adjaye in the aj
David Adjaye is uncomfortable with the label he has earned as 'architect to the stars'.
His connection with artists such as Chris Ofili and Jake Chapman is incidental - he just knows all those guys from his days at the Royal College, he says.
Although his reputation has grown out of a series of domestic projects for his famous friends, it is the recent commission to revitalise the public libraries in London's poorest borough, Tower Hamlets, that has brought him wider attention. Which is apt.
For Adjaye says his true ambition is to rethink and redefine civic architecture.
'I believe in the democracy in buildings, ' he says. 'Civic buildings become the last public places, the last public realms.'
Adjaye was born in Dar-es-Salaam in East Africa. His early years were spent travelling around the Middle East until he was nine - his father was in the services - at which point the family settled in north London. His schooling was nothing special, 'just the local comprehensive'.
The roots of his interest in architecture he puts down to the horror of visiting his mentally and physically handicapped younger brother in a series of badly designed and resourced special needs schools. Shocked at the conditions, Adjaye was inspired to do something about it. His graduate project at South Bank University, which won him a bronze medal, was a design for a special needs school. One day, he says, he would like to see the scheme implemented.
His days at the Royal College built on his interest in architecture as a social tool. He was trained there 'to think of architecture as a whole philosophy, a way of thinking'.
And it opened him up to all kinds of influences: 'At the Royal College, there was a slice of every spectrum of the creative field.
In the bar there, I could be talking to painters, car designers, furniture makers.'
He finds it hard to cite heroes among contemporary British architects, but points to the socialist architects of the post-war period - particularly the Egyptian Dr Hassan Fathy, for his work with the poor in Africa. He admires Portuguese Eduardo Souto de Moura for the 'elegance of detail' in his work. And, having spent a year in Kyoto measuring teahouses, says his work contains echoes of Japanese aesthetics.
At just 35, Adjaye's recognition has come early. But, as he points out, he does have a track record.
His very first commission after college was a table for a film producer. Set designs followed and then his first significant project, the Soba restaurant in Soho (1994-95). Soba was the first of the 'no-budget' projects.
'No-budget projects are interesting, ' he says, 'because they become about the ideas rather than the craft of making things.
When someone doesn't have money, it forces you to work in an unconventional way. If you can't afford to make a wall, for example, what do you do?'
With Soba, one solution was to be creative about the use of materials - throwing together unusual combinations from disparate sources. The result does not appear as an eclectic assemblage, says Adjaye, but as a 'whole new thing - a new composition that gives new meaning to the space'.
However, it is one of the low budget projects - and running out of money to build not a wall but a glass facade - that has given him some negative press recently.
Elektra House in London's East End is a project that has attracted much critical interest - and the unwanted attention of Tower Hamlets planners.
They have discovered that Adjaye substituted the approved glass facade with the resin-coated plyboard facade that now gives the house its distinct feel. Though Adjaye denies that he is in a full-scale battle with the borough, he is nonetheless having to negotiate his way through the mix-up.
If Elektra was a no-budget project, his next commission - a penthouse for a wealthy industrialist - was the opposite. The scheme involved the conversion of the top floor of Seifert's apartment building on Kensington Palace Gardens. When the building was constructed in the 1970s, the idea of the penthouse was yet to be developed and the top floor was relegated to caretaker's accommodation.
Adjaye's job was to rebuild the entire floor as one apartment in 'an exploration of luxury'. The scheme does not rely on the 'standard Modernist tricks', but plays with over-the-top modern technologies.
But a large budget brings its own problems: 'You have to unpack all the conventional wisdom the other way, ' he says.
Other domestic projects include the conversion and extension of a house for Chris Ofili, and a current scheme for a house and studios for artists Tim and Sue Noble, also in east London.
But it is the recent commission from Tower Hamlets for a series of 'Ideas Stores' that has marked his point of arrival. The concept aims to 'reinvigorate' the borough's libraries by placing them in prominent sites in high-tech buildings that also house adult learning centres, council services, shops and cafes. Adjaye admits the idea involves a certain element of marketing, but says it is not the cynical rebranding exercise its critics claim.
Since Tower Hamlets took a chance with Adjaye, his Hoxton-based practice has taken off. In the past two years, his staff has tripled from eight or nine to 28. 'It was like a rocket taking off, ' he says. 'I had to try and hold on.'
The practice, Adjaye Associates, now gets asked to enter high-profile competitions, and its latest commission, the first stage of design for the new Nobel Centre in Oslo, will bring it international attention.
Adjaye is also about to enjoy even greater public exposure as one of the next generation of television presenters. He is currently filming Architecture etc, a series for the digital channel BBC3. Adjaye is one of three presenters along with Charlie Luxton and Justine Frischmann, former lead singer with Elastica.Other TV offers have followed, but Adjaye is resisting.
'I'm not really into being a TV presenter, ' he says. 'It's just a great opportunity to push the things I believe in.'