A little more than a decade ago, David Adjaye hovered on the verge of bankruptcy, his budding architectural practice devastated by the Great Recession. “Budgets were slashed. I was employing about 30 people and had about six decent projects, which was a lot for a young architect. But I was winging it. I wasn’t a business person. I lost all my savings, going through the insolvency system and paying off everyone personally.”
It was a rough comedown for an architect whose early works had gained notice for their rigorous and subversive designs. But only a year later, in 2009, Adjaye won the heated competition to design the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, marking a stunning reversal of his fortunes. “Just when people thought that I was done with, the Smithsonian revived me and introduced me to America. It felt supernatural.”
As well as being a personal redemption, the museum, which opened in 2016, won the Ghanaian British designer several awards and catapulted him into the starchitect stratosphere. The following year, thanks to a knighthood, he added Sir to his name. Adjaye has become a go-to man for monuments and museums, including a planned Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament in London. He has also become something of a spokesman for black architects, a role he inhabits eloquently, though reluctantly.
Adjaye, 54, is now the very model of a modern celebrity architect, with homes and offices in London, New York and Ghana. He has designed houses for other creative luminaries including Ewan McGregor, artists Chris Ofili and Jake Chapman, photographer Juergen Teller and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, as well as for the late United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. Adjaye’s 130 William luxury condo tower is under construction in Lower Manhattan and he is working with Four Seasons on its new private residences in Washington, DC. The latest book to feature his work, David Adjaye: Works 1995–2007, was published by Thames & Hudson last year.
Pre-pandemic, he spent much of his time at 30,000 feet, between visiting professorships at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and projects in Australia, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon, Norway, Senegal, Israel and Ghana. In 2012, he sat at the top table with President Obama during a White House dinner for then prime minister David Cameron of the UK.
“He now has this amazing life of working in so many different places,” says Rowan Moore, architecture critic for The Observer newspaper in London. “I don’t know how he does it. It’s insane.” Adjaye’s popularity aside, Moore adds that he is not “wholly embraced” by the architectural profession, partly because he’s not easily classifiable, “not part of a gang”. Moore says his strength is “an ability to respond to a situation with something new. He’s good at the external wrappers of buildings.” His weakness, according to Moore, is that he’s “not a details man”.
In Britain, that kind of faint snootiness toward Adjaye is sometimes detectable amid the generally positive commentary, characterising him as a fashionable lightweight – a consummate networker and ambitious producer of novel, eye-catching projects popular with celebrities and the masses.
Sometimes this media caricature wears a bit thin. “Obama’s favourite architect”, as he was dubbed by the design press, was not, after all, awarded the commission to design the presidential library in Chicago (that went to Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects). He did not grow up in wealthy Hampstead, as is regularly reported by the press on both sides of the pond, but in the decidedly unglamorous nearby suburb of Cricklewood. In-person, Adjaye is more cerebral and vulnerable than his media persona suggests. It’s clear that he cares much more about his public works than any ritzy condo tower. “I’m attracted to projects that have transformational qualities and justice qualities,” he says. “That’s what turns me on.”
He speaks to Robb Report via Zoom from Accra, his carefully modulated statements sweetened by an infectious giggle, his grey office backdrop enlivened by a brightly patterned yellow shirt, though he chooses a more sombre palette for Robb Report’s photo shoot. His African practice has been booming and he’s spending the pandemic in the Ghanaian capital with his wife, Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye, and two young children, toying with ideas for a new family home there.
Adjaye had a peripatetic expat childhood. The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, he lived in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia before the age of 13, when the family settled in London. His “unrooted” youth, as he calls it, was further disrupted by trauma when one of his two younger brothers, Emmanuel, contracted an infection as a toddler that left him mentally and physically disabled.
Adjaye’s mother, Cecilia, became Emmanuel’s caregiver; he still lives with her in London. His father, Affram, took a demotion to move the family there to get the best care for the child. “It changed the dynamics of the family,” Adjaye says quietly, “because essentially, you know, this one-year-old boy suddenly became the only focus that my parents wanted to deal with.”
Thrown into a London state school after a childhood spent at private international schools, the teenage Adjaye “got into a lot of trouble”, as he puts it. He found the English school “shockingly provincial”. In retrospect, however, he values his itinerant upbringing. “The best education is an education you don’t realise you’re being given,” he says. “You’re not frightened by new situations.” He still feels at home when travelling. “I’m most comfortable working in every part of the world that I am allowed to go,” he says, grinning.
Lesley Lokko, dean of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York and a fellow Ghanaian Brit who has known Adjaye for about 20 years, attributes his success to having grown up as “the consummate outsider”. Adjaye has, she says, “always been half in and half out of situations. That gives you an antenna. He is incredibly sensitive to contexts.”
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