Sir David Adjaye: 10 things you must know about the Ghanaian-British architect

On his birthday, STIR celebrates David Adjaye by sharing some interesting facts about the architect who is known for building projects with a remarkable sensibility and vision.

by STIRworld Published on : Sep 21, 2020

Sir David Frank Adjaye is a Ghanaian-British architect who has created a mark in the architectural world through his sensitive, culturally responsive and global architecture for all. Born in Tanzania on September 22, 1966, and having lived across various countries before finally settling in London, Adjaye’s childhood exposed him to diverse cultures and the architecture of varied regions. He received his degree in architecture from South Bank University and master’s degree from Royal College of Art in London in 1993. In 2000, he set up his own practice, Adjaye Associates in London, with now offices in New York, Ghana and Berlin as well.

Adjaye has been a winner of the RIBA Bronze Medal, was appointed the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and MIT’s McDermott award among many others. He is known for designing several notable buildings around the world, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, and the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC, USA | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC, USA Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On his 54th birthday, STIR notes 10 things you must know about the Ghanaian-British architect, David Frank Adjaye.

1. He was deeply inspired by his childhood travels

Due to his father’s career as a diplomat, Adjaye travelled extensively in Africa and the Middle East as a child and that allowed him to develop a heightened degree of cultural sensitivity, which exposed him to a variety of architectural styles. He has particularly cited his travels being the influences on his approach to design.

“Unlike people who may have had an education or a stable upbringing in one or two places, I was forced from a very early age to negotiate a wide variety of ethnicities, religions, and cultural constructions. By the time I was 13, I thought that was normal, and that was how the world was. It gave me a kind of edge in an international global world, which we find increasingly in the 21st century,” Adjaye was quoted by Smithsonian Magazine.

Moscow School of Management Skolkovo | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Moscow School of Management Skolkovo Image: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

2. He was impacted by observing his younger brother’s wheelchair needs

At a young age, Adjaye was exposed to the dysfunctional designs of public institutions used by his family as they cared for a newly-paralysed child. He believes that many times the functional design is even more important than beauty.

Adjaye, speaking with Smithsonian Magazine had said, “My practice absolutely believes that architecture is the physical act of social change, and the manifestation of it. I believe in architecture as a social force that actually makes good. And one that edifies communities”.

Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo, Norway | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo, Norway Image: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

3. Adjaye documented 54 major African cities during his early adulthood

One of the many prolific projects that evolved out of his travels is the Adjaye Africa Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture. The project took place over a 10-year period, documenting 54 major African cities and showcasing a concise urban history, fact file, maps and satellite imagery that come together in a rigorous analysis and re-conceptualisation of what African architecture is and can truly be. Adjaye photographed and documented every city, collated and published the images as a seven-volume set in 2011.

4. Knighted in 2017 for services to architecture

The Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood described Adjaye as ‘one of the leading architects of his generation and a global cultural ambassador for the UK’. Adjaye was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) before being awarded Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 Queen's New Years Honours List for his services to architecture. The honour recognises the ‘achievements and service of extraordinary people across the United Kingdom’.

Abrahamic Family House, UAE | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Abrahamic Family House, UAE Image: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

5. The architect's favourite tool

Adjaye’s favourite tool is his blue Rexel Cumberland pencil, sharpened in a carpenter's style with a knife.

6. Adjaye is a part-time musician who combines architecture with sound

Adjaye has released a vinyl record along with his musician brother Peter Adjaye. The brothers have also collaborated on projects like 'Dialogues' on MusicforArchitecture Records and Musicity that fuse architecture with sound.

Mole House, UK | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Mole House, UK Image: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

7. Belief in architecture as a 'Robin Hood' practice

Adjaye calls the practice of architecture a “Robin Hood practice”, where he says “for rich people we make things grittier, for poor people we make them glossier”. Also, Adjaye revealed to The Guardian that he likes to start his work when his research team puts together histories of the project to dive into. “Until I have that clarity I can’t really draw. I have to have a “fusion moment” and tell the story the way I have read it in my presentations to clients. If that has resonance, we get the job – and if it doesn’t, well, we don’t”.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC, USA | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC, USA Image: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

8. Designs furniture, clothing, textiles and trophies as well

Adjaye has also designed textiles for Knoll in collaboration with Creative Director, Dorothy Cosonas. Inspired by desert landscapes and the rock architecture of Petra, Adjaye designed Monoforms, an open-ended furniture system based on the language of form, rather than technical detail. He also created the Washington Furniture Collection, and the Moroso Double-Zero collection, navigating into other design fields other than architecture.

Knoll Washington Collection | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Knoll Washington Collection Image: Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

9. A basketball player created sneakers influenced by Adjaye’s NMAAHC

Inspired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (completed in 2016) which is notably Adjaye’s most famous work, sneakers were designed by basketball player Stephen Curry in 2020.

Sneakers inspired by David Adjaye's Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture | David Adjaye | Adjaye Associates | STIRworld
Sneakers inspired by David Adjaye's Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

10. He is designing a new campus in downtown Sharjah for The Africa Institute 

The Institute is reportedly the first centre of its kind, fully dedicated to the advanced study, research and documentation of Africa and the African diaspora in the Arab world. The development of The Africa Institute is spearheaded by Cornell University Professor Salah M. Hassan. The design by Adjaye Associates will create an enclosed 3,43,175 sqft campus with five wings between four and seven stories each, connected by a series of open-air interior courtyards that span the entire ground floor and feature fountains and landscaping with native plants.

(Compiled from various sources)

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