Architect Puts Africa in New African-American Museum

David Adjaye, the designer of the upcoming national museum, shrugs off his fame and focuses on adding West African themes to his work.

Adjaye burst onto the scene in his hometown of London. He studied architecture at the Royal College of Art rather than at an architecture school. “I like art and I wanted to be near artists,” he says. His first breaks came in the form of commissions from former classmates and fellow artists.

It helps that your artsy friends rise quickly to stardom: Scottish actor Ewan McGregor; Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist Lorna Simpson; and fellow Brits Jake Chapman and Chris Ofili, the latter of whom got into a spat with then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over his use of cow dung in a painting of the Virgin Mary. Adjaye has designed homes for them, earning a reputation as an architect who doesn’t look down on small projects.

But he has also landed the big commissions that are helping make him a household name: the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo; the Idea Store, a community-and-education center in London’s Whitechapel district; the Moscow School of Management; and MCA Denver.

Architects manipulate space, defining it through a “vocabulary” of architectural elements — think columns, arches, walls, molding, stairs and ramps. Adjaye has expanded that grammar by bringing African architectural elements into his design. He studies elements of urban design in West Africa, pointing out that urbanization in West Africa goes back hundreds of years. In the upcoming National Museum, the three-tiered bronze roof is inspired by a Yoruba carver’s work.

The Idea Store (Courtesy of Adjaye Assoc.)