In this interview, Sir David Adjaye, acclaimed architect and winner of the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, explores the role of public buildings in empowering communities, what architecture can learn from art, and how no space is ever done evolving.
Your book ‘David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007’ brings together houses and buildings from the early years of your architectural practice. Looking back at these formative projects, what common characteristics do you see?
I started my career collaborating with a generation of artists who were pushing the boundaries of the very concept of art, so every collaboration was an experiment. It was never about making a beautifully lit cube for their studios, but rather about negotiating the relationship between the studio and the home. Instead of simply making them one, I wanted to define an inner space for creation, distinct from the on-goings of a typical living space. The process required an acute understanding of the work the artists wanted to perform, and their process in doing so, before I could even begin form-making.
These dialogues exposed me to the emerging modes of artistic production at the turn of the century—the likes of Rachel Whiteread who had a completely different practice to Chris Ofili, and Tim Noble and Sue Webster who had an entirely different practice from either of them. I was captivated by those dialogues which have continued at larger scales throughout my career.
Is there one project from the book that you feel is particularly emblematic of your work during this early period? Can you tell us more about it, and what makes it stand out to you?
Most of my early commissions were private residences and studios for artists during which I developed what some called a “critical regionalist” approach. One of my first major public commissions, the Idea Stores, was a concept pioneered by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets which completely reimagined library services and posed the question of what a library could actually be. They’re not simply houses for books, but spaces in which knowledge and learning occurs in various forms. There are adult education classes and instructors to teach motor mechanics, aerobics and flower arranging, as well as spaces for weddings, cafés, and a crèche. Both body and mind are being exercised in these spaces, reflecting a holistic approach to wellness where architecture is used to account for the multiplicity of uses.
The Ideas Stores serve incredibly diverse communities where up to fifteen languages are spoken within a single pocket of space. Through the research it was clear that a unifying force for these many groups were the street markets in which every ethnicity participates. I wanted to reflect this unifying quality in the physicality of the building, so the façade borrows from the awnings of the market stalls which are made from blue and green stripes. While not a literal translation, it’s certainly a nod to the communities that inspired the very concept of these libraries. And I so loved how the design response subtly connects people to place in this way.
Most of your early work was in London. What are the city’s particular constraints or opportunities for architectural innovation?
I embraced what I learned from British architecture. There is a strong tradition of designing things well and to perfection in the UK. What I oppose is this idea of the building as an unfeeling functional machine. With each of my projects I respond to a very particular criteria in very particular environments so my work is different every time. It corresponds with the wants and needs of the communities I’m designing for as well as the contextual characteristics of the given space. A building is not a cold perfect machine, but rather a form to be evolved, changed, and fine-tuned to the various conditions of our lives. I think it’s an enriching approach to form-making, to see architecture as a story of an ever-developing context.
The Elektra House was the first house I ever designed. I was fixated on how London architecture ignores the stunning northern lights the city receives, focusing too much on facade-making and brickwork. So I designed the house with a large window just to capture the natural light, which means the window also functions as an environmental collector to emphasize elements of the space. Something else that was important to me was the way one transitions from the public realm to the private one. The door of this house is accessed through a short passageway, for a discrete entrance that plays with the English quietness—something unusual in East London where doors typically open straight onto the street.
After a series of acclaimed houses, you won a number of public commissions in the early 2000s. How did you navigate the transition into building for communities rather than private individuals?
I have this discourse about private retreats and public engagement constantly because the question of the building naturally oscillates between the two. The intellectual exercise of architecture is to understand and contribute to both public and private spaces, so the art form inherently speaks to both. My private work takes on the exploration of retreats from the busy-ness of the city to create refuge for individuals, couples or families. It’s about creating a personal world or sanctuary. Whereas my public work looks to dissolve barriers between entry and participation, offering open accessibility for citizens. Public buildings speak an open language for easy use and uptake.
When it comes to public work, I particularly love libraries. They are one of the only forms of public infrastructure aimed at disseminating knowledge. When I designed the Idea Store in Tower Hamlets, many people thought libraries were private institutions and we had to get them to see that not only are libraries a public resource but their resource. That’s part of the task of public architecture: empowering everyday citizens to have a sense of ownership of these spaces.
Throughout your career, you’ve often worked with artists – either as clients or as collaborators. What does that artistic influence bring to your practice?
Well I initially rejected architecture for art before discovering the two are not mutually exclusive. I was educated in the 1980s, an age of heavy theory where experimentation through thought alone felt insufficient for me. I love theory—it’s critical to the practice. But it resides in making and understanding, and then reflecting and remaking. What I saw were many architects who theorized about the meaning of the universe, while others were designing these ornamental postmodernist buildings.
I didn’t want to learn solely through theory, but through building, and ironically it was the artists who spoke to this type of criticality. They were the ones constructing thoughtful environments and installations. Artists were my role models for the kinds of forms I wanted to create, so I kept seeking opportunities that rethought the architectural practice like they were doing.
Many of your projects deal with tangible or intangible imprints of the past – whether that’s building onto an historic structure, or honouring lives led, and lost, at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Stephen Lawrence Centre, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. How can a building mediate memory?
I think a building is supposed to mediate memory. Architecture is a story and the methodology is to find the narrative. Not a narrative based on fantasy but instead based on analysis of how history comes into the present, and projects into the future. The task is to find moments within these three conditions of our existence that make sense and need to be amplified. What makes architecture so interesting is that it seeks to make this intangibility tangible. We, in our various societies, are dealing with intangible issues that need constructable narratives for us to engage.
Without these tributes people cannot learn from the past and risk forgetting. Imagine a monument to the atrocities of slavery in every community it happened. Every generation to come would have to reconcile that issue and connect it to place. Without that process I don’t see how any society is to honestly claim to be learning from its past.
The reverse is what we have now, and a direct result of the vested interests of the powerful group’s desire to rewrite their history or distance themselves from the horrors that led to their current positions—and it doesn’t work. But look at Berlin. The city is filled with monuments to commemorate World War II and the Holocaust. They have made a conscious decision to reckon with that history and their monuments serve as a reminder of what they have overcome.
Thinking about your own memories, how has your international upbringing and intercultural exposure informed your architectural approach?
I think we are inevitably products of what we do and where we come from. My father was a part of a generation of ambassadors who were trained very quickly and sent all over the world. I was born in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and we moved from there to Ghana, then Egypt and finally to the UK when I was thirteen.
I noted the differences when visiting a Hindu Ashram in East Africa, or a mosque in North Africa, or a West African shrine house. But I was inspired more so by the power of architecture to shape societies, rather than the artifacts or the quality of the architecture itself. It was later that I realized these forms have a way of shaping how a society sees itself. And no place ever feels complete to me in itself because I am always referring to it in relation to the others I’ve experienced. So the way I think of the world is as a collection of evolving experiences. These experiences are constantly negotiated and renegotiated through time and space to accommodate growing communities that are never stagnant. This constantly informs my work.