One optimistic idea our mayor has is congestion pricing. How do you think it’s worked in London?
It worked for a little bit and then … It is a great tax, let’s put it that way.
You went through an architect’s worst nightmare when former client and major British media figure Janet Street-Porter called you out for shoddy workmanship on her house. She wrote in The Independent that you were “someone I dream of regularly ritually disembowelling or forcing to go through a nasty form of torture before mopping up the storm water in my living room with his designer sweaters.” What effect did that have on your practice?
I wanted the earth to swallow me, really. Luckily I had a lot of other work, because it put a real question mark around my work. It very quickly became clear that it was a misunderstanding. She is now saying in articles, “I have no problem with Mr. Adjaye.” People think that architects are literally also building, but really we produce the documentation for contractors to build. When something leaks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the architect messed up; most of the time, it means the work was done badly.
You’ve been called a “starchitect.” How do you feel about that term?
I am not really interested in the terms that journalists use. I don’t know what it actually means, a starchitect versus an architect. It is supposed to be flattering, so I am grateful.
You have had a TV show and a fairly large media presence in the U.K. Are you saying that is not something you have gone out and tried to develop? Hasn’t it brought you more commissions?
It has helped my career, definitely. I am a young black architect working in a predominantly male white world. It gives encouragement to clients who have never had an example like me and are not sure about what to do with somebody like me.
You just got back from Africa. What are you working on there?
I embarked about five years ago on a study, collecting an archive of photographs of every single one of the 53 capitals of the continent. Most people know about five cities in Africa. It is easy to find images of South America right through to Australia, but Africa, apart from images of poverty or war, has very little data about the lived experiences of people there now.
Are there lessons from African cities that Western architects should be more aware of?
What I am interested in is how they have a very strong public life: the markets, the way people use the spaces in front of their homes, the way life is lived as networks. The house is just a unit you sleep in. Even in Muslim countries that are very extreme, it still plays out. That is something we have lost in the West.
It is interesting you’ve been so explicit about using your African heritage, since, as you said, architecture is such a white-male-dominated profession.
There has been a tendency to shy away from who you are, and I don’t want to deny who I am. If a Japanese architect talks about Shintoism, everyone goes, “Wow.” If an African architect talks about an African village, it is somehow weird in the Western context. I find that hilarious. What’s the difference?