David Adjaye formed Adjaye/Associates in 2000, a London-based architectural practice that has quickly garnered international acclaim for its inventive approaches to the design of a variety of private residences and public buildings. Exploring the dualities of “private retreat and public engagement” and responding to the urban complexities of diverse sites and cultures has been central to his growing body of work. His projects in the United States include a new five-star hotel and residences planned for downtown St. Paul.
Although Adjaye has gained acclaim with residential and studio designs for notable clients such as actor Ewan McGregor and artists Jake Chapman, Chris Ofili, and Lorna Simpson, his work occupies a more grounded realm. Rejecting a signature style, his designs are elegant and occasionally enigmatic objects that choreograph inventive spatial experiences, stage the interplay of light and shadow, and explore an innovative material palette. Elektra House (2000) juxtaposes its sober, windowless front facade with a glass-walled rear, thereby transforming the structure into a kind of giant light box. The exterior of Dirty House (2002) has been coated in dark anti-graffiti paint, a gesture that signals a material connection to its urban circumstance while providing its owners a retreat from the city. Lost House (2004) occupies a “sliver lot”—a former delivery yard—between two existing buildings and uses a series of skylights, light wells, and courtyards to activate its chamberlike spaces.
The architect’s civic buildings—which range from libraries to a performing arts center and multiresidential housing developments to marketplaces and community centers—actively explore the conditions of their public nature, providing answers to the architect’s own query, “What is a public building in the twenty-first century?” His designs for two neighborhood libraries in London (2004/2005), dubbed Idea Stores, acknowledge their immediate context as multipurpose spaces for diverse communities. While their name suggests a specific retail experience, the libraries in fact evoke the sociability of a local marketplace: their distinctive, alternating green and blue panes of glass are reminiscent of the striped awnings of vendors’ stalls that line the streets. The gray, etched-glass-clad Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which opens in October, contains a series of distinct spaces whose arrangement Adjaye describes as “a mini city in itself, with galleries like houses entered from a street.”
Adjaye frequently collaborates with artists such as Olafur Eliasson, with whom he created a pavilion to house the light installation Your Black Horizon, which debuted in conjunction with the 2005 Venice Biennale, and Chris Ofili, who created a dazzling wall mural in different tones of green for a café located in the Adjaye-designed Nobel Peace Center (2005) in Oslo, Norway. Adjaye’s work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including Gritty Brits: New London Architecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art and David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings, which opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and travels to the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, among other venues. Another exhibition, African Cities, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he is a visiting professor, offers a complementary insight into his philosophy. Over the last several years, the Tanzanian-born Adjaye has been photographing Africa’s capitals, documenting both the “tropical modernism” of its colonial architectural legacies as well as the affinities of its more informal structures and inhabited spaces. What drives the project is a desire for architecture to perform its public engagement. Adjaye says, “What I am interested in is how they have a very strong public life: the markets, the way people use the spaces in front of their homes, the way life is lived as networks. The house is just a unit you sleep in. Even in Muslim countries that are very extreme, it still plays out. That is something we have lost in the West.”
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