America Saved Me but London Is My Backbone; @Thestandardarts in Association with as His Landmark Museum Opens in Washington DC, Globetrotting British Architect David Adjaye Explains Why His Home City Remains His Creative Hub

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

America Saved Me but London Is My Backbone; @Thestandardarts in Association with as His Landmark Museum Opens in Washington DC, Globetrotting British Architect David Adjaye Explains Why His Home City Remains His Creative Hub


Byline: Robert Bevan Architecture Critic

IT'S gong season. Medals, awards and prizes for design and architecture are flying thick and fast between now and the announcement of the Stirling Prize on October 6. At a starry Tate Modern dinner on Tuesday night, architect David Adjaye collected the Panerai London Design Medal for his long-standing contribution to the industry one of the British Land Celebration of Design awards that form part of the London Festival of Design.

Yes, that's some mouthful: the London Festival of Design is nothing if not a relentlessly commercial operation. Panerai makes some covetable watches but the British Land imprimatur is a bit like having the Hallmark Turner Prize.

With an OBE and Stirling Prize nomination already in his pocket, Adjaye is flying high, even before taking into account the latest medal. He reckons a third of his life is spent on planes, jetting between projects in the US, Europe and Africa.

Born to Ghanaian diplomat parents and brought up in north London, Adjaye is an inveterate globetrotter his black painted offices are off Edgware Road, a tatty, architect-lite location but super handy for the Heathrow Express.

He's just back from the US, where his $540 million National Museum of AfricanAmerican History and Culture opens to the public on Saturday. It is the newest addition to the suite of monumental Smithsonian museums along the Mall in Washington DC. But instead of white Tennessee marble, Adjaye's building is an inverted stepped pyramid of bronze-coloured pierced metal a design informed by the decorative metalwork made by African-American slaves and the shape of caryatid sculptures characteristic of the Yoruba people. It's the architect's 50th birthday today too. What a week.

The museum project caps some hefty wins in the US, including an affordable housing block sheathed in concrete roses in Sugar Hill, New York, and a major miss being pipped to the job of designing the Obama presidential library in Chicago.

So it's worth posing the question, when he inevitably arrives late for our interview in his Old Marylebone Road office: is New York more like home than London now? "I have a house there and I'm married to an American [model turned businesss consultant Ashley-Shaw Scott] so I'm sort of half-American but London is my home, my creative hub."

Adjaye's American adventure came off the back of winning the job to build the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver in 2004, followed by some upmarket houses. This led to setting up a New York office for more of the same. "In America, if you are coming in and out all the time you don't get any [work]."

At much the same time as Denver was under way, Adjaye Associates in London was clobbered by the credit crunch: "It more than stalled," he says, "it almost went bankrupt I've been very open about that." Then in 2009 came the Smithsonian competition, and Adjaye beat a group of black-led American architecture practices to first place.

"America saved me," admits Adjaye, but, he adds: "I didn't give up on London. It is my backbone. It taught me resilience and that's stood me well in New York, in Africa, in Asia the backbone is a London attitude."

He describes a middle-class upbringing of art college in Middlesex, designing a cafe for wealthy Hampstead friends and mixing with an international crowd at the Royal College of Art where he met artist Chris Ofili, his friend and early client: "My understanding of design comes from all this the differences, the diversity, it was my baptism. …

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