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David Adjaye: ‘I wouldn’t have had a chance without competitions’

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David Adjaye has spoken of how architectural competitions were crucial in helping his practice gain prominence as well as landing him bigger commissions.

Speaking at this year’s Stephen Lawrence Annual Memorial Lecture last night (16 September), Adjaye also discussed constructivism, being a ‘cultural magpie’ and his own celebrity.

Talking about his early breaks and the work he won through design contests, Adjaye said: ‘As a young architect I would not have had a chance without competitions.’

‘The most difficult thing is going from private projects to getting that step on the ladder of public commissions. Competitions help with that.’

However, he added that although competitions were ‘a great way to allow opportunity to percolate out’ there was the possibility that not all practices benefited. ‘You have to be careful to make sure it’s not just certain groups always winning competitions,’ he said.

Adjaye was speaking at the 14th Stephen Lawrence Annual Memorial Lecture at the RIBA’s headquarters in Portland Place.

Asked about how he felt at being among the select group of architects who could be considered celebrities, Adjaye said: ‘In a world of populism, we want to have heroes. It’s the world we are in now, it’s about following, and I find it difficult.’

He added: ‘Architects have always designed lots of things. Saying that Zaha [Hadid] has designed a new shoe or handbag, it’s not so strange.’

‘It should be about how architects keep up with how our lives operate. I find the whole thing bizarre.’

The architect also spoke in detail about the many cultural influences on his work, describing himself as a ‘cultural magpie’ who has taken inspiration from the many places he has visited, including Tanzania where he was born,  the Middle East and Japan.

‘I was born in Tanzania, in the capital, Dar es Salam, which was a unique cosmopolitan city populated with Sikhs, Africans, Indians…’ said Adjaye. ‘That experience is something I reach into now. As an architect you have to be hyper-aware of people’s cultural differences.’

He added: ‘I have had many inspirations. I lived in Japan for two years, and loved the tea houses. I am a cultural magpie, I need to collect things. What I find interesting at the moment is that we are mixing in ways that are unprecedented and I feel it was very different for architects from the generation before ours.’

While discussing Adjaye Associates’ biggest project to date, the £160million Skolkovo School of Management in Moscow (pictured above during construction in 2009), Adjaye also spoke of the influence Constructivism had on him as an architect.

‘Russia is not very fashionable at the moment, but [the Skolkovo School of Management] was designed when Russia was part of the club,’ he said. ‘Russia is one of the founding places of architecture, with its contribution, in particular Constructivism. Buildings like Melnikov’s House [by Konstantin Melnikov in Moscow] had a profound effect on me. It’s one of the most inspirational buildings. It was lovely to visit it, especially as it’s now threatened with demolition.’

Adjaye also spoke at length about working in Africa. ‘Africa is not an easy place to work. The infrastructure we take for granted in London is still developing,’ he said, adding: ‘However, there are incredible opportunities, and they need good architects. At the moment, lots of buildings are being built without architects, and there’s some terrible stuff.’

Three years ago, Adjaye Associates opened its first office in Africa in Accra, Ghana, and is currently working on six projects in the continent, including a concept store in Lagos, Nigeria, due to complete later this year, and a new headquarters for the International Finance Corporation in Daka, Senegal.

Another project involves redeveloping a former slave fort, one of many derelict slave forts in West Africa.

‘People in West Africa are embarrassed about the slave trade,’ said Adjaye. ‘But there are 140 slave forts across Africa, and we are looking into how we can create infrastructure around the forts. There comes a time when you have to accept the wounds.’

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