David Adjaye: Breaking Barriers and Building Community

By Stephen, Curtis | The Crisis, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

David Adjaye: Breaking Barriers and Building Community


Stephen, Curtis, The Crisis


ARCHITECTURE

LONDON - On a cool mid-September afternoon in the east London Borough of Hackney pedestrians on busy Old Street scurry P35' trendy pubs, cafes and retail shnpgito eaich the arriving red doubledecker bus. Visible to the north is the distinctive spire of St. Leonard's Church. The immaculate structure dates back to the 12th century and was damaged during Nazi Germany's relentless bombing campaign here more than 60 years ago. At the nearby Shoreditch Park, a team of archeologists recently led an excavation to unearth World War II-era artifacts, serving as a grim reminder that on just about any street in London, there's no escaping history. In fact, nearby, close to the eastern edge of the park, modern history is being made.

On the first floor of 23-28 Perm Street, home to the architectural firm Adjaye/Associates, the atmosphere is loose but professional. Designers discuss plans to add skylights to a planned building as staffers busily flip through sketch manuals and Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" blares out from an adjacent room. Moments earlier, an overworked-but-still-enthusiastic man dashed into the office. For him, it's just another manic Monday.

His name is David Adjaye. and he just spent the past several hours with the BBC. He was taping an appearance at one of his latest projects - a newly opened public library, dubbed the "Idea Store," in a struggling working-class neighborhood in London's historically impoverished East End.

After the Borough Tower Hamlets Council voted to replace its entire public library system with seven Idea Stores. Adjaye was chosen in 2001 to design two of the buildings, the first of which opened in 2004. The widely praised $14.6 million Whitechapel project is serving as a model for the public library of the 21st century, complete with its day care center, chic café and multimedia services. Equally impressive is the library's dazzling craftsmanship, from the glittery exterior of glass panels to its colorfully spacious interior.

"Libraries are supposed to play a vital role in the social fabric of a community," says Adjaye. The architect sees the new libraries, replacements for ones that were neglected and crumbling, as critical to generating local development while spreading knowledge.

Such projects help to elevate Adjaye's stature in the world of art and design as he not only revolutionizes London's architectural landscape, but attempts to make inroads worldwide, including 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in America's inner cities.

At 39, Adjaye already ranks as one of London's most revered contemporary architects. He is known for his visually striking designs that play upon the public's perception of space, light, form and texture.

"David is not only an incredibly gifted architect, he's an intellectual," says Thelma Golden, director and curator of The Studio Museum of Harlem. "He uses architecture as a tool to explore art and politics."

BUILDING ART

Adjaye was born in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in the east African nation of Tanzania. His mother, he says, was a "beautiful housewife" and his father was a Ghanaian diplomat. Because of his father's work, Adjaye spent his childhood on the move, living in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt, an experience he recalls was both "fabulous and disorienting." In 1979, Adjaye's family finally settled in North London.

"I had been immersed in the politics of many different societies," recalls Adjaye, "so I learned how to navigate at a very early age."

In those days, Adjaye displayed no penchant for what would later become his passion. "I didn't even know what an architect was," he muses. But he did possess an interest in art, which drove his decision to pursue a degree in architecture at London's South Bank University.

Not until he enrolled in the distinguished Royal College of Art in London, though, did he learn how to view architecture through an artistic lens. …

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