words Kieran Long
“You know why giraffe necks are stripy? Giraffes are stripy because when they come together they form an optical haze that confuses predators. When you get a family of giraffes there’s this moiré-ing, and lions trip out, and what they have to do is to separate them to hunt them.”
David Adjaye has just returned from a couple of weeks in Africa, and is extremely excited about the possibilities of an extended story about giraffes (although we think he might mean zebras) to illustrate his ideas about recognition and representation in his architecture. At 37, Adjaye, who was born in Ghana, is Britain’s most prolific young architect and easily its leading black architect. We meet in the glass-walled meeting room of his studio, which is in a run-down street in Shoreditch, east London. He speaks effortlessly and laughs loudly and frequently.
“The pattern’s so super-sophisticated, when a baby is born, the mother shields it from everybody, so it only recognises her print. And when giraffes don’t have that connection with their mothers, they disconnect completely because they can’t see their mothers any more. When the tribe runs off, it’s like, ‘Fucking hell! What’s going on, where are you?’”
Adjaye’s work is generated by his own brand of culturally literate, intuitive responses to context and history. The giraffe story seems to him to describe a way through architecture’s obsession with typologies. He prefers not to make a house look like a house, aiming rather for his buildings to leave an individual imprint (like an animal’s) based on how they are experienced rather than on cultural indoctrination.
He talks about his work as someone who is designing in the trenches, making buildings that he sees as part of an ever-changing cultural continuum – evidenced by his holiday plans. “I’m going to visit the 52 capitals of all the African countries and photograph them,” he explains. “It’s a little project I have; I guess I’ve done about 15 so far.” His references are broad, but rarely intimidating, and he is working at a furious pitch while clearly maintaining several conversations with a diverse group of collaborators, clients and friends. What makes Adjaye engaging is his desire for the viewer to fill in the gaps. His work invites a kind of elemental recognition that does not require us to crack a semiotic code.
Adjaye Associates’ work is about to enter a new phase, with five public buildings completing in the next three years. He seems to have been around for a long time, building a considerable profile with a succession of private houses for clients, many from the art world, who allowed him great freedom to create singular interiors and much-imitated one-off buildings. The work is diverse: some provocative (Elektra House, Whitechapel, 2001), some sensuous (Ofili show, Victoria Miro Gallery, 2002), some verging on the corporate (Kensington apartment, 2001), but it has always been most associated with private houses. In this respect he risked becoming the new John Pawson or Seth Stein – getting stuck in a rut of ever more stylish and repetitive house interiors. But Adjaye’s houses continue to show the extreme and delightful sides of his work, providing an exercise book for ideas sometimes played out on a larger scale.
His extraordinary ability to attract media attention inspires admiration, jealousy and back-biting from other architects, but has also helped to win him the current array of public commissions. All five of which are in London. Some, like the Bernie Grant Centre for Performing Arts (a group of rehearsal and performance buildings) in Tottenham Green, north London, are on the scale of urban design; others are high-profile single buildings, such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, and the Whitechapel Idea Store, currently under construction in east London. There will be Adjaye’s normal succession of high-impact temporary pavilions around London, too, including his pavilion in Regent’s Park for the Frieze Art Fair and his LxWxH installation for arts group inIVA in Shoreditch, both of which open in October. Adjaye has the right mix of projects to increase his already burgeoning profile yet further.
But the biggest news is that Adjaye plans to open offices in America to cope with demand there for his services: he says he is “very committed” to setting up in New York before the end of the year. Having made his reputation in London, it may soon be that the majority of his work is in the States. As well as the arts centre he is designing in Denver, he is on the brink of securing a very large commission in New York, which would be an unprecedented coup for a European architect of his age in a city with such high competition.
Adjaye has always operated slightly outside the normal career trajectory of architects in this country. Most of his friends and collaborators are visual artists and people from other media. And America seems to be another outlet for Adjaye’s precocity. The commission for the Denver building came as Adjaye was already up and running with the Idea Store projects: “In America, what’s really funny is that the discovery of me came at a point when I was midway through my essay here. I suddenly realised that when you go into another context you’re as good as the last thing you did. So ironically in America I found myself pitching for work that is significantly bigger and culturally more significant, in terms of scale, than I was getting here. And there’s not even a discussion about whether I’m capable of building things, whereas here there is, even though I’m building buildings.”
America has clearly worked its magic on Adjaye, and one can imagine his own ravishing optimism washing well with clients there: “There’s much more of a can-do attitude there. There’s a rite of passage, and once you’ve done that it’s like, okay son, you’re in the club, get out there and punch those things out. The minute you fuck up, you’re dead, but you’re given the chance. We’re pitching on the kind of work that I’ve been dreaming about.”
It is rare to meet an architect in the UK with the kind of range that Adjaye has. His background (his father was a diplomat, his mother “a beautiful housewife”) has given him an easy confidence and an articulate charm, and he says he is comfortable building in east London, China, the US and on a developer estate in Jamaica. But the initial tranche of his public buildings deals with the hybridised urban condition of east London – the legacy of post-war reconstruction efforts, or the compromised Victoriana of Deptford.
Adjaye has a slightly perverse but palpable enthusiasm for the modernist contexts in which he is working. Adjaye’s favourite view of the Chrisp Street Idea Store, for example, is from the dodgy service car park around the back – the kind of place that reminds you of all the dirty secrets of modernist architecture. But his enthusiasm for the context is not about style. He describes the “tyrannical” condition of starting one’s practice in hock to past architectural masters. It is generated from what one might call a postmodern optimism that admits the failures of these buildings.
“Ultimately my enthusiasm is just in the belief that architecture has, of itself, to be able to set up incredibly heroic things, and I totally love that, because ultimately I think architecture always fails,” he says. “If I follow my own sort of thesis I can never succeed, so I figure there’s something very beautiful and heroic – a kind of failure and also a kind of fantastic heroism. It’s like the hero that kills himself for love. So now I see these great whales or these great beasts and I think wow, it’s like a kind of fantastic tragedy. I just think, you know, and I’m not trying to over-romanticise it for the sake of effect, it’s a really serious thing. [Modernist buildings make] a really serious effort to try to deliver something that has remnants of meaning.”
He reads an optimism into his own work that chimes with some of the social aspirations of high modernism, but resists its top-down dogmatism about society. Despite being tuned to the inevitability of failure, he says that optimism is a prerequisite for making buildings, and comes across with an amazing lack of cynicism. “To reject it, I think, is to admit that there is no point in humanity and society; it just is what it is, and that’s a philosophical position and that’s fine. But ultimately even pills don’t work; medicine has failed, but we keep making more medicine. People don’t say we should give up the concept of medicine.”
Adjaye has engineered a unique position where his fame need not put him in the same category as superstar architects. His credibility and inspirations come from other directions (“There’s no point in preaching to the choir,” he says) which leaves him free to make sweeping and cutting generalisations about an architectural system that he has less of a vested interest in than many. He says: “Ultimately architecture splintered at some point and there are two factions, and it’s not blobs and shards. It’s actually about the art and society. I think there was a very clear move that occurred in the 1970s – a loss of faith in theory and an incredible last hope for meaning in society – [critical] regionalism, Team X, Aldo van Eyck. And then there was another group that said, you know, ‘Fuck it’. That was the New York 5, I guess – Eisenman and Meier. They said it’s just a system of styles and once you get into it you can perfect it and you can make these incredible products that you pump out into the world and you can become a superstar. And they did, they proved it very quickly, and it’s extraordinary. And it’s just like there’s been what I call a kind of cheating. An idea that you don’t even have to swot, you just have to understand the rules to the book, you know – you fill in the forms and you’re a genius.” This is a typical Adjaye quote, full of generalisations and non-specific polemic. It is almost as if these narratives exist simply to show that he is on the right side of the debate. He is not an intellectual; if his arguments are general, his buildings are at least detailed and specific.
The Chrisp Street Idea Store may not express to everyone the kinds of cultural conflicts and movements that Adjaye is so attuned to. The building is generated by a strongly intuitive reaction to a range of cultural factors. But Adjaye is not one to hide behind shamanic creativity. He says: “What’s really clear is that the human condition has produced a series of inhabited spaces that are very specific, that are about a clash of ideas, the ideas of objective truth and massive force-driven systems. And I’m fascinated by the fissure between these two things. And I’m not trying to repair, but I’m trying to speak a language of mutual understanding between both worlds. I’m ultimately bored by one language over the other, and I’m completely interested in the polyvalency of all the languages kind of working at the same time. You could say that that makes a really bad din, but I think architecture is not noise. Actually it makes really beautiful forms.”