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A priority on progress: What drives architect David Adjaye?

A PRIORITY ON PROGRESS

In advance of his keynote address at Toronto's Interior Design Show, Ellen Himelfarb speaks with David Adjaye about his origins, architectural aspirations and the driving force behind his creativity

David Adjaye is in Accra. He's in San Francisco. He's in Doha, devising a sustainable city from sand. He is mostly in New York, home of his wife, Ashley Shaw-Scott, and their 19-month-old son. He is almost never in Canada – not since his design for the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa was passed over in favour of Daniel Libeskind's submission. Nothing personal.

Yet on Jan. 20, following a lecture at McGill's School of Architecture, Adjaye will spend an hour in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre delivering the keynote address at the Interior Design Show. The timing couldn't be better. The year just past saw Adjaye emerge as a venerated figure – not only architecturally but politically – with the September launch of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Washington's National Mall. As lead architect on the NMAAHC, the final monument to rise from the Mall's 225-year-old master plan, he engaged the world through its bronze-toned metal latticework and absorbed the expectations of a nation. He also attained the status of a Frank Gehry or Norman Foster.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Last year also saw Adjaye turn 50. On Friday he'll discuss the half-career's worth of experience that informed his approach to civic architecture and his skill for weaving history into the geography of his designs. If you're interested in how this British African translated his experience as a diplomat's son into a visual language for a globalized world, you'll want to be a fly on that wall.

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Adjaye's work hasn't always seemed overtly "diplomatic." In his early career, he ran with an arty crowd from his days at the Royal College of Art. For Marc Quinn, Chris Ofili, Jake Chapman and the photographer Ed Reeve, he designed dark-panelled, vaguely forbidding houses with lock-down windows that stressed privacy over accessibility – refuges, he said, from the chaos of urban life.

Toward the mid-2000s, this cloak-and-dagger approach began to open up. He was establishing a reputation for structures that sympathize with people and places, for dramatic execution and grand symbolic gestures. Buildings with slick facades that belie the light and enlightenment found within, that appealed to bureaucrats looking to inject their cultural institutions with compassion and currency. The Norwegian Nobel Committee hired him to design a visitors' centre in an old train station by Oslo's port. Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned a new home downtown.

He progressed into masterplans for London, Montenegro and beyond – vast projects that inhabit his ethos like religion. For one regeneration project he is "un-gating" a Johannesburg community. "He has this innate ability to create structures that really invite people to reflect and interact within the cultural context of the space," says Karen Kang, national director of IDS Canada. "Especially his public buildings."

A brief flirtation with insolvency, after the financial crisis, nearly killed Adjaye Associates. But when I finally pin him down, in London, Adjaye says he's long since shaken off the desperation of that time. "I'm fortunate to be in a position where I do not need to take on any project that doesn't engage my passion," he says. "Every project I take on must push a narrative forward, must contribute to reshaping the urban condition in some way. If it does not have that element, that capacity for progress, I'm not interested." Some critics, meanwhile, have pushed forward narratives of broken escalators, dead space, stunted technology, boondoggles dubbed "anticlimactic" at best, "useless" at worst.

"In a clutch of public projects he designed in the last decade," wrote Rowan Moore, architecture critic of The Observer, in 2014, "there's a tendency for the story behind the design to outrun the realization."

Predictably, his associations have shifted from art-world stars to politicians. In 2011, he built a house for former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the beach in Accra, Ghana. And there were rumours he was being considered for Barack Obama¹s presidential library. They met during the NMAACH inauguration. "He's a consummate politician," Adjaye says of Obama. "He has the ability to create intimacy in a room while Michelle gets around to everyone. They've created a new, more intimate model of statesmanship."

A remodelling of the Studio Museum in New York’s Harlem neighbourhood.

Aside from a New York office, which is currently remodelling the Studio Museum in Harlem as a tower of squat volumes concealing a cathedral-like atrium, Adjaye Associates has a satellite HQ in Accra. Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and spent his childhood at schools around Africa and the Middle East before relocating to London. After university, he visited every country on the African continent, documenting their geography, history and infrastructure. It took 11 years and the result was the book Adjaye Africa Architecture, in which he reimagines the continent as a confederation of climatic (rather than political) territories and contemplates their rapid urbanization.

Unsurprisingly, Adjaye says he spends a third of his life on airplanes and relishes the idea of landing an airport project. "Being an avid user, I have become very opinionated," he says. "Ideally it would be in Africa, or in South America, where we've not built a project yet." But he is still processing the impact of his work on the National Mall – "a massive investment of blood, sweat and tears… arguably the defining moment of my career," he reckons. "It's a rare and special moment when architecture has the opportunity to connect to the ethos of a people in such a palpable, discrete way. I go past it almost every month now and I still can't absorb the thought. You realize the power of a political and socially charged space."

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Among the design projects that David Adjaye and his firm Adjaye Associates have taken on is the Cape Coast Slavery Museum in Ghana.

Asked why he, a Brit, won the NMAAHC commission in 2009, Adjaye says he doubts any African-American architects had reached his level of global recognition. He's since taken on a slavery museum near Ghana's Cape Coast Castle, a hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And he's designed a glass box within a perforated concrete shell in Libreville for the Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation, established by Gabon's first lady. He has never denied his heritage, nor his point of view. Yet he is irritated by recognition for his "blackness."

"I realize how important it is for young kids from minority backgrounds, who feel excluded from the community, to have an empowering role model," he says. "At the same time, it's sad that we're still discussing these issues and letting them define who we are in world." His team includes staffers from 19 countries on five continents and has total gender parity, from entry level to executive board. "For me diversity goes without saying," he says.

In a post-Obama world, it's a narrative one hopes he'll keep pushing.

David Adjaye's Washington seating range for Knoll will be on display at IDS, alongside a showcase of the practice's key projects. For more information, visit www.interiordesignshow.com.

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