Like all architects who have attained international recognition and status, David Adjaye is rarely in one place very long. We caught the Tanzanian-born 41-year-old just before a talk he gave for the Architecture Foundation at London’s Tate Modern. He was there to present his latest project, a contemporary art museum in Denver.
Although he’d stepped off a long-haul flight only a few hours earlier, he managed to speak remarkably coherently without notes for an hour. The museum itself, which was shown from inception to completion, is bold, dark and imposing on the outside – though it does feature an attractive array of balconies and terraces on the upper levels that open it up – and light and village-like inside, with separate spaces that all lead back on to internal thoroughfares. One audience member referred to it as ‘masculine’ and forbidding, saying that it should contain a ‘soft area’, like the one destined for kids to play in, for adults too. Adjaye laughed, but didn’t take up the suggestion. A noteworthy aspect of the Denver build is that it has achieved the Gold LEED certification for environmental design. Everything was examined, from the way the façade was conceived and the installation of an evaporative cooling system (doing away with the need for energy-guzzling air-conditioning), to the food and drink served in the museum café (local and organic where possible), and even the cutlery used at the opening party, and the most sustainable option brought in.
As a result, the building is also designed to deal with the bright Denver light. As you enter the building you walk along a series of ramps before getting to the entrance proper, so as to acclimatise to the different light intensity inside. Adjaye started out building austere but spacious private homes for various arts and media celebrities such as Ewan McGregor, Jake Chapman and Janet Street-Porter. The Street-Porter project made the papers in somewhat mortifying fashion when her home transpired to have serious leaks, among other defects. Things quieted down when Adjaye pointed out that architects don’t actually do the building, and that her misfortune was down to how the work was done and not to poor design.
It’s only in the last few years that Adjaye has started making public buildings. His first major foray into the public domain was his two Idea Stores, based in the multicultural east London borough of Tower Hamlets. The Idea Store is an appealing, updated take on the library, and rather more akin to a high-tech community centre. Both buildings feature green stripes that refer to the awnings of neighbouring market stalls, and the Whitechapel Road venue has an escalator that whisks people up directly from the street below. The ‘stores’ offer spaces in which to browse and read books, work on computers and surf the internet, take adult education classes or simply chill out and drink a latte with friends. A young, trendy PR woman told me how much she likes her local ‘store’ and goes there all the time to work and meet people.
In 2007 Adjaye hit the headlines again, for all the right reasons this time. He inaugurated not one but three public buildings in London: the Bernie Grant arts centre in Tottenham, the Stephen Lawrence Educational Centre in Deptford and Rivington Place in Shoreditch, the first new-build public gallery in London since 1968 and home to the Institute of International Visual Arts and a photographic agency. When the then not-yet-completed projects appeared in a 2006 exhibition dedicated to Adjaye called ‘Making Public Buildings’, each one had a picture of an artefact beside it. In the case of the Bernie Grant centre it was a patterned Rwandan mat; for Rivington Place, a mask from Sierra Leone, and a pair of Ghanaian gold boxes for the Stephen Lawrence centre.
How did these objects relate to the buildings in question? ‘I try very much in all the projects to bring a certain kind of reductive abstraction to what are really quite complex buildings,’ he begins. ‘I’m very interested in what I call the DNA of ancient artefacts, especially those from the African continent, because of my background.’ He goes on to say that ‘these objects are each a summary of a highly ritualised scenario and set of complexities, reminders of the culture’s ability to make these abstractions into concrete forms’.