David Adjaye is the most famous black architect in the world. In fact, he may be the only famous black architect in the world. The tall, slim, ebony-handsome Londoner shrugs off his celebrity status and prefers to talk about his work. But big wins create big stars.
Adjaye teamed up with the Freelon Group, a team noted for its museum work, and New York firm Davis Brody Bond Aedas to beat out a slew of big names, including fellow Brit Norman Foster, for the commission to build the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will rise on the National Mall next to the Washington Monument between now and 2015. His team stood out, not just for its heavily African-influenced design for the new museum, Adjaye believes, but because he pitched the museum as a celebration of black achievement rather than as a lamentation on slavery.
Adjaye has had a meteoric rise in a business that is often called "an old man's profession." Conquering the complex bouillon of art history, design, structural engineering and human behavior — and, most, important, the connections and schmoozing that it takes to put up a building — can take a lifetime. Frank Gehry and Foster are 82; Moshe Safdie is 77. Yet at age 45, Adjaye has already earned a designation that puts him in a category that he dislikes: "starchitect."
Adjaye is quintessentially what the late documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne used to call "an international Negro." The son of Ghanaian diplomats, he was born in Tanzania in 1966 and lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Beirut, Lebanon; and Cairo, Egypt, with his family before settling in London. He has offices in Berlin and above a 1927 bank building on the ragged edge of New York City's hip TriBeCa neighborhood. Now he's back to leaving a trail of achievement in cities across several continents: Moscow; Denver; New York; Oslo, Norway; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and, of course, Washington, D.C.
Washington (D.C.) Highlands Library (Courtesy of Adjaye Assoc.)
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.)
Adjaye hopes that these touches, many of them subtle, will connect with the many African Americans who visit the site. "I believe in collective memory." Yet he has not dwelled on the past. Adjaye is not worried that this new architectural language will seem out of place in a city whose public buildings have long been identified with the neoclassical Greek Revival style. He points to the Washington Monument and describes it as a "pharaonic object." Indeed, that monument was inspired by obelisks like Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park and in the one at the Place de la Concorde in Paris — designs that are Egyptian, not European.
Adjaye pays a lot of attention to texture. For the Moscow School of Management, he has created undulating walls of multicolored glass panels that are playful and distinctive. In New York, he has developed a special molded, textured material to cover a residence for retired jazz musicians in Harlem's Sugar Hill section. He's especially proud of the windows, dancing in irregular patterns that contrast sharply with the military rigidity of windows in an adjacent public housing project. "I think of that as jazz improvisation," he says.
Some critics have said that his work hasn't developed a distinctive style, but Adjaye has responded that he does not want to repeat the same design over and over again. He's clearly not a classical musician, satisfied to play the same piece repeatedly. Adjaye is more like jazz: creating under pressure, improvising, borrowing, discarding and delivering a performance that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.
National Museum of African American History and Culture (Courtesy of Adjaye Assoc.)