‘I’m interested in the humanity of architecture,’ says David Adjaye. Speaking with the artist Yinka Shonibare on the insightful BBC Radio 4 podcast Only Artists a few years ago, the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect talks passionately about the pivotal role of his profession in nation building. His is a belief in using visionary ideas and artistic sensitivity towards conceiving progressive, community-building projects.
Adjaye is one of our most exciting contemporary architects. He has received a knighthood for his contributions to architecture and was awarded the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. His skilful use of space, of inexpensive and unexpected materials, are best symbolised in buildings such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – a work rooted in the past and present while contextualising history. One of Adjaye’s latest projects is the National Cathedral of Ghana. The building is conceived as a landmark where people from all faiths are encouraged to gather, worship and celebrate – drawing reference from both Christian symbolism and traditional Ghanaian heritage.
When I met Adjaye a couple of years ago in Milan during Salone del Mobile, he spoke passionately on the importance of design thinking – the intellectual process by which design concepts are conceived – especially in today’s more complex creative landscape. ‘Younger designers are questioning the concept of simply manufacturing products and there appears to be a rebirth of design thinking,’ he told me, noting that he is more and more interested in how innovation is not simply about manufacturing products but providing social solutions.
A new book sets out to explore the work of the architect. Published by Thames & Hudson and edited in collaboration with the curator Peter Allison, David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 is a comprehensive monograph of his early work, accompanied by photographic renderings of the spaces. The introductory essay by curator, critic and architect Pippo Ciorra sets the scene: ‘Adjaye produces milestones of socially engaged architecture, showing an understanding of the market and competing at the highest level, and has benefited from the opportunities afforded by his own history to expand his view of the modern legacy far beyond the obvious space-time limits of Western culture, European cities, and Bauhaus functionalism.’
Prior to studying architecture at London Southbank University and then Royal College of Art, Adjaye took part in the Art & Design Foundation at Middlesex University. On Only Artists he spoke fondly about his experience there (a terrific course where incidentally I also studied a few years later) noting of how he gravitated more towards art students than designers, and how profoundly the experience impacted on his work as an architect.
Other early influences, I learn from the book, come via the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura who guided the young Adjaye while living in Portugal, teaching him about artisanal charm and the essence and value of materials. Later, his travels to Japan exposed him to the works of visionaries Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando, Kenzo Tange and Yoshio Taniguchi. Adjaye also explored Japanese Buddhism, even taking courses at the University of Kyoto where he lived – all of which helped shape his creative thinking to expand beyond the European narrative arc.
On his return to London, Adjaye set up his own practice and began working with residential and smaller studio projects. It is fascinating leafing through the book and seeing these earlier commissions. Adjaye worked within the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ with some clever urban interventions: roof-level living space is added to a factory-turned-studio, a sunken courtyard encases a tower-like house, and basalt stone extends a basement dining area to a roofless gazebo.
Adjaye’s civic commissions sparked off with the ‘Ideas Stores’ – two public libraries in London anchored on the role libraries in fostering social interactions. The success of these early projects led to to his US commission – the 2007 Museum of Contemporary Art Denver followed swiftly by the DC National Museum of African American History and Culture.
When I met Adjaye in Milan, I asked him if – on a similar vein to how he saw design thinking as pivotal to modern design – he sees his role as an architect evolving to be more than creating buildings. ‘Design can play a key role in helping people navigate an increasingly complicated world,’ he replied.
‘It shouldn’t just be about making things but understanding the responsibility of the product. Products have implications and it is up to design thinking to tackle that,’ he continued passionately. ‘Democratisation through technology means that we need new tools to understand how to function in this new society. The codes of the twentieth century are no longer relevant, and designers need to be part of this dialogue.’
David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 by David Adjaye and edited by Peter Allison is published by Thames & Hudson
Images from top: Stephen Lawrence Centre, London, UK, 2004-7, entrance foyer with projection of Chris Ofili window © Lyndon Douglas; Dirty House, London (2001-2) © Ed Reeve; Idea Store Chrisp Street, London (2000-4) study positions on external wall, library space; and Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo (2002-5) entrance pavilion and east façade – both © Tim Soar; Lost House London (2002-4) Wall with light scoops © Ben Thompson