Luminous: David Adjaye

A starchitect-in-the-making brings his love of light–and a social conscience–to London, Moscow, and the National Mall in D.C.

Luminous: David Adjaye

Let’s say we gathered the world’s top architects and played a game of “Which of these is not like the others?” David Adjaye, one of the newest members of that club, would stand out. Because at 43 years old, he is so young.


Architecture today is an old man’s field. It is not like literature or film or technology, where twenty- and thirty-somethings regularly burst into the elite. You do your time. You build a few small things, then bigger ones. If you’re lucky, when everyone else is ready for AARP membership, you reach the top of the field and stay there until you die. The precocious Herzog and de Meuron are 59. Frank Gehry is 80. When Thom Mayne–who’s still being called a rising star–won the Pritzker Prize in 2005, he thanked the jury for honoring him “as a young architect.” He was 61.

And then there is Adjaye, who has earned praise for designing Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art as well as homes for celebrities such as Ewan McGregor and artists such as Jake Chapman. This fall, his Moscow School of Management complex will open on the outskirts of the Russian capital. And this past spring, he won the most prestigious commission of his career, beating out the likes of Henry Cobb (age 83), Norman Foster (74), Moshe Safdie (71), and Elizabeth Diller (just 55), to design the $500 million National Museum of African-American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.

Adjaye has eschewed a signature style. “What’s the point of building if you’re just doing the same thing over and over again?” he says. “That would kill me.” His buildings combine modernist lines with radically divergent inspirations–the Moscow School re-interprets Russia’s traditional onion domes, while his D.C. museum will echo a Yoruba sculpture. And more than any other top-tier architect, he has sought variety in his projects. “I’m totally into architecture for all strata of society,” he says. “High design should not just be for rich people.”

“David is uniquely able to deal with the high end and the low,” says Stan Allen, dean of the architecture school at Princeton, where Adjaye is teaching this fall. “He does community projects with very small budgets, and he does major institutional projects with huge ones. Nobody else does that.” Adjaye’s big projects pay for smaller, charity-driven ones, on which he often does not break even. This approach has its downsides. Last year, the economic crisis led to the cancellation of several major commissions, forcing London-based Adjaye Associates to lay off staff and restructure more than $1.6 million in debt. “I was getting large commissions and powering up for those,” he says. “When they pulled out, literally overnight, I was left with this huge operation. And I don’t have a war chest the size of the Treasury.

“Young practices are really suffering right now,” Adjaye continues. But business has picked up and he has work booked for the next six years–unprecedented for him. “To be so young and to have achieved this level of success, it would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago,” says Barry Bergdoll, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of architecture and design. “It’s a testament to our time.”


Oh, and you may have noticed one other thing that distinguishes Adjaye from the rest of his world-class cohort: He’s black.


On a sunny summer afternoon in London, Adjaye and I are finishing our bowls of curry at a painfully earnest vegan restaurant where everything on the menu that’s heated above 48 degrees centigrade is marked with an asterisk. He needs to get back to his office, but before he escapes, I raise a topic we’ve been dancing around. He knew it was coming. “Race is the elephant in the room–every room,” Adjaye says with a sigh and a soft smile. “Yes, I am a black architect.”

Which is where most people would like to leave it. Almost nobody I interviewed for this story wanted to discuss race, even though Adjaye is the only black architect of his prominence. “But how can you not talk about it?” asks the artist Chris Ofili, a close friend and frequent collaborator for whom Adjaye designed a home/studio in 1999. “It’s who David is. He has a very particular vision informed by his heritage.”

The label “black architect” doesn’t say much about his blackness, his architecture, or his heritage. “Specificity is important,” Adjaye observes. “People say I’m an African architect, but even saying ‘African’ is way too general. You wouldn’t say ‘European architecture’–Iberian architecture is very different from Scandinavian architecture.” He adds, “I’m Ghanaian. That’s my sensibility. Technique is what I’ve learned from the West. So I say I’m a British-Ghanaian architect.”

From his earliest architecture training, he says, “the schools only taught from the canon of the West. It was very difficult to look beyond it, to other references. And nobody ever wanted to talk about what was different, only about what was similar to European architecture. They wanted to see me as different, but they didn’t want my architecture to be different.”


But it was and is different. Take the Elektra House, in London, one of his earliest projects. On the outside, it’s one of the most unwelcoming homes you’ll ever see. Its facade comprises 21 panels of plywood–stained and treated to look like rusty metal–and has no windows. But if it glowers on the outside, it glows on the inside. Light bathes the layout, pouring in through skylights and the house’s translucent-glass back wall.

The lack of curb appeal and the luminous interior are residential trademarks for Adjaye, who describes his homes as “very introverted, even secret.” He was born in Tanzania–his father was a Ghanaian diplomat who moved his family to Jeddah, Beirut, and Cairo before David turned 13. The way of life in those cities is the springboard for his designs. “The notion of the home as a retreat is so important,” he says. “I’m searching for contemporary renditions of that.”

For his public buildings, Adjaye goes to the opposite extreme, creating edifices that are transparent, open-faced, and accessible. He draws on the markets and streets of his native continent, where the line between shop floor and sidewalk is routinely ignored and interiors spill into the bustling outdoors. “If you know an African city, boundaries are very fluid,” he says. “There’s an expansiveness and a density.”


Perhaps the best expressions of this philosophy are the Idea Stores in Poplar and Whitechapel, two lower-middle-class London neighborhoods that are home to thousands of immigrants from Asia and Africa. The buildings are reimagined libraries–cum–community centers–they have books and computers, but also classes in everything from English as a second language to yoga, as well as performing-arts studios and meeting rooms for local clubs and organizations. Both buildings have transparent sides accented with blue and green glass panels, which play off the awnings of market stalls that crowd the Whitechapel Idea Store’s base. (Pakistani mangoes, £2 for a dozen; sweatpants from £5.) On the top floor of the Whitechapel Idea Store, a café features glass ceiling panels that, in good weather, can be rolled back–a physical representation of the notion that, in this building, possibilities are boundless.

In April, Adjaye went to Washington to make a presentation to the selection committee for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. This is expected to be the last building built on the National Mall, and it will sit closer to the Washington Monument than any other. The other finalists spoke about the poignancy of the moment, the importance of the project, the weight of history. “This project is about many things,” says Adjaye, whose winning team includes the respected African-American architect Phil Freelon. “I spoke about celebration. How do we make a building that says ‘Look at where we are!’ not just ‘Look at where we came from’ or ‘Look at what we went through’?”


“David’s was a joyful presentation,” says architect Sheryl Kolasinski, the Smithsonian’s director of planning and project management. “There’s a dualism in the African-American experience–there’s tragic history and there’s hope. He really got that.” The aspect of Adjaye’s design that best reflects this duality is the entrance. Visitors will be guided through a series of passageways that feel alternately confining and free. In one hall, numerous wooden columns hanging from the ceiling create an ominous pressure, before you reach the heart of the building: a full-height atrium with a corona that radiates light into its core.

Adjaye’s design draws on inspirations as diverse as the African-American experience, from the Yoruba-influenced stacked shape to an outdoor terrace that echoes the porches of the Old South. Cladding parts of the exterior in bronze, Adjaye introduces an alloy traditionally used in African art that evokes a rich symbolism, says museum director Lonnie Bunch: “The color of the bronze talked to me of a dark presence–it’s always been a part of America, but often invisible. Now it’s going to be on the Mall!”

The design must still be vetted by dozens of federal agencies and boards, a political and bureaucratic maze that Adjaye says “is utterly weird. There’s nothing like it.” The Smithsonian’s Kolasinski is praying the design won’t be watered down too much. The museum is scheduled to open in November 2015; everybody hopes and nobody expects that this will happen. Adjaye would simply like it to be done in time for President Barack Obama to open it, assuming he’s reelected in 2012.

The museum will not be Adjaye’s first building in Washington. As he was bidding on that project, his firm also quietly and unexpectedly submitted a winning proposal for work of an altogether different scale. The D.C. Public Library was seeking proposals to tear down and rebuild two inner-city branches by the end of 2010. “They’re in two of the neighborhoods that really need the services a library can provide: places for children, facilities for job seekers, access to computers,” says Ginnie Cooper, the chief librarian of Washington, D.C. “We’re building for technology, flexibility, and openness.”

Cooper was familiar with the Idea Stores but didn’t expect that Adjaye would apply “because he was doing bigger things,” she says. Adjaye laughs when recalling the reaction of library officials and board members when he walked in for his interview. “They were shocked. They said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” he says. “High design does not normally go into these communities, but why shouldn’t it?”

Adjaye IDEA Store


This, to Adjaye, should be the future of architecture–speaking to and drawing from more constituencies. “The world is changing in a certain way,” he says. “I’m seeing a design industry–not just architecture–that has more diversity, more new voices and different references coming into the canon.” He hopes the next generation will never think, as he did at first, Where are all the brown people?

“I’m driven by the work, but I’m also driven by my need for the work to have something more, to be something more.” He pauses. “I’m slightly burdened by being in this transitional moment.”

The burden seems a little lighter when he escapes to his London apartment. It is off-limits to all but close friends–not even colleagues who have worked with him for years have seen it–and it is, he says, “not where you’d think,” but in Westminster, near the British Parliament. This isn’t a normal residential neighborhood, except if you’re the prime minister, who lives around the corner on Downing Street. It has almost none of the street life that typifies the cities that have inspired Adjaye. But it does have grand architecture–big, imperious buildings with columns and cornices that shout power and empire.

Adjaye is a morning person. Sometimes he rises at 5 a.m. to work–in the midst of a big project, it could be as early as 4. As dawn approaches, he likes to observe the other buildings in his neighborhood, the Thames River, and the horizon beyond. “It allows me to re-see the city in a way that most Londoners never get to. I’m fascinated with the architecture, with the river,” he says. “And I’m interested in sunrise, not sunset.”