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David Adjaye (1966 - )

An architect who cares more about the opinions of his clients and collaborators than those of critics and peers

David adjaye finished3 highres

David adjaye finished3 highres

In recent years, David Adjaye’s career has seemingly known no bounds. He has just completed one of the most significant architectural commissions in American history, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC, and his practice has won competitions to build the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Riga, Latvia and a £600 million luxury office development in London’s Piccadilly. Notable among his recently completed works are a social-housing block combined with art facilities and a nursery in Sugar Hill, New York – home of the Harlem Renaissance – and a string of palatial residences, including one in Trinidad for artist Chris Ofili, with whom he has collaborated since the days when Hackney was their Sugar Hill.

Adjaye’s position in culture now seems assured: he has taught at Harvard and Princeton, and has recently been the subject of major retrospective exhibitions in both Munich and Chicago. He has become one of the main leaders of an African cultural renaissance, a phenomenon that has coincided with his own decade-long investigation into African urbanism and morphology, culminating in the ambitious seven-volume book Adjaye . Africa . Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture. He has also recently been elected as a Royal Academician and knighted. He has just turned 50.



Source: Ed Reeve (left), Lyndon Douglas (right)

Elektra House, London, 2000, controversial for its lack of windows

But although his ability has long been recognised, many have found it comforting to put his success down to his legendary charm, and indeed the dizzying array of magazine covers he has graced over the years give the impression of a man adept at schmoozing.

The media hasn’t always been kind, however, and his success did not always seem inevitable. 

At the height of the financial crisis, Adjaye, like many architects, faced difficulties, but he was subject to particularly cruel headlines like ‘Downfall of the Showman’, which suggested that some were not disheartened by the prospect of his career’s demise. 

Even today, reading coverage of his buildings in the British press, one is struck by the distinct lack of effusion that tends to greet Adjaye’s work. Sometimes it is simply ignored: the huge black concrete house he did for art collector Adam Lindemann in New York in 2011 wasn’t even reviewed this side of the Atlantic. ‘Striking’ is the most positive adjective in early British reviews of the NMAAHC. When Adjaye wasn’t being met by critical ambivalence it seemed that fellow professionals were actively out to get him. Ellis Woodman once complained of letters he received accusing him of tokenism for daring to take Adjaye’s work seriously.

Mg 5371

Mg 5371

Source: Emile Dubuisson

Sugar Hill, Harlem, 2015, affordable housing with a mix of community facilities

Born in Tanzania to diplomat parents and growing up in the Middle East before finally settling in London at the age of 11, Adjaye was always an outsider. As a young black man studying to be part of, ‘the most closed, middle-class, middle-aged, trust-fund profession you could ever be in’, he would have experienced this acutely, yet that did not prevent him from doing well at South Bank University and subsequently winning an RIBA Medal for his undergraduate work. 

He then worked briefly for David Chipperfield before, à la Miles Davis, becoming dissatisfied with the conventional nature of his training and ‘rejecting architecture’, opting instead to study among fine artists at the Royal College of Art. It was here that he found his calling and it was also here that some of his fellow students, soon to be London’s leading young artists, were to find an architect who spoke their language.  

So began an association that has proved to be the real foundation of Adjaye’s success. His early houses for artist friends, such as the Dirty House in Shoreditch, completed for Tim Noble and Sue Webster in 2002, launched him into a particularly fevered moment of British culture that many of his cohort have struggled to survive. But it was his appeal to wealthy patrons such as Lindemann – a commission that came through their mutual acquaintainces, Noble and Webster – that kept his head above water at a moment of crisis, if only just.

2016ak11 201

2016ak11 201

Source: Alan Karchmer

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC, completed in 2016

Adjaye’s first new-build commission, the cheaply built Elektra House, was completed at the turn of the Millennium when he was just 32. It is an unparalleled combination of balls, vision and skill. The compelling tension between the closed plywood street facade and the open, fully glazed rear, amply demonstrate how much he has in common with artists and how little with other architects.

The same could be said of the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Lewisham, London, which incorporates beautiful Ofili-designed windows alongside Webster and Noble-esque crappy materials, most notably Expamet, an industrial product ordinarily employed in fencing and temporary applications but used here as honorific cladding. This is Adjaye picking up where the best black art has left off: indignant as well as graceful, both esoteric and accessible. It’s no accident that artists’ houses have been Adjaye’s most successful projects, among them homes for Alexander McQueen, Jake Chapman and Jürgen Teller, while the ones he did for more ‘conventional’ celebrities – such as Janet Street-Porter’s Fog House – didn’t always turn out so well. As he himself said of their relationship, ‘there is a disconnect between what she thinks I do and what I actually do’.  

Screen shot 2017 04 18 at 11.28.44

Screen shot 2017 04 18 at 11.28.44

Source: Brad Feinknopf / Otto

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC, completed in 2016

Likewise, there has perhaps always been a disconnect between the central concerns of Adjaye the architect and those of his peers. Early in his career, Adjaye was the youngest member of the seminal ‘Papers on Architecture’ group, a loose collective that included Tony Fretton, Jonathan Sergison, Stephen Bates and Adam Caruso. Most of this group have gone on to forge recognisably European positions, while Adjaye has always been engaged in a (largely unacknowledged) search for other paradigms, such as the freedom and directness of contemporary art practice, and architectural narratives independent of Vitruvius. Perhaps it is this that has rendered his work somewhat unintelligible to a Eurocentric critical corps. Or perhaps it’s not the type of theoretical content that critics find alienating but the apparent lack of it. It does feel at times as though Adjaye’s rich clients wear their houses as they might Armani, but it would be a mistake to draw from that the conclusion that he is in any sense lightweight.

For Adjaye can be as public-spirited as the best of the biscuit-boys. It’s showing its age a bit, but there’s still a palpable joy about the Idea Store in Whitechapel. A wholly appropriate absence of spatial hierarchy combines with a marked, but relaxed constructional logic, to make something akin to a big tent, inclusive and welcoming. The constant shifting between the tight stair, variety of spaces and expansive views through the sweet-wrapper facade is exhilarating, despite the value engineering that compromised his vision at the last moment and the long out-of-use escalator to the street. It’s another lesson in black art as the New Labour vacuity that spawned the commission is both co-opted and subverted to the benefit of the local users, who both ‘get’ and love it.

Indeed, the occasionally haute-couture nature of Adjaye’s work should not be mistaken for his core sensibility. He’s clearly an architect who cares more about the opinions of clients and collaborators than those of critics and peers. As such, and as with modern artists, he has prioritised direct familiarity with the media of his art – materials, space and people – over the usual architectural fetishes and delusions of grandeur. Such alacrity has tended to give Adjaye’s work a rough edge but it has also enabled him, like his friend Ofili, to inhabit the same worlds as those he works for and with, be they rich artists, deprived inner-city kids or nation-states.


Illustration by Marianna Gefen

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