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David Adjaye honoured with AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award

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With exciting commissions around the world, the founder of Adjaye Associates was the standout choice of the AJ100 employees for Contribution to the Profession. Pamela Buxton met him and found out why he is happier with his work than ever before

David Adjaye is in a good place. His practice, Adjaye Associates, is riding high after the recent success of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, and has grown to 115 staff, with offices in London, New York and, as of this month, Ghana, where he is designing a new National Cathedral.

He has a host of plum commissions around the world, including the National Holocaust Memorial near the Houses of Parliament in London; his first New York skyscraper, at 130 William Street in Manhattan; the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Batsheva Arts Campus in Tel Aviv. 

Turnover is now in excess of £10 million after a 25 per cent year-on-year rise for 2017. Last year he received a knighthood and was the only architect to make Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. And now, he is the standout choice of the AJ100 employees to receive the Contribution to the Profession accolade.

Architecture can be much more precise if it responds to the diversity of our communities and the people we serve

David Adjaye

‘I’m very happy with my work right now, more than I’ve ever been in my life,’ he says, fresh from a typically hectic few days taking in the Venice Biennale, the British Council for Offices’ conference in Berlin and Clerkenwell Design Week. He credits the prestigious Washington museum, with its distinctive bronze filigree envelope, as a ‘turning point’ in his career, which has opened up a whole new level of opportunities.

‘We were doing well and were successful, but being able to complete that building, with its complexity and location, and its context, has given a stature to the company that has meant we are being sought after all over the world,’ he says.

No one appreciates this more than Adjaye, who has experienced his fair share of ups and downs along the way in his 25-year career. Born in 1966 in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, Adjaye travelled widely as a child, due to his father’s work as a diplomat, before his family settled in London. He trained in architecture at London South Bank University and the Royal College of Art, combined with stints at David Chipperfield Architects and Eduardo Souto de Moura in Portugal, and set up in practice, first with William Russell in 1994 and then as Adjaye Associates in 2000. 

Dirtyhouse 02 credit ed reeve

Dirtyhouse 02 credit ed reeve

Source: Ed Reeve

Dirty House, completed in 2002 for two artists in Shoreditch

Adjaye describes his choice of profession as ‘a gamble’, saying: ‘For me, I felt a disconnect between the world I was living in and the world that was being made. I felt the only way of dealing with it was to get involved, to start to make it more relevant and reflect some of the things that I was seeing in culture, and in friends in different disciplines, and in the ideas I was hearing, and to see if that could be somehow infused into form-making.’ He really didn’t know what he was letting himself in for, he adds.

His early work included exhibitions, bars and a series of house commissions for artists and celebrity clients, including Ewan McGregor, Jake Chapman and Chris Ofili, with whom he has frequently collaborated. One of the most memorable was Dirty House – for artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble – which presented a typically bold and uncompromising face to the urban streetscape in London’s Shoreditch.

I had a group of friends who trusted me, and allowed me to experiment and express myself

David Adjaye

‘I didn’t have connections to patronage but I had a group of friends, mostly in the art world, who trusted me, who allowed me to experiment and express myself. I’m so lucky that the work of those early years caught the imagination of the generation and maybe offered techniques and routes as to how to make contemporary architecture in our time,’ he says.

After setting up Adjaye Associates, his work grew in scale and broadened in range, fuelled by his engaging personality. A host of London commissions included two Idea Stores in east London for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which rethought the idea of the library; the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham; a Savile Row store for Ozwald Boateng; and the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford. But the rapidly growing practice ran into financial difficulties and in 2009 entered a creditors voluntary arrangement (CVA) to tackle debts of £1 million, an experience that still weighs on his mind today. 

Smithsonian, dc adjaye

Smithsonian, dc adjaye

Source: Brad Feinknopf

Completed in 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was a game-changing project for Adjaye’s practice

He bounced back, rebuilding the practice and finding success overseas with major projects such as the Moscow School of Management (Skolkovo) and Sugar Hill social housing in Harlem, New York, before striking gold with the game-changing commission for the Smithsonian.

‘Our early work was the foundational, theoretical base and we were incredibly lucky to be able to rehearse at that level,’ he says. ‘Now we’re able to build the buildings we dreamed of.’ He adds that he feels emboldened by the opportunity now to bring some of these ideas to projects and clients who can respond to them.

For me, I felt a disconnect between the world I was living in and the world that was being made

‘The work we did before was not huge – really gritty projects in communities on tight budgets and constraints. Now we have some incredible projects where we can dream about ideas, where we’re allowed to rethink or reframe ideas of nationhood and ideas of cities. That’s a very powerful new stimulus for me and the team to think about: how we can carry the lessons of the work we’ve done over the past 20 years into this new body of work and into this new scale.’

As he built his practice, Adjaye has had to contend with the extra pressures of being that rarity, a high-profile black architect.

‘I simply don’t have a choice,’ he says. ‘I’m up in every conversation about diversity because I’m one of the few that’s out there that’s got to a significant level. I don’t mind it, because I know it’s important; but it is an extra weight for me to carry.’ 

Studio museum harlem

Studio museum harlem

Source: adjaye associates

Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, due to complete in 2021

When he was starting out, however, there were no such role models to emulate. He feels strongly about the need to bring more diverse voices into the built environment and sees greater diversity as paramount in transforming the profession to be better at what it does. At Adjaye Associates, there is a 50:50 gender balance with employees hailing from 47 different countries, which he feels enhances the practice’s ability to stay critical.

‘Diversity equals better performance,’ he says, adding that research has shown this is no longer conjecture, but fact.

As one of the mayor of London’s design advocates, Adjaye is advising on ‘good growth’ for the capital that is socially and economically inclusive. 

‘Architecture can be much more precise, less of a blunt instrument, if it responds to the diversity of our communities and the people we serve,’ he says.

While he is passionate about the transformational role of architecture, he is dismayed by project managers’ marginalisation of architects to a ‘veneer stylist’ role within the construction team, rather than encouraging them to get involved in the mainstream of building.

‘For me that’s a very traumatic and really very desperate situation,’ he says, adding that the result is ‘stale’ architecture. This has a negative effect on the quality and distinctiveness of the cityscape that plays such a critical role in attracting those with the best skills. 

‘Architects have been screaming for a long time but there needs to be a discussion holistically,’ he says. ‘The pendulum has swung too far in one direction. The profession has to recognise the quality of what’s being done as a result. Yes, you may be ticking the boxes for your bankers or your funds, but you’re making very poor architecture for the city.’

Ghana national cathedral

Ghana national cathedral

Source: adjaye associates

Ghana National Cathedral, a 70,000m2 landmark building proposed for Accra

Instead, he believes architects should be at the table, taking part in the discussion about the innovation and formulation of opportunity on a project before becoming the form-makers.

In contrast to the marginalisation of the profession within UK construction, Adjaye has noticed on his wide travels that British architects are held in very high esteem internationally. 

This is certainly true of his own practice, which has had success around the world in addition to its biggest overseas market, the United States. It was shortlisted in a recent competition for Adelaide Contemporary art museum in Australia. And, following the success of his Washington museum, Adjaye once again has a busy portfolio of UK projects. As well as the Holocaust Memorial, on which he is working with Ron Arad, he is designing the mixed-use 5 Strand on the corner of Trafalgar Strand and One Berkeley Street, a £600 million residential development in Piccadilly. By contrast, he is also on the team redesigning the Grenfell Tower housing estate in west London. In Wales, his practice is designing a maths and computing building for Cardiff University with Stride Treglown. And Adjaye Associates is also part of the Cube Haus project to create modular, architect-designed houses for urban sites.

With his recent knighthood and election to the Royal Academy of Arts, could Adjaye now be thought of as part of the establishment? He is a little horrified at the idea. ‘My ambition is not to become mainstream or to become part of the establishment – which for me isn’t a good thing – but one gets older and one gets more known.’

130 william nyc

130 william nyc

Source: adjaye associates

Condominium block 130 William, Adjaye Associates’ first large-scale high-rise tower, in New York City

There has been some carping at his high profile over the years, but surely no one would begrudge him his well-earned success both home and abroad, so notably with the African American museum. And, while Adjaye has learned from the past and is now more measured about resourcing and expansion, he remains galvanised by the same belief in architecture’s power of transformation as when he started out. There is, he says, still so much more to do.

‘My research and my thinking is always to be questioning, rethinking and trying to make more relevant the built environment for the world we live in. That’s the driver, and that hasn’t changed.’

Previous AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award winners

  • 2017 Alison Brooks 
  • 2016 Zaha Hadid
  • 2015 Thomas Heatherwick
  • 2014 Julia Peyton-Jones
  • 2013 Richard Rogers
  • 2012 David Chipperfield
  • 2011 Michael Hopkins
  • 2010 Laura Lee
  • 2009 Ken Livingstone
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