Adjaye, David 1966–
David Adjaye 1966–
At the age of only 36, British architect David Adjaye was tagged by one leading London newspaper, the Independent Sunday, as 2002’s “most fashionable architect of the moment.” His cool, classically austere yet modernist designs have helped make the African-born professional one of the rising new stars in his field. His London-based Adjaye Associates takes on both residential and retail commissions, and has become known for its innovative mix of standard construction staples—such as treated wood and concrete—along with supple new high-tech materials. “Adjaye is someone who makes the future we live in look and feel good,” opined Evening Standard architecture writer Rowan Moore. “It shouldn’t be worthy of notice that he’s black, but architecture is still the most white-skinned of professions, so the fissure he has made in its invisible colour bar is another achievement.”
Adjaye is of Ghanaian heritage but was born in Tanzania. The son of a diplomat, he moved frequently with his family, and the diplomatic-corps postings took them to the great metropolises of the Arabic world—Beirut, Cairo, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, among others. This exposure to the architecture of the Near East—with its labyrinthine, enclosed spaces that relied on maze-like or geometric formulas—would later influence both Adjaye’s career choice and his body of work. The Adjayes moved to London around 1979, and the city’s South Bank University provided his first degree, in architecture, in 1990. He was already working for a London firm by the time he graduated. “I never wanted to be an artist,” he recalled in an interview with New York Times writer Julie V. Iovine, “but I wasn’t interested in architectural theory either.” Adjaye then went on to earn a graduate degree in his field from the prestigious Royal College of Art, and spent time in Japan studying seventeenth-century temple and teahouse architecture.
Adjaye was employed with two other firms in Britain, David Chipperfield and Eduardo Souto de Moura, before launching a partnership in 1994 with William Russell that lasted some six years. One of his earliest distinguished commissions was for the Soba Noodle Bar, located in the hip Soho area of London. Here he deployed industrial materials, but as Iovine wrote of the space in the New York Times, “in … Adjaye’s hands, even cheap off-the-shelf materials are treated with reverence. Poured concrete softens the borders between inside and outside, and the lowest marine-grade plywood, precisely detailed, bestows dignity and substance.”
Adjaye went on to do other cafes, restaurants, and retail projects in London before taking on his first residential commissions. By the time he and Russell dissolved the partnership and Adjaye established his own office in 2000, he had won the contract to redo the offices of Britain’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which oversees design and urban planning for the country. It was a daunting challenge for any architect, especially a younger one such as Adjaye, for on the commission’s board sat
At a Glance…
Born in 1966, in Tanzania; son of a diplomat. Education: South Bank University, B.A., 1990; Royal College of Art, M.Arch., 1993.
Career: Architect. With the firms of Chassay Architects, 1988-90, David Chipperfield Architects, 1991, and Eduardo Souto de Moura Architects, 1991; in partnership with William Russell as Adjaye & Russell for six years beginning in 1994; founded Adjaye Associates, London, 2000-.
Address: Office —Adjaye Associates, 23-28 Penn Street, London N1 5DL, England.
some of the most esteemed names in architecture in the country. “That the commission has chosen an architect which looks set to turn into one of the most exciting young practices around is also testament to its good taste,” wrote Building Design contributor Kieran Long, who also noted that “Adjaye has taken the plan”—a traditional 1970s-era U-shaped design desperately in need of revitalizing—“and created a place of immense character.”
Adjaye’s most well-known project has been the Elektra House, located in a somewhat less than posh neighborhood of East London. It became a finalist in the 2002 World Architecture Awards, a competition sponsored by World Architecture magazine. The original space was acquired by two conceptual artists in the Whitechapel area of London’s East End, once a crime-blighted neighborhood best remembered as the haunt of 1880s serial murderer Jack the Ripper; Adjaye was hired to design both a gallery and studio space for the couple as well as a home for them and their two children. Elektra House’s starkly modern exterior was constructed from resin-treated plywood, and one of its notable features was an invisible roof. The architecture writer for London’s Observer, Deyan Sudjic, described it as “the exact opposite of the child’s idea of the house. Not only is there no pointed roof, and no chimney; most shockingly there aren’t even any windows visible.” Adjaye also created a stunning interior from a rather modest budget. Inside, wrote Sudjic, “the house is configured to present carefully framed views of the world, shutting out the mundane houses opposite, letting in the sky, and sunlight.” The critic concluded that “Adjaye has broken all the rules about what houses are meant to be like, but he has made a simple London street in a bleak area, a magical place to live.”
As with many groundbreaking architectural designs, the Elektra House ignited a bit of controversy. An article about it appeared in the journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which prompted a small torrent of complaints. One detractor even hinted that Adjaye’s design was tantamount to abuse, on the grounds that it forced children to live in a house with no windows, “even though one wall was almost all glass,” remarked Moore wryly in an Evening Standard article. “It was said that anyone who liked his work must be part of a sinister … conspiracy of cappuccino-drinkers and sushi-eaters. It would only enrage these people further to point out that cappuccino and sushi is a particularly disgusting combination, but their fury is baffling.” Adjaye sees the debate with humor as well. As he told Moore, he and his firm “aim to be the Robin Hood practice—for rich people we make places grittier, for poor people we make them glossier.”
Adjaye waived his fee for the Elektra House, and the resulting publicity—much of it favorable—boosted his reputation and career immensely. At the end of 2001, the house, sometimes referred to as the Stepney House, made the Observer newspaper’s Top Ten in Architecture list, taking its place among several other notable projects in and around London. Adjaye hoped that the reasonable costs for the project would help call attention to the need for more affordable housing design for all. “We should be building houses that cater for individuals, not miles of the same thing,” the architect told Times of London journalist Marcus Bin-ney. “I want people to have houses designed for the way they would like to live, not just a series of cells. We have gone past pure function—people can have delight in their houses.”
Adjaye has taken on other promising projects, including a commission to build new library branches in the Whitechapel area. The “Idea Store” centers are located in the London borough known as Tower Hamlets, whose local council granted him the commission in June of 2001. The existing structures were drab places, and the goal was to lure more visitors and users into a far more dynamic space. As the New York Times’s Iovine reported, Adjaye “has envisioned a six-story building surfaced with digital messages, a kind of building-size community board wrapped by escalators.” He has also finished some lavish private domiciles for high-profile clients, including the actor Ewan McGregor, couturier Alexander McQueen, and controversial artist Chris Ofili. Other clients prefer their privacy to be maintained, such as the American tycoon who hired Adjaye to refurbish a 5,000 square-foot penthouse with stunning views of London’s Hyde Park; the apartment featured stone ceilings, an innovation concocted by Adjaye from the latest technical advances in building materials.
A lecturer at his alma mater, the Royal College of Art, Adjaye was tapped to create a new performing-arts venue in Boston as well as a Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. For himself, he is designing a second home, made with traditional African building materials such as mud, in Ghana. In 2002 he became one of the youngest architects ever invited to participate in the International Architecture Biennale in Venice. “His star has absolutely risen,” Alice Rawsthorn, the director of the Design Museum in London, told Iovine for her New York Times article. “There’s a spirit and brio to his houses, but it’s not just that they are elegant. There’s a happiness and lightness that make them a real pleasure to be in.”
Building Design, January 12, 2001, p. 18.
Evening Standard (London, England), April 24, 2001, p. 25; March 1, 2002, p. 11.
Guardian (London, England), July 1, 1999, p. 12.
Independent Sunday (London, England), March 3, 2002, p. 27; October 13, 2002, p. 39.
New York Times, December 26, 2002.
Observer (London, England), January 21, 2001, p. 12; December 23, 2001, p. 10.
Times (London, England), March 6, 2002, p. 13; July 1, 2002, p. 4.