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David Adjaye
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David Adjaye


David Adjaye portrait

David Adjaye.
Photo © Ed Reeve; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

Buildings are deeply emotive structures which form our psyche. People think they’re just things they manoeuvre through. But the make-up of a person is influenced by the nature of spaces.
–David Adjaye[1]

When studying the built environment or the archeological past we often look for clues to the ways in which people live their lives. We search for a better understanding of the livelihood and the overall meanings that make up the human condition. Sometimes the fragments and fibers of what remains are still woven into the fabric of who we are. In the here and now, architects are acutely aware of how their structures and their designs reflect and impact society and current manifestations of the human condition. We rely on architects to have a futuristic vision while simultaneously fulfilling our immediate needs when we call upon them to design our built environments. Sometimes we require a simple space, a home base, to rest and recharge before going out in the world. Sometimes we want a space that preserves and memorializes our histories, our commitments to change, and our artistic productions. Sometimes we want a space that allows us to learn and to grow.

This year’s Stanford Presidential Lecturer, David Adjaye, is an architect who is experienced in providing all of these types of spaces for people around the world. In each case he considers the intricate connections between the past, the present and the possible futures for his designs. He is an architect who is conscious of the livelihoods of the people who use his buildings and he incorporates appropriate references and typologies into his designs because he approaches architecture through the lens of civic, social and environmental responsibility. It is through his thoughtful combination of functionality, responsibility, artistic expression and creative imagining that his work really captivates and leaves lasting impressions on our psyche.

David Adjaye is a brilliant and driven architect with a long list of stellar achievements and prestigious awards. His work is varied in scale and scope, ranging from private homes and art installations to civic buildings such as libraries and museums. He even works on larger urban planning designs. His work is deeply moving and contemplative. Much of this work has an intangible quality that is difficult to describe. Time and again he has created pavilions, homes, and buildings that seem to be sculpting light into form. Yet his designs do not bind light: they allow it to flow like water. It is always with a keen sense of illumination that his architectural and urban planning designs pull, stretch and layer light in ways that reflect some of Adjaye’s most important themes in his work. These themes include deep connections between use, form, materiality, elegance and reflection. In fact, many of his designs include water-reflection pools, urban gardens and semi-indoor fountains that maintain the link that these built spaces have to their natural environments. His commitment to artistic integrity, functional form and intense local research remains constant.

National Museum of African American HIstory and Culture
National Museum of African American HIstory and Culture, Washington, D.C.
Photo © and used by permission of Adjaye Associates

Among his most recent and most significant projects is Adjaye’s firm’s collaborative design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.[2] This is essentially the crowning jewel of the string of Smithsonian museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A regal metaphor for this building is fitting because the design is infused with a crown motif from ancient Yoruba sculpture, seamlessly linking not only the past with the present, but also Africa with the African diaspora. This referencing of the past, or of other elements significant to a particular community, is a design technique found in much of Adjaye’s work. For the depth of vision embodied in such a technique, Adjaye has just been awarded Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Medal for outstanding work in the field of African and African American Studies.[3] This comes on the eve of the completion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an interview about this project, Adjaye explains,

I wanted to create this feeling of weight bearing down on you at the entrance, a powerful impression of timber, like a great forest. In the way that cathedrals used vaults and arches to make people feel the immensity of the space, I’m trying for something with a different effect—I want the architecture to make you feel the weight of an enormous body of history, which you will then go in and explore.[4]

Throughout Adjaye’s body of work, it is clear that he pays attention to how the built environment functions as a narrative of social conditions and how, in turn, society influences the built environment.

In David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings: Specificity, Customization, Imbrication (2006), edited by Peter Allison, Adjaye’s theories on design, function and grace in relationship to buildings commissioned for the public are analyzed and critiqued by Okwui Enwezor, Saskia Sassen, Nikolaus Hirsch. These analysts bring complex perspectives to bear on Adjaye’s work, including this strong commitment to civic responsibility. Enwezor, a renowned art critic, curator and director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, writes:

David Adjaye’s work has become increasingly located in what I would call the intermediary zone between public space and civil society…. For Adjaye public space is always contingent, always in the process of realization…. As an architect this pushes Adjaye towards elaborating within his buildings a “third space,” a kind of illusionary and concrete zone of maximum interaction and social discourse between publics, individuals, communities, experts and non-experts.[5]

Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway
Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway.
Photo © Tim Soar; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

Here, Enwezor is referencing some of Adjaye’s earlier public projects including the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway.[6] This was completed in 2005, and consisted of a remodel of a shell of a disused railway station. For inspiration, Adjaye drew upon Dogon building techniques of Mali that envision multiple unique spaces within one larger domain. In the Nobel Peace Centre, Adjaye created immersive spaces and multiple thresholds that employ intense color and unique flexible lighting correlating to the visitor’s exhibit experience. Likewise, each threshold has its own distinctive space within the larger complex. Enwezor calls attention to these thresholds or “third spaces” because they are liminal spaces designed to evoke human emotion. The effect is an environment that juxtaposes the tensions between peace and conflict and what it means to address civil society and strive towards peace. Enwezor not only an art critic, but a curator of contemporary art, has been appointed the artistic director of the 56th Venice Art Biennale in 2015. For this exhibit, Enwezor has chosen Adjaye to assist him with the design, structure and appearance of this exhibition. The Venice Art Biennale is Europe's oldest contemporary art exhibition and one of the largest exhibits in the world.[7] Adjaye’s early work, building houses for artists and art collectors, prepared him well for this commission.

Adjaye is also well known for his ability to work well with partners and stakeholders for designing civic buildings. For example, in London, the Whitechapel Idea Store[8] re-imagines libraries as a marketplace for ideas. This approach to community space and the provision of libraries and information services shifts the focus from a space that simply allows public access to one that is truly of the public. Since Whitechapel, Adjaye has worked on several other libraries in the United States and another Idea Store in London. Even though each building is contingent on its location and the surrounding references that make it unique, Saskia Sassen is correct to point out a distinct character of Adjaye’s walls which invites a specific discourse of public spaces. She writes:

If the wall does indeed function as such a borderland rather than a borderline, then the particular materials, the visual experience, the sensory experience, all matter because they are constituting a sort of third space. In the case of Adjaye’s buildings, the walls are often stunningly beautiful in their mix of precision, complexity and sensory engagement. Each of these three features can work as sites for engaging the passerby or the user of the building. The wall becomes a space that constitutes or activates public space, not what divides the inside from the outside.[9]

This very powerful nuance, found in such walls that dissolve boundaries, is very much at the heart of Adjaye’s public buildings, pavilions and art installations. Even the buildings that appear to be like fortresses on the outside are transformed on the inside because of strategically placed walls, windows and unique natural lighting pathways that incorporate elements of the local natural environment. The transition from the street to the interior of his buildings is a crossing over of a “borderland,” as Sassen suggests.

Whitechapel Idea Store
Whitechapel Idea Store, London, England
Photo © Ed Sumner; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

For example, when looking at the exterior walls of the Whitechapel Idea Store, what one notices right away is Adjaye’s use of blue and green tiled panels that reflect the colors of the canopies of local street vendors. These panels link the building to its unique market community, but also create refracted light and color inside the building that is cool and inviting. In the case of the Idea Store, there is so much more to be explored about the design and strategic plan than just the skin of the building. The Idea Store concept, which includes the multiple use and community center spaces, a café, and meeting rooms that co-exist within the building, serve a diverse and historically lower-income, working-class local community. It is a project that succeeds because Adjaye and his team worked closely with the community to define their needs and their vision for the space. This project has proven to be a means of renewal and great value to the community for which it was built. The building was completed in 2005, and in 2013 the library council estimated that it attracts about 700,000 visitors per year.[10] It has broken down the social barriers that had impeded access to information services by making a library space more open, inclusive and supportive of life-long learning — a borderland instead of a border line.

Francis Gregory Library, Washington, D.C.
Francis Gregory Library, Washington, D.C.
Photo © Jeff Sauers; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

Similarly, for the Francis Gregory Library in Washington, D.C., a design using light, mirrors, reflective material and a geometric grid was employed for the exterior walls, allowing the building seemingly to disappear into the lush background of the wooded area of the neighborhood. In Adjaye’s lecture at the Cape Town Design Indaba Conference 2013,[11] he talks about some of the considerations that went into designing this library and other public spaces for diverse communities. He describes his approach and emphasizes his commitment to researching the relationship of typologies and local narratives that drive the architectural manifestation of his buildings. He emphasizes that with technology, architects have the ability to create bespoke industrial design, that is, the ability to customize materials that would normally be limited to what can be mass-produced.[12] This allows him to find ways to stay true to artistic decisions that make a space enjoyable and usable, while still conforming to civic considerations.

This discussion of only a few of David Adjaye’s work barely scratches the surface of the array of what he as accomplished. With offices in London, New York, Berlin, Accra, and Shanghai, Adjaye Associates has a global perspective, with multiple projects completed and many more in the pipeline. These projects are, without exception, impressive and unique; they certainly push the boundaries of architectural design. Adjaye Associates’ work continues to inspire and encourage conversation about what modernity means to different people and in different places in the world today. Adjaye seems keen to disentangle the multiple meanings of modernity in order to remake it in ways that fill a contemporary need. As Hirsch writes, “Instead of architecture that escapes into the margin, David Adjaye looks for strategies and practices that deal with modernity at large.”[13]

Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo
Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo, Russia
Photo © Ed Reeve; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

One remarkable project that really imbues notions of modernity is the Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo. Completed in 2010, this project is a functional interpretation of what it means to apply futuristic design to a premier institution on a grand scale. In this project, Adjaye designed a whole ecosystem of buildings that function both as an educational/research institution and as a conference center. The structure is elevated in such a way as to appear to be floating, as if a giant hand could reach out of the sky and spin it like a dial. There are practical reasons for this as well: think of the snow. It is bold, and it reflects the boldness of the school’s mission and international status.

Adjaye formed his firm, Adjaye Associates, in 2000. The Associates successfully weathered the storm of the global economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, and what had been Adjaye’s private practice has blossomed into a multifaceted international firm. It is no wonder that he was ranked number 1 on the PowerList 2013 of most influential black people in the UK.[14] He has also been awarded the honor of Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his outstanding work in the UK.

Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1966, of Ghananian diplomats, Adjaye is often asked about his connection to the African Diaspora. Certainly his experiences living in Uganda, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, and other countries before his family settled in Britain, where he was also educated, has influenced his cosmopolitan understanding of social norms and networks. This experience of living in diverse societies and diverse environments resonates throughout his work.

Sugar Hill Housing Project, in Harlem
Sugar Hill Housing Project, Harlem
Photo © Ed Reeve; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

Adjaye clearly cares deeply about habitation projects that provide affordable housing and responsible design. Some of these projects include the Sugar Hill Housing Project for low-income and homeless people. Located in Harlem, this project includes an early childhood education center and museum. For this project, his fee barely covered his expenses.[15] In the Make it Right Project, also aimed at providing housing for the dispossessed, Adjaye volunteered his time and his plans: his work benefited victims of Hurricane Katrina, helping the people of the New Orleans 9th Ward to re-build after the disaster. [16] On a larger scale, Adjaye has shown interest in urban planning, and is currently working with Ozwald Boating and the Africa Foundation on a very large redevelopment project in Kampala, Uganda.[17] The Naguru-Nakawa Project will eventually provide in excess of 3,500 residential units, a church, a school, offices, hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and leisure facilities: in short, a satellite town that will serve as a possible model to be replicated across Africa[18].

Central to all of David Adjaye’s work, including collaborations with artists and designers such as Chris Ofili, Reni Folawiyo, Duro Olowu, and others, is a focus on the people who will actually use the designs that he creates. He states: “I am ultimately interested in happiness in the built environment. I want people to be happy in the buildings and to have a sense of wonder.”[19]

Adjaye has taught at the Royal College of Art, where he had previously studied, and at the Architectural Association School in London, and has held distinguished professorships at the universities of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Princeton. He is currently visiting professor of architecture and design at Yale, as well as teaching at Harvard. He was awarded the OBE for services to architecture in 2007, received the Design Miami / Year of the Artist title in 2011, and the Wall Street Journal Innovator Award in 2013. Adjaye has co-presented and hosted a number of television series and radio programs for the BBC.[20]

In the fall of 2014, at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Adjaye is teaching a course called “21st Century Architecture of Africa and the Diaspora.”[21] After having spent 11 years traveling and documenting African architecture across the continent in most of the capital and major cities in each country, Adjaye is passionate about refocusing international architectural design to include innovative ideas and solutions to problems of climate change and the environment that emanate from the diverse African countries and climate regions of the continent. He documented his research in Adjaye Africa Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture.[22] The main emphasis of this detailed survey is to show that African modernity started a long time ago; it demonstrates that Africa is not only a place of crisis, but also a place of great innovation and creative contemporary ideas.

Gwangju Pavilion
Gwangju Pavilion, South Korea
Photo © Kyungsub Shin; used by permission of Adjaye Associates.

David Adjaye’s architecture is a response to humanity and civic projects are his preference. The rigor of his work is a process of unfolding the past while bundling it with the present with an eye to the future. Adjaye relies heavily on research and history to inspire and inform his creative ideas. These elements of contrast and translations of time and space are built into his designs. Adjaye is ever conscious of the subtle differences between spectacle and elegant functional design. The strength of his work is fundamentally enforced by his commitment to researching and understanding the human values and attachments to the possible uses and provocation of feelings that his spaces provide.

The extraordinary thing about architecture is that we have to work with not only the citizenship that is there but also an imagined citizenship in the future, and speak to a past... that has already come. We are in a sort of future-past-present construction.
–David Adjaye[23]

In David Adjaye’s Presidential Lecture on “The Architecture of Civic Space,” we look forward to hearing more about his insights into his design process and his broader architectural philosophy.

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[1] Allison, Peter, David Adjaye and Okwui Enwezor. David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings: Specificity, Customization, Imbrication. 1st pbk. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. p.6

[2] National Museum of African American History and Culture. “NMAAHC Building Fly-Through”.

[3] Keller, Hadlely. “Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Medal for outstanding work in the field of African and African American Studies”. Architectural Digest. September 26, 2014.

[4] Tomkins, Calvin. “A Sense of Place: How the architect of Washington’s forthcoming African-American museum evolved a new style.” The New Yorker, Annals of Architecture, September 23, 2013.

[5] Enwezor, Okwui. “Popular sovereignty and public space: David Adjaye’s Archiecture of immanence”, in Allison, Peter, David Adjaye and Okwui Enwezor. David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings: Specificity, Customization, Imbrication. 1st pbk. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. p.9

[6] Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo Norway.

[7] Adjaye Associates. About us.

[8] Idea. Library Learning Information.

[9] Sassen, Saskia. “Built complexity and public engagements”. In Allison, Peter, David Adjaye and Okwui Enwezor. David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings: Specificity, Customization, Imbrication. 1st pbk. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. p.14

[10] De Peyer, Robin. “Public invited for sneak peak of new Watney Market Idea Store.” The Docklands and East London Advertiser. January 30, 2013.

[11] Adjaye, David. Talk at the Design Indaba Conference (2013). Video available at:

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hirsch, Nikolaus. “Res Publica Or Just a Public Thing.” In Allison, Peter, David Adjaye and Okwui Enwezor. David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings: Specificity, Customization, Imbrication. 1st pbk. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. p.16

[14] Davies, Lizzy. “David Adjaye tops PowerList 2013.” The Guardian, Thursday, 25 October 2013. See also: Powerlist Foundation. Pensord’s magazine Powerlist 2013, p.76-77.

[15] Tomkins, Calvine. “A sense of place: How the architect of Washington‘s forthcoming African-American museum evolved a new style.” The New Yorker, Annals of Architecture, September 23,2013.

[16] McCash, Doug. “New ‘Make It Right’ house design features an open-air, top-floor covered deck.” Times Picayune, May 22, 2010. See also: Make It Right: Architects.

[17] Carleson, Heather. “David Adjaye designs government office campus in Nakawa, Kampala.” Designboom. December 20, 2013.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Adjaye, David. Podcast: David Adjaye on architecture and social inclusion. Hosted by Nico Daswani. August 12, 2014. on the World Economic Forum Blog, “Inside the Creative Mind” .

[20]Adjaye Associates.

[21] Harvard University Graduate School of design.

[22] Adjaye, David and Peter Allison. (2011). Adjaye Africa Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson.

[23] Adjaye, David. (2014). Podcast: David Adjaye on architecture and social inclusion. Hosted by Nico Daswani. (August 12, 2014). on the World Economic Forum Blog, “Inside the Creative Mind” .

Text by Regina Lee Roberts, Bibliographer for Anthropology & Archaeology,
Communication & Journalism, Feminist Studies, Lusophone Africa Collections, and Sociology.

Stanford University Libraries ©2014


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