A lot can be said about Sir David Adjaye OBE. In 2017, he earned the title Sir after Queen Elizabeth II knighted him. In the same year, TIME Magazine featured his name in the 100 most influential people. He had created more than 50 amazing designs across the world by the time he turned 50. He has multiple awards, the most recent being the RIBA 2021 Royal Gold Medal.
Sir David Adjaye OBE is a Ghanaian-British architect. Born in 1966, he has had an interesting journey. Today, he gives us a glimpse of his formative years, his decision to become an architect, achievements, experiences, and challenges.
Interview with Sir. David Adjaye OBE
Interviewer: We are grateful that you honored our request for an interview. Why Architecture?
Sir David: My father was a diplomat, so I spent most of my childhood traveling the world. We lived in Cairo, Kampala, Nairobi, Accra, Beirut, and Jeddah. Even as a child, I couldn’t help but notice the buildings everywhere we went. However, I must admit my youngest brother played a critical role in my decision.
An infection he had when he was five years old caused him to suffer brain damage. He was left mentally and physically handicapped. My family had settled in London to ensure he received specialized treatment, and at the same time, ensure our education continued uninterrupted.
Moving my brother around was a difficulty that made me realize how people living with physical disabilities were overlooked since they did not have provisions to move easily. There were no ramps, yet we had to use stairs to get to many places. It was a difficulty and an injustice that I wanted to correct.
This is one reason my designs have a social aspect, and every design has a story behind it.
Interviewer: What is it about architecture that keeps you grounded, even after all your achievements over the years?
Sir David: Architecture to me is not just about buildings. I think if it were just that, I would have given up a long time ago. However, for me, architecture is about passion and the reason behind building design. Every time my team and I come up with a design, there is a story behind it.
Architecture is not just about space and filling that space with a structure. When I carried out decade-long research for my book African Architecture my focus wasn’t just on the building but the environment. Buildings tell a story of the people, the space, the culture, and the environment.
I often give these two examples, a church, and a prison. The design of each of these buildings serves a purpose. The church offers a space for people to feel hope. When they walk into this space, the environment is supposed to project their feelings and thoughts. The prison, on the other hand, elicits feelings of punishment and repentance.
So, for me, architecture is infinite. There is no limit to our creations, especially since the environment keeps changing. I have designed buildings in many parts of the world, each in different environments and serving a unique purpose.
Interviewer: You probably get asked this a lot, but how did you break into the architecture space so quickly?
Sir David: I think I knew the kind of architecture I wanted to do from the get-go. I went into a space that was not profitable at the time. My decision to go into the culture, education, and social space was intentional. This is where my passion lies.
When I graduated in 1993, I won the RIBA Bronze Medal Award, and you could say I caught the eye of many large, successful architecture firms. However, instead of going to the large established space, I opted for small, emerging, little-known architecture firms because I wanted to start on a blank slate.
I didn’t want to go and fit into the vision of other established architects who have already chosen and excelled in their preferred architectural space.
I wanted to learn and figure out the direction I wanted my career to take me. By the time I established my firm, Adjaye Associates, seven years later (2000), I had my vision speaking clearly. Of course, I initially had to take on small projects that were not in the culture and social space to pay the bills, but my goal remained the same.
Interviewer: What would you say is the project that made people pause and take a second look at you?
Sir David: My firm was commissioned to design the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and Idea Store in Whitechapel. These were the first two large projects we did, and what was exciting is, this happened five years after Adjaye Associates opened its doors. Even better, these projects aligned with my vision for architecture.
The Nobel Peace Centre is a place where people can go and see the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, the past Laureates, and the idea behind the Nobel Peace Centre. So, this is not just a building. We crafted a space that would lure the visitors deeper into the centre in their quest to understand the stories being told.
The Idea Store is a space that brings people of different ages together, even though each has a different purpose when they walk into the library and other spaces. When coming up with this design, my team and I had to imagine a space that would attract the old and the young. We considered the people coming to the store to read, learn, or dance.
This space would have a lot of foot traffic, but we had to make each person feel like they belonged and owned a fraction of the area they occupied, irrespective of their purpose.
Interviewer: I want us to shift focus to Africa and your work in the continent, but first, tell us about the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Sir David: This project was extremely special to me. I couldn’t believe we had won the competition. What makes it more profound is this was the last space, set aside about 200 years ago for this museum, which makes up one of the seven buildings core to America’s history, culture, and Administration.
The Monumental Park, The Parliament, and The White House are some of the structures that form part of the core. For my firm to be considered for a project as important as this one was humbling.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has West African elements. This is because a large percentage of African Americans (more than 80%) have their genealogy connected to West Africa.
Interviewer: Tell us about your projects in Africa
Sir David: I think I will start with the National Cathedral of Ghana. This project was unexpected but just as exciting as other cultural projects I have done across the world.
This cathedral is special to me because, again, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it forms part of the core that defines Ghana.
The National Museum is a sacred space for the people of Ghana. The population in Ghana is 70% Christian. Granted, there are many churches, but none represents the people as one unit. The National Cathedral of Ghana is a space where all these denominations can converge as one family, especially during national religious events.
When creating this space, I chose to look at it as a landscape. Rather than set up a building where people walk in, pray, and walk out, the design caters to the different needs of everyone who walks in. It looks like a museum, a learning centre, and a sacred space.
The Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library is one of my current projects in Africa. This library, covering an area of 5,400m², is located in Johannesburg. This library will tell South Africa’s history, the story of Thabo Mbeki’s leadership, his experiences, and even better, the library will include spaces that will benefit the community.
There is a museum, library, women’s empowerment centre, an auditorium, reading room, cafeteria, seminar rooms, and so much more. What I love about such projects is that years from today, people who were not alive during Thabo Mbeki’s tenure as South Africa’s President can still have a glimpse of his life, times, and contributions.
Whenever I visit Ghana, I can’t help but feel it has wasted its waterfront. Marine Drive Accra seeks to draw attention to the beauty of Ghana’s strategic location to the coast. I love cities like Luanda, in Angola, where the city faces the water. Everyone gets to appreciate the beauty and calm that are often associated with the views of the waters.
The Marine Drive Accra is a massive project that involves the redevelopment of 241 acres of land. This project is multi-faceted. It draws attention to Accra’s cultural, physical, and creative space.
Adjaye Associates, as usual, carried out intensive research on this project. We did not want to develop an elitist design that made this space for the select few. We look at Marine Drive Accra as a link between Ghana’s landmarks and a great beachfront.
The design has three civic anchors; The National Concert Hall to the East, The Osu Castle and Grounds to the West, and a public park at the centre. The Park honors the forefathers who fought for Ghanian Independence.
Interviewer: As we come to the end of this interview, what advice would you give African architects who look up to you.
Sir David: Africa has many great opportunities. I see many architects try to emulate what they see in developed countries, but it is possible to create great uniquely African designs.
As I mentioned earlier, for me, architecture and design should have meaning. They have to tell a story. African architects have a lot of advantages because they don’t have to recreate Africa’s culture. The rich history is well documented, and they can use this history to craft a style that will empower future generations to read more about the stories behind the building designs.
Interviewer: Thank you so much, Sir David Adjaye, for your time and insight into your creative style, thought process, and beliefs about Architecture.
Mario el Africano