The planetary architect of today delivers a well considered response to human, cultural and geographic diversity.
The leading architect David Adjaye OBE set up his first office in 1994, where his ingenious use of materials and his sculptural ability established him as an architect with an artist’s sensibility and vision. Adjaye Associates now has four international offices, with projects throughout the world. He is the John C. Portman Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard University and designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Would you say that the architecture of today is very different from the architecture of the past?
We live in a very different age, so the way in which we procure architecture has changed. It is much more concentrated and focussed, using the digital age to marshal experiences from different offices.
What makes buildings of today so different?
When we talk about the evolution of modernism we have to understand what happened in the 20th Century, the invention of the elevator, air conditioning, and the glass wall…. We can make a new kind of architecture, so we can accommodate the explosion of urbanism and people moving to the city in a way which we could not have done with the techniques of the past.
What is the difference between the architecture of the 20th and 21st Centuries?
The 20th Century was about our understanding of the industrialisation of the way in which we make buildings. We talked about material industrialisation, panellising, and glass was something you could produce in hundreds of sheets. Architecture responded by being in awe of that and celebrating it. The 21st Century has given us the tools to marshal, customise and focus, with this incredible production that we never had before. This is a massive shift.
What is happening now?
My generation believe that with the dawn of the digital age we have the tools to take advantage of what has happened. We are no longer in awe. We are obsessed with what a building means, how we can tailor it to a community. It’s not about shapes or forms, but reading the city, reading the people. My generation bespoke the industrialisation process. With computers we can generate efficiencies in all the forms. We can create the narrative with materials. I can create pixelated glass, send it to a computer and obtain what I want at a reasonable cost. The city has now become very complicated and dynamic.
What do you think of the debate about having vertical skyscrapers or horizontal buildings?
It is outdated, finishing something from the 20th Century. We have concluded that it is not about horizontal or skyscrapers, that is not the debate. It’s simply about density. You can build a whole city at ten storeys and accommodate everyone. If there is no land mass then you go vertical, but if you have an old city, Rome for instance, layering and adding three storeys doubles the inhabited size of the city. Layering on top is the way we should be going. You redesign to add more floors. You have to add to the past. There is an issue about conservation, but the roofline is the easiest place to articulate these issues.
Skyscrapers were perceived as the symbols of modernity. Is it still like that?
Skyscrapers are an important symbol, but my generation don’t believe in that for the future. The answers are no longer singular, they are complicated. The vertical is not the only answer to density.
Is this what you teach to your students at Harvard?
It is one of the things. We teach the techniques of adding, modifying and reinventing. These are the tools of dealing with the old city.
What else do you teach?
The understanding of cities, and that the city is the ultimate inspiration of architecture. The answers are in the city itself, if you look hard enough.
Which cities do you use for your case studies?
Cities from every continent which has produced interesting responses to the idea of the city. All regions have their models. We no longer see the world as a singular modern experiment, but as multiple models, and we need to be sensitive to what their trajectories are about. Architecture should be responding, and of the place.
How do you state your own style?
My generation are not interested in our own style as proposed in the past to create a signature. We are interested in process, intellectual curiosity, and response. So we hope you see these three things in every project, and then you recognise the architect by the way in which they respond to the problems. We refute the reduction of architecture to a series of motifs.
Therefore architecture will no longer be a witness of a historical period, as it was in the past?
No, it will, of course. We should look at the example of what is happening in contemporary art. It is an art form about response rather than style, and when we see it we can date the periods in each time since it started in the Sixties.
You build homes for private people and buildings for public cultural institutions. What is the difference between building a private house and a public place?
I think that the question of building oscillates between public and private, and the intellectual exercise is to understand and contribute to both. Our art form is both the public and the private.
What is the difference between building for private use and building for institutions?
Building a private house for my clients has been about the exploration of retreats from the density of the city, creating refuges for individuals, couples and families, so they have a different world. The public work is to explore the dissolving of institutional walls, to make them more like an infrastructure for citizens, offering accessibility and openness to the widest audience. These buildings offer an open language, to allow an ease of use and uptake. That is the project of the public realm of architecture right now.
If I understand you well, you are paying a great deal of attention to the needs of people?
When I designed the new libraries in East London, people thought that libraries were private institutions for other people. Our job was for them to realise that libraries are like a resource, like water, to turn on and off; a sort of democratization of knowledge, through openness and accessibility.
Which of your many projects do you like the most?
I love them all! I am lucky that I never did a project that I did not want to do. I find that it is empathy and intellectual sympathy with the person I am working with that is critical for the success of making architecture.
How can you work on different continents at the same time, with different inspirations?
The wonderful thing about architecture is that it is slow. It allows time to research, learn, infiltrate, experience, to role-play in many cultures and communities, which gives invaluable information about how to work in different contexts. I have to re-learn every day, to question what I already know, and respond.
From history we remember the Pyramids in Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York. Do you want to build and leave to posterity a symbol like these?
It is a kind of misguided inspiration to aim your architecture on leaving a symbol of your age. If you look at the pyramids it is an evolution, until they reach their perfection. It is not about making what is symbolic of an age. We focus on citizens and utility. I am 50 and Renzo Piano for example is 80. When he did the Centre Pompidou in Paris (Beaubourg) they thought it was awful. History decides what is good and not good, not architects. Architecture has transformed itself in the past twenty years. It’s so fundamentally different that it’s mind-blowing.
Is architecture a good career for young people to follow?
It is not a boom career and it is not flooded with people, it is a specialised world. There is an increase in the amount of architecture, because there are more people and there’s a need. The architect of today is a technical organiser, more like a conductor than an artist, building teams and making meaning out of it.
What about aesthetics?
Aesthetics are very important, but have changed in the way they manifest. It’s still about beauty, but we seek that beauty in many different ways.
Our notion of habitation is an evolved form of villages. The village helps in forms, or organisation and density, but its own motif is pretty much complete. The major task now is the unprecedented level of influx of people into cities. This is the problem that needs to be cracked.
Is this a great moment to be an architect?
It is a great moment. The technology means we can work with planetary architecture for the first time, and be responsible all over the world.
Why do you have your base in London?
London’s geographic position helps, as I choose to go to site, wherever it is.
When you build, what is your major goal?
The fulfilment of the happiness of the people who use it.
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17th June, 2016
Portrait of David Adjaye by Ed Reeve.
All images by kind permission and copyright of Adjaye Associates and the photographers.