African vision for Britain

David Adjaye’s rise through the ranks of architecture has been dazzling. Within a decade he has made himself one of the best-known architects in Britain, with a series of magazine-friendly houses for famous clients — Ewan McGregor, Chris Ofili, Janet Street-Porter — and collaborations with artists including Olafur Eliasson. This time last year he was rubbing shoulders with Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid on the Stirling Prize — Britain’s most prestigious architectural award — shortlist. He didn’t win, but he did collect an OBE a little later.

And, as he turns a mere 41, he’s got not one but three prominent new public buildings rolling out across London. At an age when Norman Foster was just getting into his stride, Adjaye is poised to become a fully fledged international brand name.

The popular assumption is that Adjaye’s had it easy. That he’s in with the in-crowd, knows how to work the media and caters in style rather than substance. He often comes in for a pasting. The architectural press, too, tends to look down on him. ‘What’s missing is a mastery of the craft of architecture,” sniffed the Riba Journal over one work.

Adjaye’s ethnicity compounds the situation. Born to Ghanaian parents, he is Britain’s only prominent black architect, and his achievements are often tacitly attributed to tokenism.

He’s clearly exasperated by the whole experience. ‘I can’t do anything!” he pleads, throwing up his hands. ‘It’s like, what do you want me to do? Not exist? It’s been astonishing to me that people think I’m that disingenuous.”

Adjaye has always denied his ‘architect to the stars” tag. ‘They weren’t famous names when I started working for them,” he says. ‘They were people in my social circle.” But now he is shifting towards making public buildings. He even launched an exhibition and a book this year, both entitled Making Public Buildings — quite a leap for an architect generally seen as operating at the bespoke, fine-art end of the spectrum. Adjaye’s previous buildings tended to concentrate on textures, spatial qualities and perceptual effects, occasionally at the expense of technical performance, but he’s not changing his spots. ‘That was the inspiration for doing architecture — to work in the public realm,” he says.

The first of the three buildings, which opened last month, was the £15-million Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham, north London, named after the late, Guyana-born local MP. Then there is Rivington Place, the first new-build public gallery in London since 1968. Meanwhile, staff have moved into the new Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, an educational and information facility developed by the trust set up in honour of the young, black would-be architect who was murdered in 1993.

The three projects represent a major shift in Britain’s cultural landscape: for a country that often congratulates itself on its multi-ethnic vibrancy, Britain has built very little to show for it. These are just about the first publicly funded, purpose-built expressions of African-British culture. They are not grand, expensive projects, but they are, in Adjaye’s mind at least, prototypes for a new, inclusive definition of public space that challenges ‘established topologies”.

That confrontation is most explicit in the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. At its front is the listed Edwardian entrance to this former public baths building, which could not be removed. Faced with this classically inspired facade, Adjaye’s approach almost mocks its theatrical stuffiness. He has attached to it a modern, black-clad box of the same dimensions, while the actual 300-seat auditorium forms a separate building, positioned directly behind, across a courtyard. If you’re not buying a ticket, you don’t need to walk in through the Edwardian ‘front door” at all; you could simply nip round it and go straight to the auditorium, or to the long, low-rise block of start-up units for local business at the rear.

Rivington Place, in Shoreditch, is closer to what most would expect of Adjaye. It is a modest building on a tiny site, but from the outside it is incongruously monumental. It looks bigger than it really is. There are eight levels of openings, but only five storeys of building behind them.

The materials, too, give it a striking ambiguity. The two main facades are a thick grid of dark concrete with deeply recessed windows and glossy black aluminium panels set into it. In the daytime, the panels reflect the sunlight as though they are glass.

The building, now home to the Institute of International Visual Arts and the photography agency Autograph ABP, is topped by a false line of saw-tooth skylights like a spiky haircut. It’s an attractive piece of street art, but that was a secondary concern, says Adjaye. ‘It was conceived from the inside out. You could have reduced it to a generic modernist box; but I thought, there are two different organisations in here, one dealing with arts, one with photography. There’s a library, an auditorium, a cafe. So I wondered what would happen if you looked at it as a matrix of perforations. It’s actually extremely functional, even though it looks decorative.”

The Stephen Lawrence Centre is unlike anything he would typically design, Adjaye says. Rather, it was derived directly from the place. It is a sharp-looking building, triangular forms clad in heavy steel with large glass openings. It looks a little intimidating at first, but the jagged geometry is an attempt to relate to the diagonal streets facing the building, while the perforated steel complements the surrounding foliage.

The ‘veil” of decorated glass at the front of the building enhances the effect. Its pattern was designed by Chris Ofili, who, as well as being his friend and frequent collaborator, painted one of his best-known works, No Woman No Cry, in honour of Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence, who heads the trust that will occupy the building.

The facility intends to provide opportunities in the architectural profession, among others, for young people from underprivileged backgrounds. Lawrence has become a totem for the lack of diversity within Britain’s architectural profession. As the Royal Institute for British Architects president, Sunand Prasad, pointed out in the Stephen Lawrence Memorial lecture: ‘In schools of architecture you get very, very little teaching about architecture and design from other parts of the world. Mostly, you study white architects and white architecture.”

Adjaye can relate to that. He strives to bring fresh ideas to the classical and modernist traditions, ideas either born of his experience as a ‘person of colour” in modern Britain or taken directly from African arts and crafts. He travels to Africa a great deal, and is compiling a book on the architecture of all the continent’s capital cities. He also cites specific artefacts as reference points for his buildings: a pair of gold boxes from Ghana for the Stephen Lawrence Centre, for example, a mask from Sierra Leone for Rivington Place, a patterned Rwandan mat for the Bernie Grant Centre: ‘They look utterly simple when you see them, but to me they actually contain the DNA for new ways of seeing things.”

Adjaye is aware that his African heritage is a double-edged sword, especially when these three buildings all have an overt African-British dimension to them. All three commissions were the result of open competitions, but surely that is not a coincidence? Is Adjaye the only person who could have done them? Is it fair to even ask?

‘There was a real sense of, do I want to do projects that explicitly have a racial kind of tonality to them?” says Adjaye. ‘A lot of people were telling me I’d get categorised and stereotyped and so on. But if I can’t do a project that does have an explicit racial agenda to it, then the whole thing is reversed — so that as a person of ‘colour’, I cannot do a project that is about ‘colour’. I can only do projects that are not about ‘colour’.

‘And yet people of ‘non-colour’ can do projects of ‘colour’. This becomes madness. So I decided this was all ridiculous. Not only did I have to do these projects, but also they were an incredible honour — these are not projects that are happening every Thursday.” —


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