At the intersection of Canal Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan, worlds meet. To the north-east is Little Italy, to the south-east Chinatown, to the south-west the warehouse austerity of TriBeCa, to the north-west the tourist excess of SoHo. And above all this is the New York office of a Ghanaian-British architect. I’m struggling to find it, using cryptic instructions from David Adjaye’s assistant, and have twice walked past the street vendor who is hissing “handbags, handbags”. A call to the front desk helps: under the scaffolding, find the payphone, then look for an unmarked door. I finally find my way upstairs to a gleaming box, where I’m whisked into a conference room by Adjaye’s lipsticked PA. The street would feel miles away were it not for the whirr of construction outside the window.
Adjaye is late. Through the clear glass doors of the conference room, I see him making his way to me, stopping among the rows of white desks to bend over the work of his employees. We tend to see architects as lone visionaries, forgetting they also command a regiment. He rushes in, in a black shirt and jacket, open collar, pointed shoes, no tie. He wears what seems to be a dark-metal wedding ring – in 2014 he married Ashley Shaw-Scott, an American social scientist who now heads the research department at Adjaye Associates; they had a baby boy at the end of January.
Adjaye has an open, attractive face, with a wide smile, not a fake, tight-lipped thing. He looks younger than his 48 years: the only signs of middle age are a few grey hairs in his beard and a slight weariness about his posture. He speaks quickly, intently, but quietly. His eyes are heavily lidded, and early in our conversation he interrupts himself and slides them closed. “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to bring my head here.”
The problem doesn’t seem to be tiredness, though he flew in from London only yesterday. It’s more that he is geo-locating himself. Adjaye is a self-described citizen of the world who works on five continents and has offices on four, who spends 14 days a month shuttling between his homes in New York and London, and 14 elsewhere – though with his new baby, he’s trying to change that ratio. But it is in America that his stardom is crystallising. He is the hot tip to design Barack Obama’s presidential library in Chicago: at a 2012 state dinner for David Cameron, Adjaye was on the Obamas’ table. And it is in America that two projects which will define him are already taking shape. The second-biggest building of Adjaye’s career so far is one for people: Sugar Hill, a low-cost housing project in Harlem. But the biggest is one for the people: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the first museum on this subject, and the last piece in the jigsaw of the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Although the idea for a museum was proposed by black veterans 100 years ago, the order from Congress to build one didn’t come until 2003, and the competition to design it wasn’t held until 2009. “A long time coming,” said Obama, when they finally broke ground in 2012. Adjaye entered the fray in a triumvirate with two African-American architects. “I was obsessed with it,” he says. “We had no sense that we could get it, but we felt we had as good a chance as anyone.” When they won, his career changed gear. “I have been steadily rising, but this took it to a new level.” He remembers talking to Richard Rogers about winning the commission for the Pompidou Centre in 1971. “This enormous project of huge significance in the middle of Paris – you know, it’s a very powerful moment. It does crazy things to your career, where you kind of mushroom, and also it creates complexities.”
Lonnie Bunch, the director of the museum, remembers saying to Adjaye, “No matter what you have done and what you do, this will be the thing you will be most known for.”
David Adjaye was born in 1966 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and spent his early years in houses with courtyards filled with plants and fruit trees, in Ghana, Cairo, Saudi Arabia and Beirut. He feels the “potpurri of cosmopolitanism that exists in that part of the world” was formative. “I remember the sense of the negotiation in each place. As a young kid, you are really sensitive to the landscape, because you are working out how to fit into it, and doing that puts roots into your mind.” He found a way of thinking about the world geographically and in terms of topology, a “vertical sense of how different civilisations organise themselves from north to south”. This shows up in his approach today – he begins talking about any site plan for a new building by categorising it by climate and where it falls on the “north-south continuum”. It also puts him ahead of the curve in architecture, an increasingly global game where your next building always seems to be in Dubai.
His first love was science: particularly physics and chemistry, the way that “things were mutable and interconnected”
When Adjaye was 14, his father was posted to the Ghanaian embassy in London, Adjaye’s first experience with a north-European city. It was the 1980s, and London was “at the threshold between an old world order and a new global order”. The transition was difficult for Adjaye. He found school in London “strange”, his fellow pupils narrow-minded and unable to accept a boy who didn’t fit easily into their own class system. His first love was science: particularly physics and chemistry, the way that “things were mutable and interconnected”. But he was very competitive with his brothers, each of whom wanted to carve their slice of the world, and his brother James was simply better at science than he was. “I became an architect because I couldn’t compete in the sciences any more. I was good, but he was brilliant.”
One of his teachers at William Gladstone school, a Mr Jenkins, pushed Adjaye to pursue a foundation degree in art and design, telling him, “you seem to be good at a lot of things, but you are very good at this,” and helping him see the use of an arts education. “When arts are taught at school, they are not taught as a way of getting an education, they are taught as a thing you do,” he says. He takes a minute to put in a word for teachers like Mr Jenkins (Adjaye’s stories tend to have lessons), and then glances at the only decoration in the room, a set of technical drawings on the wall for a cultural centre in upstate New York. A few of the renderings are topped with splashes of neon marker. “For me, architecture reconciled my fascination with science with arts, which I became completely in love with.” Coming from a family of diplomats and doctors, he worried about telling his parents: “I was petrified they would find it a disappointment.” But they had seen him struggle through the difficult adjustment to life in Britain, “bouncing around, trying to figure out what I wanted to be,” and “they allowed me to prove them wrong.” The family has stayed close: he collaborates on projects with his brother Peter, and speaks to his parents about his work often. Adjaye might be a man without a country, but his family, in its diversity of pursuits and singularity of shared experience, is his nation state.
Shortly after graduating with a BA in architecture from South Bank Polytechnic in 1990, Adjaye took an ma at the Royal College of Art, part of which involved spending a year in Kyoto, Japan. Because of the language barrier, he experienced “six months of silence”. But it allowed him, he says, “eventually, to observe that culture really deeply”. When he returned, “it was this Blairite time of economic successes that happened at the end of the 1990s,” he says. “For the first time artists did not have to wait until their 50s and 60s to be successful. So there was a very empowered new generation.” (He seems to have forgotten that the same could be said of Warhol, Hockney and so on, a generation earlier – the way he tells it, his personal history seems to take on an historical inevitability.) Finding what he calls his “patron group” benefited him greatly, allowing him to set out on his own early instead of taking the road more travelled, to an apprenticeship at a big firm.
The influence of his time in Japan shows in early projects, often house and studio hybrids for friends from art school or people in the music industry. Perhaps the best known from this period is Dirty House, built for the artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster in Shoreditch, east London. Small, intimate and non-Western in the way it turns inward, the structure is a hard, black-painted box with a levitated roof. Like many Adjaye projects to come, it wears a skin: a textured, apparently impenetrable exterior, like a rhinoceros hide stretched tight over cinderblocks. But it is softened by the play of light within it and the human work that happens inside. Webster remembers the process vividly: “It was during one of our many design meetings that David’s assistants very proudly presented Tim and me with our [scale model] served upon a velvet cushion, complete with mini versions of our ‘trash sculptures’ scattered inside the miniature studio…David’s original idea was to camouflage the outside of the house in a sand-coloured anti-graffiti paint, the type used by local councils to deter flyposting on lampposts. But I pushed for something darker, and so David agreed to colour-match his beautifully dark Ghanaian skin tone.” (For his part, Adjaye says the house is a “gooey, black, dark aubergine”.) The idea of using dark exteriors stuck, even when people complained. “People say ‘black’s not an uplifting colour’. I’m like, ‘please’. There are more black buildings now in Shoreditch – you would think my building was in a neighbourhood that had been zoning for dark buildings.”
Is this why it was called Dirty House? Webster says it was in honour of the neighbourhood: “Shoreditch was a lot dirtier back in those days – in fact it still is; after many attempts at gentrification the area seems to have gone full circle. It certainly isn’t Kensington, darling.”
At an early age Adjaye was exposed to poorly designed hospitals, and to how badly many buildings cater for the disabled. Ever since, he has held a deep interest in the inequality of public spaces
There’s not much Kensington about Adjaye, though he’s not above designing house extensions or interiors for shops in the grander parts of London (most recently the flagship store in Mayfair for the clothes designer Roksanda Ilincic). For him, more central by far is Africa – a place which, counter-intuitively, he came to understand during his time in Japan. “Japan has a proud, distinct relationship to its culture. In the end the world catches up with that pride. It helped me think about how I saw myself in relation to Africa, because the message of Africa is one of an exotic situation, or a modern mess. For a young person, there’s not much to champion. It requires anyone who wants that to do their own work.”
Adjaye has spent years doing that work. When he started his own practice, in 2000, he became consumed by cataloguing Africa, which he refers to as “the Continent” – in Britain the phrase traditionally means mainland Europe. He visited 51 countries. The research was supposed to take six months but lasted 11 years, and resulted in a book, “African Metropolitan Architecture”. The visual references he found in Africa have become “a cornerstone of his work”, according to Okwui Enwezor, a critic and friend, and the visual-arts curator for the 2015 Venice Biennale. Enwezor says that one of Adjaye’s greatest contributions, and distinctions, is his use of African design. He takes “motifs of abstraction from African design…and finds some aspects of that as a place of beginning, not aping [it], but finding the core values of these concepts.”
“Adjaye went back to Africa to understand for himself and through his own eyes as an adult,” says Zoë Ryan, the curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago, which hosts a retrospective of Adjaye’s work this September. “Not his family’s, but his eyes – understanding it on his own terms.”
In recent years, Adjaye has been able to take his relationship with Africa further, by building there. A concept store in Lagos, for the designer Reni Folawiyo, is almost complete, and projects such as a mixed-use development in Johannesburg and a slavery museum in Ghana are at the design stage. He has curated an exhibition of African textiles which opens in June at the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York. The curator, Susan Brown, says “he came in with more knowledge than I have.”
When Adjaye was still a child and living in Ghana, his youngest brother, Emmanuel, became very ill and fell into a coma. He emerged paralysed. The result was that at an early age Adjaye was exposed to poorly designed hospitals, and to how badly many buildings cater for the disabled. Ever since, he has held a deep interest in the inequality of public spaces.
As his private buildings gathered momentum, Adjaye moved into public projects. In 2001 he won a competition for two new libraries in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, completed in 2004 and 2005. “The head of library services there was an incredible visionary”, he says, “who realised that in the beginning of the internet age, the old model of the library couldn’t sustain.” Adjaye’s answers were called Idea Stores, a name he says people still take issue with. “Funny name,” says Robert Stern, dean of the Yale school of architecture, where Adjaye has taught, when I ask him about them. But they “certainly contribute to the way urban life is lived”.
Names aside, the project prompted Adjaye to search for a new language for public buildings. “Whenever you make a public building, palaces are the model: a grand palace with a great hall and a grand staircase,” he says. “But we don’t always need architecture that refers to the past. We need an architecture that is referring to the democratic state we want to move towards.”
At the Idea Store in Whitechapel, he achieved this by having an atrium inside, with an escalator running through it, and an awning in front to frame the market outside. “People said, ‘God, this is a bit of a funny move.’ Architects usually frame grand staircases, I’m framing the street. Until people understood my work, it was ‘I’m not sure he’s a good designer because he kind of misses the point.’”
As in many Adjaye buildings, the façade is more of a skin; when I visited in September, its layers of rippling blue-and-green glass glinted in the sun. Rowan Moore, the architecture critic of the Observer, recently wrote that the awning was “a litter trap and dormitory for rough sleepers”. I didn’t notice anyone loitering outside, though there was certainly litter under the awning. What impressed me about the space was how it was being used, and by such a range of people. A middle-aged South Asian woman hovered in front of a selection of books in different languages, including Bengali. An older Caucasian man used one of the computer terminals. Women dressed in hijabs passed through with their children; teenagers loitered outside the dance studio, texting.
In 2005 Adjaye won an international contest for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, his first American project. He says it was the time that the United States was just starting to look abroad for architects: that historical inevitability again. The next big commission came from Russia: President Dmitry Medvedev wanted to create a Russian business school, a Harvard for the digital world. “I thought they were going to be incredibly conservative, but they were incredibly radical and contemporary,” Adjaye says of the project, completed in Moscow in 2010. A circular disc with rectangles stacked on top, it looks like a computer rendering, even in real life. But it was well received: Adjaye says this was the project that established him as a global architect, and put him in the conversation for the Smithsonian.
What will be, by 2016, the Museum of African American History is nestled on a down slope of the National Mall, next to the upward jut of the Washington Monument. When I visited in September, only its main floors were up, giving the building a strong horizontality, and a beautiful, skeletal presence. It has three levels, each wider than the one below, a shape that echoes column capitols in Yoruba architecture. Brass panels will be among its main design elements; meant to symbolise the metalwork done by former slaves in cities such as Charleston, they will darken with time and create waves of light in the galleries. Viewers will look out at the mall through spaces between these the panels: history seen through the viewfinder of the African-American experience.
“There were a lot of people”, Bunch says, “who felt this had to be a design by a black person, and that it had to be a design by an African-American”
“My expectation”, Lonnie Bunch tells me, “was that [the museum] would be where he would put his heart and soul, because what you want to do is take your biggest moment and make it shine.” When I ask if Adjaye has indeed put his heart and soul into it, Bunch pauses. Then he says: “Sure.” He goes on: “This will be a memorable building, but more importantly a memorable museum. If it is seen as a monument to an architect we have failed, but if it is seen as a way for America to be made better by embracing part of its past through a beautiful museum, then we have done our share.”
The 400,000-square-foot, $500m museum will open in 2016; the building shell, after what appears to be the inevitable architectural and bureaucratic delays, will be finished this year. Unlike many museums, where the main hall is a soaring, double-height atrium (Adjaye’s “palace architecture”), here the main floor will be large but normal in scale, porous to the mall, and open to the public – Adjaye says he will deem the project a success if the people of Washington use it. Below, in the basement, will be a large exhibition space, built around a segregation-era railroad car and a guard tower from a Louisiana prison that was populated mainly by African-American inmates. The other gallery spaces will be above.
Behind the museum are rows of the neoclassical edifices Washington is known for. Though the building nods to them in its scale, horizontality and play on the column shape, its colour and form will stand out. This invites comment. “It doesn’t seem to have a strong relationship to them [the neoclassical buildings],” Robert Stern says. “Some people would say that’s good. I would say maybe that’s not the best thing.”
In our interview, I ask Adjaye how, as a non-American, he approached the project. The Smithsonian is a state-run American institution. Its purpose, as defined by Bunch, is to be “a place where the world comes to learn about America”. He says he doesn’t see the distinction as strongly as I do, and he decided on his approach with “blind confidence”.
“American history, ironically, especially African-American history, was radiating all over the black world. I think you could ask almost any African of my age in Europe and in Africa and they would be able to articulate American history, practically as part of their history.” He chose to focus on the design legacy of south-western Nigeria, where many American slaves came from, instead of slavery or slave ships, because “for me those are episodic moments in the story and not the main narrative. The story is much more complex, and interesting. I wanted to remind visitors that when we’re talking about African-Americans, we’re talking about Americans with cultural roots in Africa.”
“There were a lot of people”, Bunch says, “who felt this had to be a design by a black person, and that it had to be a design by an African-American. What made this work was David’s ability to present in a way that was eloquent and beautiful, but also clear and direct. I think that one of the challenges is to even define what African-American is, and what David was able to do was bring an African sensibility, but also, in a positive sense, a non-American perspective.”
At the end of September, in the Sanders Theatre at Harvard, I watched Adjaye receive a W.E.B. DuBois medal for his contribution to African-American culture. Many of the other medallists mentioned race during their acceptance speeches, but Adjaye didn’t refer to it at all, preferring to talk about “the built environment”. He tells me this was a conscious choice. “I don’t believe in framing things out of the context of the reality of the world. It means a hell of a lot to me [to receive the award] but I don’t want it to be for the built environment for African-Americans; it’s for the built environment for humanity. My interest in the built environment for African-Americans is because it’s an area that’s been so underrepresented.” He says that for all its internationalism, architecture still feels closed in terms of diversity. A young African-American architectural designer at a leading New York firm echoed this. “Being a black woman,” she said, “I walk into my office and I might be the only one on my floor. And there are 150 people on my floor.”
On a bright day in October last year, Adjaye takes me up to 155th Street in Harlem to see Sugar Hill. As we’re running very late, he suggests the subway, but his assistant has already ordered a car. On the way uptown, between spurts of silence, he chats about Manhattan: like a good New Yorker, he thinks the High Line is too crowded but likes the Hudson river path and goes there with his wife. He looks out of the window, pointing out interesting buildings along the way – new developments by other architects, luxury apartments swaddled in orange scaffolding. “I experience cities looking up,” he says.
When we arrive at the site, he’s in his element. In the car, when I asked him how long it takes to design a building, he says “about three years”, and added “but then it stays with you.” I see it here. He is taking pictures of the place with his phone and guiding the photographer and me to the right spot to see the design of the façade.
Adjaye jumped at the chance to do this project, a collaboration with the New York firm slce Architects. It was commissioned by Broadway Housing Communities, which provides housing and support for low-income and homeless New Yorkers. “The incredible social edification pricked my ear,” says Adjaye. “The project came at a time when the discussion was endlessly about luxury boutique residences. There’s not a single young architect that doesn’t know how to do a great bathtub or wardrobe with minimalist details as standard, but ask a young kid how to do a home for the homeless, and he’ll say ‘I have no idea’.”
Adjaye loved the ambition and scale of the project: an $84m building, comprising 124 units (25 dedicated to homeless tenants), a community area, a museum, a pre-school, a garage and commercial space. “It plays into the idea of a building as a microcosm of the city – I always call them urban systems for the richness it offers.”
In June, there was a ribbon-cutting with the mayor, Bill de Blasio. This is an important project for him because the pre-school honours his commitment to early-childhood education for New York city’s four-year-olds. “I really love that about de Blasio,” says Adjaye. “His ability to see that a community needs all the parts. It’s not about it all being at the centre, but sprinkling it all around is the richest way to grow an international modern city.”
Ellen Baxter, the founder and executive director of Broadway Housing Communities, says the committee was “unanimous” about Adjaye. “He really took time to listen and read what was important to us. He was intrigued by the principles of social justice that underlie our mission. We liked the fact he was so attracted to do new construction in an historically significant neighbourhood.” Although the neighbourhood has fallen into disrepair, it was the epicentre of Harlem Renaissance and has many landmark structures. Adjaye also charmed the selection committee by doing his homework on the history and putting his boots on the ground. “It was a real balancing act, getting it through the review procedure. David went to every one of those meetings, so he was present and active in securing it at every level.”
The first thing Adjaye directs my attention to is the roses, the symbol of Sugar Hill, carved into the façade. (More pronounced from some angles than others, they were a worry during construction. “For the longest time”, Baxter says, “I thought you wouldn’t be able to see the rose pattern.”) While we’re looking at the roses, a tiny older woman, Laverne Gather, comes by to say she grew up nearby, on 150th Street. Gather loves the new building even though it obstructs the view from parts of her block.
Sugar Hill has received a lot of attention, not all of it positive. The exterior is severe, two off-kilter graphite bricks looming over the neighbourhood. Adjaye wanted to maximise windows in the face of building codes and budgetary constraints, so he saved the larger ones for the sides; the windows that face St Nicholas Avenue are small, and irregularly placed. New York magazine called it “grim” and “an arty fortress”. A review in the New York Times took issue with the apartments themselves, which Adjaye cantilevered outwards to maximise space. “The apartments seem like an after-thought: awkward, with angled walls, quirky layouts that tenants may find hard to furnish, and deep-set, weirdly placed windows of various sizes. Sugar Hill turns out to be like an a student who crams for the big test and then forgets to bring a pencil.”
Adjaye says he expected the negative reviews. “It’s very predictable.” He compares it to the reception for Dirty House in Shoreditch. “People are used to what they think they know. But an architect’s job is to keep moving forward.” He was upset that critics didn’t wait for tenants to move in, to ask them how they felt about the building. This might be naive, but it is how Adjaye judges the success of his spaces: by how they are used. He doesn’t consider a building “done” until people are using it, and wants others to do the same. Because the building has had issues getting power hooked up, when we visit the apartments are still empty, “so we won’t really know if it’s working until next year. Right now we’re all guessing.”
He takes us around the perimeter, pointing out how the vertical slope of the street gave him a great opportunity for a window framing the park across the way, and more importantly allows for the school, which is at ground level, to feel raised and above ground, with floor-to-ceiling windows. In the pre-school, he shows us courtyards and play spaces. “This is a nursery I could bring my kids to,” he says, with his hand on the back of one of the toddler-sized chairs.
The pre-school has been open since September last year for children aged four and over. Eventually it will provide education and care for up to 120 pupils. A mother stops by the front entrance with a little boy in tow. She says she read about the building in the Times and wants to send her son here. Another mother, Jacqueline Founder, comes in with her son, also hoping to enroll him. “Finally they have programmes like this,” she says, “for people who live in the neighbourhood.” She adds that her sister had a bet with her husband – the sister thought they would have to paint the building before it was finished; the husband thought it was going to keep its shade of graphite. “I like it,” she goes on. “Something different, it attracts people.” Two representatives from the Trenton Housing Authority in New Jersey come by, hoping to replicate it, with a less famous architect. “Are people telling you it’s an eyesore?” one of them asks me.
“I get out of bed and look out the window and I can’t believe it. It is beautiful more than I ever expected”
I have to admit to feeling some hesitation about the exterior. The darkness of the lobby corridor – cave-like and lined with long slats of wood – made me wonder how the building would feel on a freezing day in February to someone with barely enough to eat. Adjaye said he was originally going to paint the corridors in shades of rose, but then it was too much. He did paint the east and west stairwells bright red and green. And once in the apartments, I found them bright and thoughtful, more pleasant than most of the homes I see in New York city. “Can you believe this housing is for homeless people?” he asks.
A month later, the building did finally open; in April I spoke to some of the residents. Nogaye Amar felt “the design is wonderful. We have a beautiful view of the bridge and the park.” When I asked her about paint, meaning Adjaye’s choice of colour, she answered a much more practical question. “When you have kids, well, I think the paint was supposed to be more oily. When your hand is wet and you touch the wall, it stains.” Sonia Hondraki moved with her four boys to Sugar Hill from a “very, very, very, very tiny apartment”, where she was sharing a closet-sized room with one of her sons. “We thought we would never ever see the light at the end of tunnel.” She says her new apartment “really was literally like winning the lottery. It saved our lives. I get out of bed and look out the window and I can’t believe it. It is beautiful more than I ever expected.” Even though she is “an old-school kinda girl” who says the brownstones are her favourite thing about her new neighbourhood, she calls the exterior design “modern and bold and here we are”.
Tisha Houser, who moved from a domestic-violence shelter to Sugar Hill with her three children, called her new apartment “a blessing. I love the design, honestly, I love it,” she said. “I love the grey tones when you first walk up on it, and you think ‘oh my goodness how is that a colour?’ but I love it. I love how he put the circles on it. Every window is different, every room is different. The architect’s vision is something amazing. It fits the type of person that I am.”
In October, Adjaye finished the tour by taking us through the common spaces to one of the decks. We could see Yankee Stadium to the east, Harlem to the west, and a beautiful church. “This”, he says, “could only happen in America.”
At the end of the conversation in his office, I ask Adjaye whether he would have preferred to have been attached to one country, as opposed to the world. Even within a generation of global architects, I wonder if he feels untethered.
“You know I romantically look at –” he interrupts himself. “I can’t even imagine what that would feel like. It might be reassuring in a world so complex.” He gets excited, speaking more emphatically and leaning in, as he does when talking about the future. “In our lifetimes, can we say we belong to the world instead of a country? It would be an amazing type of progress if we all own the world, if we all are stewards of it. We have seen what happens when we are owners of our own little patches. I’m bored of history. I prefer something a bit more powerful.”
David Adjaye Selects Cooper Hewitt, New York, continues to Feb 7th
Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye Art Institute of Chicago, September 19th to Jan 3rd