Deco Icon: David Adjaye

Adjaye Associates won the competition to design the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture - arguable the nation's most prestigious new building. Photographs Alan Karchmer

Tanzanian born, Ghanaian raised and international acclaimed – British architect David Adjaye uses design to improve society, with his projects showcasing an understanding of the relationship between architecture and its historic, social and environmental contexts.

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‘It’s about architecture, but also about memory and history’

Born in Tanzania in 1966, David’s family lived in a number of African and Middle Eastern cities before settling in Britain, where he attended school and discovered his passion for art. Wanting to make a career of art, he enrolled for a degree in architecture at London South Bank University, followed by practical experience at the studios of David Chipperfield and Eduardo Souto de Moura. He set up his first office in 1994; in 2000 he transformed it into Adjaye Associates. Today the company has offices in London, New York, Berlin and Accra (rumour has it David spends a third of his life in aeroplanes). It was named Architects of the Year (2016) by Iconic Awards.

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Located on Constitution Avenue, adjacent to the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument, the museum will house exhibit galleries, administrative spaces, theatre space and collections storage space for the NMAAHC. The design rests on three cornerstones: the “corona” shape and form of the building; the extension of the building out into the landscape – the porch; and the bronze filigree envelope. Photographs Alan Karchmer

Creative collaboration is key to David’s practice and he is fond of working with artists and curators. He designed the Upper Room for exhibiting 13 paintings by Ofili, an island pavilion for an Olafur Eliasson light projection and a temporary museum in a 16th century ship-building warehouse for Okwui Enwezor’s curated exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale. His designs for private homes have earned David the moniker ‘starchitect’, yet his dedication to design solutions for community-focused and civic projects has been clear from the start: His graduate work, a home for the disabled, won him the RIBA Bronze medal.

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Sugar Hill is a new mixed-use development in Manhattan’s historic Sugar Hill district of Harlem that features affordable housing, early education programs and a new cultural institution. The practice worked closely with the client and local community to ensure the design is tied to its history, practical and aesthetic requirements, through a series of workshops and planning meetings. Photographs Adjaye Associates

This emphasis on a social agenda is evident in the Sugar Hill complex in Upper Manhattan, which provides subsidised housing, a preschool and children’s art museum for New York’s poor. Fostering communities is central to Hallmark House, in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct. A building rehabilitated for mixed-use by mixed-income groups, the design is geared to the hot climate with lush gardens and a special membrane-roof. The aim with this development is the cultivation of more diverse communities in a city challenged, says David, by ‘a spatial architecture born of division’.

Exposure to different cultures and urban architectural traditions has been pivotal to David’s career. As a student he travelled to architectural landmarks and between 2000 and 2011 he visited 53 African cities, documenting civic, commercial and residential buildings and sites. Published in Adjaye. Africa. Architecture, his photographs show an understanding of the relationship between architecture and its historic, social and environmental contexts.

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The Moscow School of Management’s external appearance changes dramatically depending on the viewpoint. Photographs Ed Reeves

The buildings designed by Adjaye Associates are not shy. Civic buildings are often imposing, with eye-catching sculptural forms that acknowledge the culture and heritage of their surroundings. An aerial photograph of the Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo (2010), for example, evokes Russian constructivism with a design composed of circle, square and slim, slanted rectangles.

Perhaps the most prestigious is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Sculpted like an upside-down ziggurat, it is veiled in bronze-covered aluminium latticework that references the ironwork of former slaves. ‘It’s about architecture,’ says David, ‘but also about memory and history.’

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The Upper Room is a room-size installation which was created in collaboration with artist, Chris Ofili and is now a permanent exhibition at Tate Britain. Rather than designing a space in which to view art, David Adjaye’s work on the project was a wholly assimilated collaboration – so that art and architecture combined to become more than the sum of its parts.

Some may call him overly ambitious and idealistic in his goals of using design to transform and improve societies, but across four continents people are pleased that he dreams big. Soon Jozi commuters and visitors will enjoy an Adjaye-designed pavilion at Park Station, part of a project to reactivate the public square as a food and culture hub. In partnership with Designing_South Africa (D_ZA), David’s team will ensure that the million+ commuters who traverse the square daily will be served award-winning design with their morning coffee.

Text by Annemi Conradie


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Read about our previous DECO Icon,  maven of Ndebele art, Esther Mahlangu


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