encourage a response to the role of slavery in its history. The construction of a completely new business district in Kampala, Uganda will see the country compete for business on a world stage. Today Adjaye is working with Standseven to raise money for Ebola hit communities in Sierra Leone through the creation of product design, sold in the West to raise funds.
Adjaye spent 11 years revisiting the continent of his birth, travelling through every single country to better acquaint himself with its history, culture and geography. The diversity and pace of change inspired a public exhibition of his personal snapshots, which became a book, Adjaye Africa Architecture. In this, Adjaye charts some of the greatest environmental and developmental changes happening in Africa right now, from the reinvention of historic towns and cities to the creation of completely new residential districts. “I realised that geography was playing a much more fundamental role in the way these cities were being formed than the citizens themselves realised. It was that overview that made me understand and bring geography much more to the centre of my practice. Geography for me was… realising that the ecology of each place really profoundly and psychologically and subconsciously affects even generic building systems.”
Using his skill as an architect and the weight of his name as an opinion former, Adjaye hopes to help favour support for Africa, and through this, use architecture to make sense of some of the chaotic environments that he encountered, promoting further change and giving the continent its own platform in a changing world. It’s a topic that his followers are often obsessed by: that he’s a black man in an occupation which, in Europe and the United States, is predominately very white. Something Adjaye admits he has become incredibly weary of, though his heritage is not something he considers as insignificant. “I can’t win with this one, everyone seems to have a view on it”, says Adjaye. “I am an architect first of all, whose background is complex. I use the continent of Africa as a background, but I also grew up in London”.
With current and planned commissions banked for several years ahead, Adjaye has said that there are no plans to seek further work at present. The completion of the Smithsonian Museum, his current opus, might prove to be a catalyst for further change in a life that has already been exalted with an OBE, RIBA and Stirling Prize medals, a role on the advisory board of the London School of Economics, visiting professorships of Harvard and Princeton universities, and a place on the roll call of Britain’s most powerful and influential people. For Adjaye, Africa seems to be a lifelong project where he plans to spend considerably more time there in the future, being part of its evolution.
Adjaye is recently married, has a ten year old son and is yet to turn 50, so the world is still his oyster. For someone who feels that they still have so much to give, his finest work may still be yet to come.
View Adjaye Associates on the Domus Nova Architecture Guide
Adjaye Associates, The Edison, 223 – 231 Old Marylebone Road, London NW1; adjaye.com