American architecture has been rather devoid of photogenic Young Turks in recent years—the architect with the most buzz at the moment is Philip Johnson, yet again—but in the U.K., the designated star is David Adjaye. The Ghanaian, Royal College of Art–trained architect, 40, built his reputation designing tough, opaque houses in rapidly gentrifying London neighborhoods: masklike gray façades on the outside, lots of open space within, for cool artistic types like Ewan McGregor, Jake Chapman, and Sue Webster and Tim Noble. He’s since moved up in the world. In June, he was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the queen for services to architecture, following several public works—like his Idea Stores, which have shaken up the notion of the library, and his Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. And now he’s coming to America. The exhibit “Making Public Buildings” opens this week at the Studio Museum in Harlem; his New York office opens this year; and his Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver opens this fall. Adjaye spoke to Alexandra Lange about public vs. private, Africa and New York, and what it’s like when a client attacks you in the press.
It seems like there is something very different going on in your public and private work. Just look at the pictures…
I have this discourse about private retreat and public engagement. My public work dissolves barriers, it tries to encourage permeability. The house is a kind of retreat from the urbanity of the city. They are more tranquil spaces.
Isn’t it strange for you to go between these public buildings and then work for rich clients on their private houses?
That is just normal life, isn’t it? My job is not to judge. If somebody wants to spend a billion pounds on their bathroom, that is their own morality, their own conscience. They have to deal with it.
The other way is maybe the sixties view of architecture.
Which really has problems. Architects are good at building. They are not good at politics.
You’ve said that your Idea Stores in London are a radical rethink of what a library can be. How?
It becomes not just a depository for books but it has adult- education classes; instructors to teach motor mechanics, aerobics, flower arranging. Body and mind are being exercised. You have spaces to have weddings, cafés, a crèche. The concept was developed by the local authority, and I interpreted it.
Did you also come up with the name?
The name is by the local authority. I can’t name buildings, unfortunately. I don’t have that much power.
So how does the exterior of the building reflect its mission?
The Idea Stores are in very diverse communities where there are as many as fifteen languages spoken. A unifying quality was that all these groups were to be found in the market spaces. The imagery of the market is these awnings, which are blue and green stripes. So the façades of the Idea Stores are colored glass, blue and green glass. It is not a literal translation but a visual clue.
Your museum in Denver also seems like an attempt to make something more public than the traditional museum.
It is like a mini-version of a city.
How is that done architecturally?
You never go from one exhibition space to another: You always come out into a kind of street and then you meander into another exhibition space. The way in which you are seeing art is almost like being in a little village or little town.
What is the plus of that?
You have the ability to perceive art, digest it, then go on to the next thing. You get away from the exhaustion when you are relentlessly pounded with stuff.
And what are you up to in New York?
We are building a house for an amazing art collector [Adam Lindemann and his wife, gallerist Amalia Dayan] on the Upper East Side. It is quite hermetic. In ten years, 50 percent of the world will live in cities; they are becoming massive. The home is something that becomes an emotional incubator and resuscitator. It is not about tricks but about the way in which you reorient a person’s perceptions by focusing on water or on a tree or on a texture of a wall, making the home a meditative space. For this house, the thing the house reflects on will also be art.
Have you been following the Atlantic Yards news, since your first New York project, for artists James Casebere and Lorna Simpson, was in Fort Greene?
There are a lot of emotional discussions about new development everywhere. As an architect, I have to be an optimist.
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?