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“Among my generation, the idea of signature seems a bit outdated,” says Adjaye.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.”
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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As open as he is to a plurality of materials, Adjaye has a fixed take on the dichotomy between public and private structureswhich is another reason his work seems so stylistically varied. His public buildings, especially his libraries, welcome outside interaction. Adjaye has spoken in the past of markets and public squares in Africa in which it’s unclear where the commuting ends and the commerce begins. The thresholds between his buildings and their environs are similarly blurred. His design for the Moscow School of Management merges its classrooms, plazas and residences on one huge, elevated circular base. He’s fond of strategies that allow passersby to get a glimpse inside, as with the dark gray glass that veils the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the cheerful colored glass of his Idea Store in London. Sometimes he puts buildings within buildings, creating a space that’s neither outside nor inside.
By contrast, the residences Adjaye has designedfor clients including Ofili, Ewan McGregor and his wife Eve, the artist couple Sue Webster and Tim Noble, and the late Alexander McQueenoften seem from the outside to be hermetically sealed. The exterior of Webster and Noble’s East London home, known as the Dirty House, is completely black, with mirrored windows on the ground floor set flush to the wall. It’s essentially a two-story invitation to go away. “When the Dirty House was first completed, everyone who thought they knew you and what you stood for was in a state of shock,” Webster says. “It was like a spaceship had landed in Shoreditch, and London had never seen anything like it.”
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The home Adjaye designed for art collectors Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan is even more conspiratorial. It’s hidden a few feet behind the front wall of a landmarked New York City carriage house linked to only one window via a glass bridge on an upper floor. The austereor falsefacades of Adjaye’s private homes often open up to completely glassed walls at the back, or the homes have panels of translucent glass or multiple, eccentrically shaped skylights that allow in outside light but not sight. (The McGregors’ house features an all-glass, fishbowl-like dining area jutting out into their walled back garden.) The effect is privacy and sanctuary, but with surprises.
One of Adjaye’s first jobs as a young designer was in the studio of ultraminimalist architect David Chipperfield. Despite Adjaye’s stated allergy to the confines of style, his structures serve up similarly clean edges and crisp forms. Their geometry is rarely complex, their facades rarely sculpted. Unlike classic minimalists, however, Adjaye believes in decoration. The management school he designed in Russia has aluminum and glass curtain walls as flat and hard as ice cubes, but the surface is a riot of chevron shapes and color. Even the stark black street fronts of his residential work are decoration of a type; they were painted that color for no reason other than to catch the eye.
For the NMAAHC, Adjaye has taken his deco-minimalism to a new level. The exterior of the building will be clad in aluminum panels Adjaye has developed. Inspired by the mastery of pre–Civil War African-American guilds in the South, he made a cast of wrought iron he saw in Charleston, S.C., abstracted it and created a new pattern. These bronzed aluminum panels will form a lattice that wraps around the museum, merging the exterior and the interior as well as the old with the new.
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“I didn’t want just another marble building on the mall,” says NMAAHC director Lonnie Bunch. “The bronze color spoke to me of a permanent dark presence that’s always been in America.” Bunch, who told Adjaye about the guilds, has been impressed with his architect’s voracious curiosity. Adjaye has immersed himself in the history of the slave trade, which he calls “the first globalization” and compares to the mortgage-securities industry in its complexity.
The Smithsonian is something of a homecoming for Adjaye. He has long been a champion of African architecturenot of the edifices of colonialism with their air of permanence but of the construction that takes place where labor is plentiful and materials and machinery are not. Over the course of 10 years, he visited every African capital to document such infrastructure. “I can look at a slum dwelling purely as a visual thing,” he says. “The question is, If you only had these elements, what did you make? And is that interesting or not?”
While it’s too simplistic to say Adjaye’s designs are African, there’s something southern hemispheric about his eclectic use of materials, decoration and structure. It’s less perfect and more resourcefulmore particular to the humans who will use it and adapt itthan much Western architecture. Adjaye’s style may be slippery, but his approach is not. “For me, the business of being an architect is not about perfecting one’s style,” he says, “but about a very profound engagement with society.”
For his sometime collaborator, the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson, the trademark of Adjaye’s work is that it transcends trademarks. “David managed to develop a signature which is not just about style,” he says. “Human nature is his inspiration.”