Sir David Adjaye, the first black Royal Gold Medallist, on what drives his practice, architecture for an age of pandemics, and why he doesn’t want to be considered a role model
David Adjaye is the first black architect to be awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Credit: Colleen Laurent
Eleanor Young You are in Accra, Ghana as we speak. How long have you been there?
David Adjaye I have been here a year. I moved here to work on the cathedral. I have close to a 50 person office in Accra. With Covid we all decamped at first to our houses, but when the government introduced a method for businesses to go back we did.
EY This is not your first RIBA Medal. You were awarded the RIBA Bronze Medal in 1990 for your student project Respite Centre. Was that medal important to you? Can you tell us about that project?
DA I am lucky to now have two! The Bronze Medal was incredibly important. It was what made my parents pay attention and think maybe I had something, a voice in this profession I was choosing. It was a creative profession and they were nervous for me. The Respite Centre was slightly biographical. It was a reflection on years of taking my brother to such places. A way to imagine having disability respites as a valuable and beautiful part of our urban environment and not tucked away. That was really the torch that set the direction of my desire to have a practice – it wasn’t an issue being addressed by the profession. I wanted to use architecture as a way to make the changes I wanted to see in society.
EY That social conviction is very obvious in your early projects like the Ideas Stores and the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. So is your strong interest in materials. How can we help change culture here in the UK so architects of your calibre are designing our schools and hospitals; the infrastructure of the everyday? You did some and what happened?
DA For me it’s a hope that with this medal my office is able to do more work in the mainstream in the UK’s public sector. And I hope young architects can have the possibility of doing both private homes and be engaged in public buildings early on. The competitions system and direct commission to certain generations can help that. Not just the market. I really believe this. Architecture needs to go to the youngest as well as the most established. There is something profound about when it does that and what it contributes to the discipline.
EY You are best known for your public buildings across the world. But in the UK your reputation was originally forged on remarkable homes. Unusually you seem to have continued these two strands in your work. For example Mole House for Sue Webster finished earlier this year and you are currently on site with the National Cathedral of Ghana. How do you manage that?
DA I staked out a very strong interest in the two scales, allowing for them in the business. I do public work but also wanted to still work in the private realm. It gives you a certain dexterity.
EY Is it possible to retain small project sensibility in a big project? There was a sublime judgment and attention to detail in those early houses. Does that translate at a large scale?
DA There is a misunderstanding about the way scale and detail operate. The money you have in a tiny project is significantly higher in terms of square meterage than on a large project. Large projects have a different nature to small projects. That is a very important lesson to learn. To people who think you can keep scaling up and then see this disjuncture in your work you have to say, it’s not true, it’s just not true. I jumped from designing a nearly 40,000ft2 building, the Ideas Store Whitechapel, where we were controlling everything including the light fixtures, to a nearly 500,000ft2 Management Institute in Russia. You are operating at this large scale, you have to realise where you can make impact and where you have to allow the systems to work for you. You have to find what your idea is and how you are going to deliver it. And buildings should be judged that way.
EY But there are rare large scale projects where you can?
DA The best buildings take years to develop, the best clients understand that process and you are in it together.
EY Many of your projects deal with difficult histories and belief systems – the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, National Cathedral of Ghana, Abrahamic Family House, the Nobel Peace Centre, the Smithsonian. Does the idea behind each building come from these human stories?
DA When I say idea it encapsulates three different parts: form, craft and programme. Essential in any creation of architecture is your attention in those three arenas. You need a certain focus to create and curate the building and for your teams to understand what is important, to know when critical thinking is required.
EY Tell us about that on your current big project, the National Cathedral of Ghana.
DA For me it is a social centre in the 21st century – a place for Accra citizens and Ghanaians to gather both for the everyday and a myriad of other functions including education facilities, and an assembly hall that can support state events of a sacred, spiritual nature, like national funerals. This is very important in West African culture, the life and death culture is much more important than it is in the west; it’s much more social, cultural and national. Then craft, understanding what the limitations in Ghana are and what the innovations are that we want to bring here. Engineering excellence is largely neglected here due to budgets and a culture of making do. Form here it has been about how to make the hall specifically work for the culture of Ghana and West Africa and its background of animism. Our research looked into making make a building that would really engage with that nuance. We realised that the way that divinity is revealed in the local culture can allow a bridging between local and universal Christian ideals to make a specific form for to this region; the pageantry of divinity of kings and queens scales up to nation and citizen.
EY Have projects been put on hold due to the pandemic?
DA We are lucky we haven’t been devasted. In 2009 I nearly lost my business – then I had a lot of commercial work. In this pandemic a lot of the cultural projects have been able to sail through. We have about 20% commercial work in my three studios and some of those did go on hold. But we have been able to redistribute our teams, we haven’t had to make anyone redundant. And now more work is coming in as we see how to operate in this Covid world.
EY Might the pandemic offer some new opportunities?
DA We are going to rethink typologies, especially workspace and public space. The pandemic has opened our eyes, we are now in an age of pandemics thanks to the climate precipice we have reached. We have 20 or 30 more years of pulling back from climate change – if we get on board with it now. And in that time we have to make architecture that is resilient to new forms and mutations and deals with invisible air transmission. We know that science can’t make vaccines fast enough. It goes to building standards. I think they will change requirements on filtration and space standards. We understand that biophilic design is important to human health and immunity, from clip-on greenery to the wider relationship between greenery and the built environment. We have to understand those things are going to be completely incorporated into our new norms. We have needed something, sadly, to knock us back, to not just look at architecture in terms of values and costs but evolve typologies that contribute to our wellbeing. Modernism was born as a result of tuberculosis. It was born as a way of dealing with diseases, not just an aesthetic.
EY You have long been friends with the best of Young British Artists. You have rubbed shoulders with Barack Obama; Mayor of London Sadiq Khan congratulated you on being awarded the Royal Gold Medal. Your Instagram posts quickly garner thousands of likes. Few architects have this political or popular traction. What does it mean to be operating like that?
DA If it is different it is because I have grown up in my profession having to find a different ways to work and attract patronage. I have always been influenced by different professionals and different people, artistic and political ideas, right from when I chose to study at the RCA. This is how I connect to people and gain intellectual nourishment. Also in architecture, especially if you work in the public realm, you have a public role. This idea of being a public person who can also discuss the complexity of public architecture is part of being given the privilege to make public buildings. What is going on with the Holocaust Memorial [the planning inquiry] is profoundly important, we need that public debate. The same with the Smithsonian, I had nine years of being cross-examined by public bodies including Congress. If you want to do this work, it helps to be a public person which is a great responsibility. It’s about being able to work in a democracy and share ideas that will profoundly affect people, and explain the benefits.
EY Who are your heroes?
DA Lina Bo Bardi and Oscar Niemeyer in South America. And I admire Hassan Fathy in Africa for his return to traditional values and, in Europe, the reinvention of craft by Carlo Scarpa. These are characters that I love very much.
EY You are the first black architect to be awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. In the year where the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter has brought a better understand of equality and inequality is the medal a hopeful sign or an indictment of the profession?
DA It shows recognition of the issues but is also an indictment that it has taken so long. The defence that there hasn’t been the talent just isn’t good enough. For talent to emerge there has to be support from education to procurement to give someone the ability to shine. And that happens for some races and not others. That is the issue that needs to be tackled continually in a democratic, multi-racial society. It is a systemic issue. I am happy to be celebrated. But I am not the model that I want any kid to follow. This is an exception, me charting a path despite the process. It should be a path because of the process. It is incumbent on all architects and educators. We should work with the greatest diversity that gives us the greatest results.
EY Can architects do more to bring black architects and people of colour into the profession?
DA In the workforce, architects should just see how many people of colour they have and ask where they place people of colour, are they in senior positions? You have to train people into those positions. We strive for 50/50 gender and for the right balance of diversity in all three of my offices. We focus on it, that is the practice I want and you have to want it. And to concentrate on making it happen. If you can do, you will find there are talented people out there but the system overlooks them.
EY Architects and their designs have to deal with strong critiques from architecture school though practice and into the public arena. How can we keep this, while encouraging a diversity of ideas?
DA The idea of learning to debate and argue your case is one of the healthiest things to prepare you for the reality of the world. The problem is, yes our profession is dominated by a lot of males. The idea is not wrong, it is the combination of people who are put together to do it that is usually wrong. Sensitivity about these issues is critical.
EY At 54 you have more time that most Royal Gold Medallists to achieve far more. What are your ambitions?
DA I believe I have a lot more to say. The Gold Medal is not just about lifetime achievement, it is about significant change and contribution to the practice of architecture. It is incredible to have the medal, it gives weight to the agendas I’ve been promoting since the beginning of my career. The legitimacy it confers will hopefully make it more possible I can do better work in the future.
EY If you hadn’t been an architect?
DA I wanted to be a chemist, I wanted to be a pilot. But my hopes were dashed. I was, until this pandemic, flying around a lot, and I think architecture is alchemic, it’s the combination of extraordinary – or mundane – materials and it’s a kind of magic.