Sunday, 8 June 2008
David Adjaye | Ghana/Tanzania/England
Behind the facade
David Adjaye is an architect who makes buildings as if they were conceptual artworks. His client list reads like a Who's Who and he admits he's a bit of an operator. Now, as he enters the major league, can the 36-year-old live up to the hype?
Saturday February 8, 2003
'You've gotta be a showman." David Adjaye fixes me with his giant grin. "You can't just do your work. You've got to put it out there. Nobody's going to give you ten million pounds if you can't demonstrate your ability." If anyone could part a person from £10m it's Adjaye. It's the marriage of velvet and steel in his eyes, the way he undercuts his handsome confidence with a generous smile and teenager giggles. I've seen him work a room, brisk, efficient, but not cold, laughing at your jokes, flamboyantly, boyishly foppish, flashing that smile here, a touch on your elbow there. I doubt you'd even notice your wallet lightening.
Series of Monoforms | David Adjaye
Showmanship and a determined charm are rare qualities in an architect. Rare, but crucial. If you don't know how to talk the talk, you won't be getting the commissions, certainly not that £10m dream of yours. Most architects learn the hard way. Adjaye has been blessed from the start.
It's already set him apart. By rights, at 36, Adjaye should have 10 more years detailing drainpipes in some corporate colossus. Instead, he became a player years ago - freakish in a profession in which 40-year-olds are deemed bright young things - with a string of photogenic villas for Britain's modern Medicis, designed with ex-business partner William Russell. The client list? Ewan McGregor, Jake Chapman, Alexander McQueen, Chris Ofili, Juergen Teller, a handful of anonymous multimillionaires, plus the odd cool bar (London's Social) and slinky boutique (Browns Focus in Mayfair). His computers are now stocked with designs for Oslo's Nobel Peace Centre, Boston's performing arts centre, New York's Museum of Contemporary Art. To win these commissions proves he has been recognised internationally. And next week his new TV series helps launch BBC3: with Charlie Luxton and Justine Frischmann, former lead singer with Elastica, he will present Dreamspaces - Wallpaper* magazine TV, set to drum 'n' bass and club graphics.
His rivals are getting snippy: "Prince Charming" they call him, not entirely joking. "They all want to kill me," he giggles. It's mostly envy. But there's honest curiosity there, too, about whether Adjaye has real architectural substance beneath the hype, the schmooze and the PR machine. And this year, as he moves from style mag photoshoots to serious international projects, is the time we will find out. Adjaye puts his success down to timing, luck. That's partly it. But he's worked at it, not just the design, but wooing clients, running with the glampack. I can't imagine he slumps in front of Heartbeat on a Sunday night with a packet of Doritos. "I don't think I'd last long. I just don't like switching off. It was actually a problem as a child. I was on the verge of being dangerous. I get really pissed off really quickly. If something doesn't arrest me, I start to flip and flit."
Dirty House | David Adjaye
Adjaye was born to Ghanaian parents in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His father was a diplomat, so he had half the world under his belt by the time his family settled in north London, when he was nine. "As much as I was enjoying all the places I was moving to, I was incredibly traumatised by it, and loathed my parents for this inability to have roots. But then I decided to embrace it. I realised that it was a strength, rather than a problem." A strength, in part, because continually adjusting to new cultures tested his charm and confidence to the limits. It also toughened his resolve. Aside from a brief ambition to be a pilot, he was always attracted by the creative world. After a year's art foundation, though, he quit for architecture. "I couldn't break through to become an artist. I need [to work in] specific contexts. I need limits, or I never stop going." Architecture, he thought, would stop him flitting. So he entered at the bottom, jobbing around British firms for four years, picking up skills, before completing a degree in the subject in one year, with a first.
Iniva | David Adjaye
Still he never felt entirely at ease. For a start, he was a young black man - albeit from a professional family - in "the most closed, middle-class, middle-aged, trust-fund profession you could ever be in", where even women remain a rarity. It was also the British attitude to architecture that disturbed him, "that design is just functionally driven, that you just solve problems, scientifically". It's true. In Britain we find it hard to think of architecture as a rich piece of culture, like a novel or music, embodying an argument or an idea. For centuries, our traditional pragmatism has driven us to judge architecture solely on its technical prowess or failings, or its picturesqueness within a romanticised landscape (I'm thinking carbuncles here), capped with a silly name ("the gherkin", etc), rather than judging it on its physical, three-dimensional presence. "And that's just wrong," Adjaye chips in. "Buildings are deeply emotive structures which form our psyche. People think they're just things they manoeuvre through. But the make-up of a person is influenced by the nature of spaces."
He found more like-minded people outside Britain after university, travelling around Europe, doing placements with his hero architects, or in Japan, where he studied 16th-century tea pavilions. And at the Royal College of Art, where he completed a master's degree and revelled in the college's singular interdisciplinary community of car designers, graphic artists, textile designers and those emerging Young British Artists who would provide him with his first precocious commissions. These were places that treated architecture as art. He admires, in particular, the freedom of thought of his artist friends, so different from the "neuroses" and pragmatism of most young British architects. He has worked with them ever since, most notably Turner Prize-winner Ofili: their latest collaboration is at Folkestone Library. "Chris is so articulate about the visual world, I stand in awe. I like being able to have access to his world. So we can rap, as we say. And see what kind of lines come out of it."
Adjaye is not a frustrated YBA; he does, though, call himself a "conceptual architect". "People usually say, 'Oh, that means bullshit'. I say it means the ability for me to use anything to express my ideas. The idea is the most important concept within the whole construction. Everything else is a means to an end."
He's talking the talk again, but he does deliver. In each project, from no-budget to glampack, he displays the thrillingly lateral, entrepreneurial approach to materials of a young conceptual artist. Like a kid given the run of a toy shop, Adjaye hunts for bright new things to try out, plucking textures from one context to another. You'll more commonly find the honeycomb aluminium panelling at the Social bar on an aeroplane; at Browns Focus, fat slabs of cheap, coarse chipboard are lacquered as deluxe decoration (squint and it's leopardskin); for a house he's building himself in Ghana, he's using traditional mud walls, "only made 21st century". Cheap becomes a million dollars, luxurious trash.
In his startling, Arctic-white office, great heaps of materials stack up on the floor - rough aggregate, slabs of slate, terracotta, every possible permutation of perforated metal sheet - ready to be tested in the hand. This is Adjaye's library, where he roots out the right look, texture, tone or smell. It becomes sensual. In one exhibition he designed, he spliced brilliant ice-cold steel with fat, cosy pads of charcoal felt. The massive corner slab of Dirty House, just completed for artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster in Shoreditch, east London, is coated in thick, rough, anti-graffiti paint the colour and texture of chocolate fudge, with its cantilevered roof seeming to float on a bleached white glow, like icing. You could gobble it up.
This is the concept. He calls it "emotive" architecture, space that prods you to respond or, as he said earlier, helps form your everyday psyche, like a two-way conversation between you and him: "Spaces should seduce. I want to demystify this shroud that architecture has, that it's mystical, some kind of mysterious old art that nobody understands." But his is not easy architecture. It might not reveal itself immediately. It demands you work, too. And it's not about showing off macho technical prowess in wild daredevil forms or phallic skyscrapers (though, rest assured, his buildings aren't all talk, no plumbing). Nor is it about what the building looks like. Adjaye's buildings aren't traditionally pretty, to be gazed at. They don't have a signature style. In fact, they can be ugly. He might design simply to unsettle the way you look at things. The perversely blank facade of the Elektra House, Whitechapel, east London, for instance, is a dark pool of calm in the visually busy street, entirely without the symbols one expects of a house - pitched roof, chimney, even windows (they're on the back). It's dark, alien, almost sinister. It broods. When people walk past, I've watched them touch the facade almost instinctively, or wrinkle their noses in disgust. They respond.
That pleases Adjaye. He wants, he says, to "make space present", make it more intense. And, like the work of his conceptual installation artist friends, his buildings work best when you're in them. They evoke a certain mood. One commentator described the airless ground-floor room at the Social bar as "a coffin ... the inside of a box". It was a compliment. He says he curates the spaces, almost from the inside out, like a game of cat and mouse, goading and tempting you, carrot and stick, through a series of twists and turns, tricks of perception, trompe l'oeils. Enter the Upper Room, the exhibition he designed for Ofili in London last year, and you're tempted with lights down a twisting dark street-like corridor of walnut wood veneer, its grain almost shaking like a mesmerising optical illusion, before you come upon a dark chapel, lit by Ofili's dazzling paintings, like stained glass.
His architecture is photogenic in a classic "minimalist" way. But he's no minimalist. If anything, he pumps things up to the max, makes them strong-tasting; he's not interested in what he calls the "boring, passive, nice stuff" he sees built in Britain today. True, there aren't many here with his curatorial approach: maybe Will Alsop, architect of Peckham's technicolour library, or Caruso St John, whose Walsall Art Gallery certainly "makes space present". Like Adjaye, these architects have reacted against British pragmatism with architecture of a more international flamboyance.
The question is whether Adjaye can maintain the intense mood-making of his early projects, many of them just small-scale interior works, at the larger scale of his new big-league, public projects. Not content with this huge task, Adjaye has thrown an even more ambitious aim into the pot, transforming what he has rather grandly called "the architecture of the post-city", that is, the public realm.
What's left of it sits outside his office in north Hoxton, where New Labour Islington crashes into old Labour Hackney with an almighty bang: threadbare 1950s estates, cracked pavements eddying with shoppers, empty Bacardi Breezers or Dixie Chicken wrappers piled in the stagnant pools of rubbish at the edge. It's just your average fractured, half-privatised, half-sinking urban landscape, the kind that just seems to happen, gradually, when nobody's looking.
In fact, it's been a while since anyone's looked at it - properly, I mean. Every few years or so, politicians and planners have a little worry, lament the loss of the civic realm, the state of the inner city, and launch big initiatives, from Thatcher's enterprise zones to Prescott's ineffectual urban summits. But, says Adjaye, the mess of our civic landscape is not solved by the grand dictatorial planning of old. "The city's not there to be solved," he says. It's that scientific bent of the British again. "It's not about grand boulevards and trees any more, sparkling and clean. The big idea. Pure utopia! I don't wish a perfect equilibrium on the city. That's frightening."
Adjaye, instead, celebrates the vibrancy of the mess. You have to work with it, be more radical. "To me, politics is about a small idea, down there, which affects individuals." It means, architecturally, something akin to his "emotive" spaces, literally curating public space and buildings as deft pieces of place-making conceptual art to which you, the public, respond.
But it's one thing to design a cool home that communicates to one or two people. It's quite another to curate space for all society, especially when nobody's entirely sure what society looks like any more. Model citizens don't exist like they used to. People don't go to town halls, or libraries. They go to Tesco. Our civic society, like its landscape, is cracked and fragmented, multirooted, something to escape from to shopping malls, cars, gated estates. So, architecturally, it can't look as it used to, monumental porticoed town halls, fat Victorian philanthropist outside. Instead, it has to make a virtue out of its diversity, be flexible, contradictory, but uplifting. "My architectural politics are the politics of inclusivity," Adjaye says. And that's the vast aim he has set himself: what is this inclusive "architecture of the post-city" like?
He's not alone in his search. Architects have been hunting for it for 50 years, ever since they started coming up with critiques of modernism's authoritarian social reform. Postmodernism, with its cheap heritage symbolism, was one attempt at making architecture friendly to you and me. So was hi-tech, such as the Pompidou Centre, which primitively tried to make flexible space that users could manipulate. So, believe it or not, was 1960s concrete brutalism: the architects of housing estates were searching for a malleable, socially just design system for an increasingly complicated society; they ended up making prisons. After such prototypes, architects were rapped on the knuckles, told to build lofts and never to play with politics again.
Adjaye is the next generation, one he thinks is ready to disobey. And one brought up with a different way of seeing - trained, through films, computer games, CGI, the media, to expect different kinds of spaces, a sci-fi world of responsive environments. "I'm telling you, films like Minority Report, you know, with those interactive environments, where billboards know your name and you can play on those glass screens. They're coming. It's just been done in a building in Tokyo." Here's that kid in the toy shop again. "A segment of glass actually has scripts running through it. You don't know where it's coming from, but it's being pumped through the circuitry." It's a future in which private and public spaces, from bars to town halls, become fluid things, controllable by you as much as imposed upon you by architects and developers, a little like interactive TV.
It's happening. Very slowly. For now Adjaye pins his faith on his materials, felt and chocolate fudge paint, and his ability to treat emotive architecture like conceptual art, embodying in stone the different interpretations and identities required for new civic design. "I don't mean that literally. It doesn't happen in this utopian, heroic sense of the architect willing the right form, shoving up icons of culture. It's like being a conductor. There are different instruments that one has to bring together."
It's quite a task to pull off and, verbally at least, Adjaye's solution sounds woolly. I can hear his critics rubbing their hands. But, with his background, his own "inability to have roots", if anyone knows how to make sense of such complexity, it's Adjaye. This, he says, was the real strength that his convoluted childhood gave him.
His first crack at it debuts later this year, a series of libraries in east London. Except they're not libraries. They're Idea Stores, "which absolutely irritated countless people," he booms, laughing. "But there is a world out there that feels disconnected from this particular brand, the library. So you have to set up a new model. Branding is the world that we live in, as much as people hate it and want to slag it off." The Idea Store will, he says, be like a "marketplace". The first, for Whitechapel, is outside Sainsbury's. The offputting, monumental "symbolic grand narrative" of civic buildings will be replaced by something more fluid and vague, for the new fluid and vague consumer-citizen. "There are several ways of getting in. There is no front and there is no back. It's like a billboard. It projects. It has electronic messaging. It has videowalls. It has an egalitarian facade. If they decide to go and read a book, then I'm really thrilled. But if they decide to go and play on a computer game, I'm thrilled, too." He doesn't mind dancing with the devil of capitalism. But he's cynical enough to acknowledge that his ideal future of manipulable Minority Report environments might be less of a two-way conversation between architect and user, and more about you, the consumer-citizen, being manipulated by something bigger, to get you to buy.
Part of Adjaye is indeed a showman, but he's also a romantic, an old-school humanist, as every architect should be - even something of a social reformer. "Style becomes style only when it has a political and social relevance," he insists. "It's like, fashion magazine style. I'm not saying it's bad. But for me it's not enough. It doesn't have substance."
Peppering his glamour work now are projects such as the Bernie Grant centre in Tottenham, or a project for retired dockers in Shadwell, east London. "We aim to be the Robin Hood practice," he recently said. "For rich people we make things grittier, for poor people we make them glossier." He laughs. "Yeah. I said that. I have a belief that humanity is above everything." It's as much a personal mission as an intellectual one. Visiting his mentally and physically disabled brother in a series of dour care homes made him acutely aware of how mean environments can be in the public realm. For once he has an earnest expression. "The pinnacle of architecture is when all society wills to create something that emblemises what they are. Architects have to be optimists." The smile comes back. "Otherwise they'd kill themselves." And the giggle