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Since founding his eponymous firm, Sir David Adjaye has risen to become one of the preeminent architects of his generation. A recipient of the RIBA Gold Medal, Adjaye has produced work that is both deeply personal and wedded to seismic social and political themes. Often seen as conceptual art installations in their own right, his buildings engage with a variety of issues including historical narratives of memory and oppression, and how to democratise knowledge and learning. Will Moffitt speaks to the Ghanaian-British architect to discuss his varied portfolio and what new challenges lie on the horizon for Adjaye Associates and the wider architectural profession.


t can't be just business as usual. This has to signify change,” Sir David Adjaye

tells me. It’s a sentiment that is profoundly on point; a timely and perfectly delivered message for a world striving to rebuild itself, and not just from a head spinning mass pandemic. The Ghanaian-British architect is talking about his career highlight to date: the RIBA Gold Medal. Not only is Adjaye an incredibly young recipient – he turned 54 in September – but the first black man to receive the accolade. “RIBA have said that they're proud of the fact that there is somebody of colour that they could give this award to,” Adjaye says, “but [they] also realise that they've got a lot to do to support communities of colour in the built environment, in terms of education, and supporting the excellence that’s required. It’s not just done by the individual. It’s a collaborative thing.”

Where to start. Adjaye is, after all, as iconic as they come. Alongside his most recent award, one can add an OBE and a knighthood along with enough newspaper and magazine inches to sink a small boat. Eloquent, stylish, media savvy, he has all the qualities of a ‘starchitect’, but he is not interested in playing it safe. Far from it. “I don't want to do things that just get me from A to B. I'm interested in things that really move the needle,” Adjaye says.


In fact, he has been highly critical of a generation of ‘celebrity architects’ that have used tremendous sums of money to produce public-facing buildings that say very little. It’s a feat Adjaye seems incapable of doing. Even a cursory mention of his days designing houses for the likes of Chris Ofili, Alexander McQueen and Juergen Teller is swatted away. “Well, it's funny, because I think there was maybe one celebrity who was Ewan McGregor. I actually made my early career doing projects for artists, because normal people didn't want to commission me,” he says with a smile.

Make sense, make form After founding his eponymous firm in 2000, the Tanzanian-born architect has pursued a diverse range of high- profile projects. His portfolio runs the gamut from a mixed-use affordable housing development in Harlem, and a learning centre in Lewisham – named Blueprint for All – created in honour of murdered architectural student Stephen Lawrence, to the Moscow School of Management in Skolkovo (2010) and the Aishti Foundation, an arts, leisure and shopping centre in Beirut (2015).

A profound appreciation for historical themes and cultural symbology permeates all of his work. In Moscow he drew on the work of Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir

Malevich. In Beirut he wrapped the Aishti Foundation in geometric patterns reminiscent of the mashrabiya, the latticed wooden facades common in traditional Arabic architecture.

How does he choose which of these narratives to play on and which to discard? “That's the moment I call the authorial choice,” he says. “Something has to make sense to me to make form, otherwise I'm not inspired. So I'm the vehicle [for] the story and then if it's accepted by the client then that's a kind of confirmation of its relevance. It’s a sort of funny democracy really.” For his most high profile building, The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Adjaye was influenced by his own personal experiences growing up in Africa. Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, he lived a nomadic childhood. By the time he arrived in Hampstead, London, as a pre-teen, he had lived in Kampala, Nairobi, Cairo, and Accra.

His design for The Smithsonian reflects a desire to put African culture “on a pedestal”. Clothed in burnished bronze, the jagged three-tiered structure draws on the shape of a Yoruban caryatid, a traditional West African column with a corona at the top. Such artisanship was a hallmark of the great empires of the Yoruba in

Nigeria and Benin, great civilisations that, Adjaye says, have “been made invisible because of the way history has been written”. Subtle patterns in the ironwork also nod to craftsmanship of a former African-American slave from Charleston, South Carolina. It remains a project of staggering complexity: the pain and adversity endured by African Americans throughout history is evident, but it was Adjaye’s wish that the narrative be reclaimed; that such hardship might also be elevated and turned into a paean for progress and triumph against crushing adversity. It’s a building that has only acquired more relevance during a time in which racial inequalities and colonial history are being placed under the microscope on both sides of the Atlantic. In the case of the Yoruba and the artisanal craftsmanship of former slaves, it presents a sophisticated culture that has been wilfully neglected. By illuminating that legacy Adjaye sees the Smithsonian as a direct rebuke against the insular “fiction” of white supremacy. “We thought we were in a different world when it was being built, a world where the idea of the superiority of races was being flattened and we were talking about the common humanity in everyone only to have that slingshot flicked back in our face,” he says. “Still, what has been amazing is to see that building being used as a site of protest,


Chris Schwagga

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