Sign of The Times

David Adjaye resists adopting a trademark style. That hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the biggest brands in architecture

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Christopher Sturman for TIME

He is just 46 years old, in a field where most practitioners can’t hope to make it big until their late 50s. He is black, and you can count the number of famous black architects on one elbow. But the most remarkable aspect of David Adjaye’s enormous success is that his work is not easily identified as David Adjaye’s. In an era when branding is key, when the quickest route to recognition is through being easily recognized, Adjaye’s buildings are not. He has no trademark like Frank Gehry’s giddying swerves or Renzo Piano’s elegant lightplay. Adjaye’s creations have few family likenesses.

Take the two libraries he completed in June in Washington. Few would suspect they were created by the same hand. The William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Library juts out from a residential slope, a sharply angled cluster of solid concrete and timber-ridged boxes set on stout footings. The Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library, surrounded by parkland, is a shiny pavilion with an almost argyle-patterned glass-and-mirror facade and a deeply eaved roof. Both buildings are hailed as the District of Columbia’s most exciting recent arrivals. But other than that, there’s ostensibly little to link them.

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“I don’t think there is one way of typically describing his work,” says British artist Chris Ofili, with whom Adjaye often collaborates. “His is a very fertile breeding ground.”

“Among my generation, the idea of signature seems a bit outdated,” says Adjaye. (He is based mainly in London, but Time interviewed him in his New York City office on the outskirts of Chinatown.) For Adjaye, the notion of an architectural movement that plants its avatars all over the globe is, just like colonialism, over. “We want to take a different position and try styles that are responsive to different parts of the world,” he says.

Adjaye is an architect who does not seek to be iconic, historic or monumental, yet those are the exact qualities of his biggest client: the Smithsonian Institution. He is the chief design force behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), currently under construction in the last vacant spot on the National Mall next to the Washington Monument. As probably the most significant public American edifice of the decade, it’s a building that calls out for a robust design vision.

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But few would argue that Adjaye isn’t the right man for the job. Born in Tanzania, one of four sons of a Ghanaian diplomat and a stay-at-home mother, Adjaye spent his childhood crisscrossing continents and cultures before landing in London at the age of 13. “What’s great about having an international education is that you learn to negotiate difference and wildly varying opinions,” says Adjaye, who was in the midst of arguments among Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, animists and atheists from a very young age. “You realize early on that negotiation is part of life.”

Lyndon Douglas—Adjaye Associates

The young Adjaye also encountered many types of buildingsfrom slum dwellings to huge mosques, from regimented colonial cities and imposing embassies to more organically aggregated African metropolisesduring his father’s postings in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Uganda. It gave him an appreciation for different materials, forms and human-edifice interactions. “I don’t make references from my childhood in a conscious way,” he says. “But I think the places I saw as a young child profoundly affect my sense of atmosphere, light, geography and people. Those things are hardwired into my system.”

Adjaye, long comfortable in disparate cultures, is also fluent in multiple design languages. He got his most important formal architectural training at London’s interdisciplinary Royal College of Art, where he rubbed shoulders with car designers, photographers and painters as well as other architects.

When he started to build, all that polyglotism came to the fore. He was conversant in all sorts of construction materials, including those that other people might find vulgar. “I’m happy to work with plastic or driftwood or a piece of carbon fiber,” he says. “For me there is not a hierarchical difference between the three.” In the newly opened store he designed for fashion label Proenza Schouler on New York City’s genteel Upper East Side, the interior walls are made of more or less the same material as the sidewalk outside.

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