David Adjaye is down to earth. It takes having prior knowledge of his person and enviable accomplishments to notice his presence at a function. Otherwise, he would pass for anybody in attendance.
The dark skinned man of medium height is one of the most sought after contemporary architects in the world. He is the brain behind the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway (he calls it his building), the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo which is the Silicon Valley of Russia, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, among others. He is also a recipient of an Order of British Empire for his services towards architecture. But you would not know that if you saw him last Wednesday, dressed in a cream blazer over a black T-shirt, navy blue fitting khaki pants and moccasins, looking nonchalant. That is how inconspicuous he can be.
On the said Wednesday afternoon, I am at the site of the under construction Nakawa–Naguru satellite city, attending a meeting where Adjaye is slated to make a presentation. The clouds in the sky are grey. The ground is wet, fresh from a bath by the rain. Fear is rife that it may rain again. There is one tent. Everyone is seated under it save for the photojournalists and the organisers of the event, who by virtue of their responsibility cannot afford to be in the white plastic chairs.
The function kicks off with evaluation of the modern city’s project. After the first presentation Adjaye is invited to make his. Unlike, the preceding speakers, Adjaye is not seated in the tent. He is the man standing an arm’s length from me. He gently walks to the screen that is being used for the power point presentations.
Adjaye was contracted by Opec Prime Properties Uganda – a stake holder in the Nakawa–Naguru modern city project - to construct the government office campus on the site. These are office structures which will be occupied by government agencies that were operating from rented premises. The 47-year-old kicks off by introducing himself and his company, Adjaye Associates. He mentions the works he has undertaken in New York, London, Shanghai and Accra. This kind of interests the audience but does not excite it.
Thereafter, the architect explains why he preferred the design of the structure he is about to show us. He goes into the architectural gymnastics where he talks about the importance of space and light in the current generation of building. When he eventually unveils, on the screen, the artistic impression of the completed offices, the audience busts into wild “oh my Gods” and “wows”. The buildings form a shape of an empty cone of ice cream.
He says they are going to be the first of their kind in Africa! People are shaking in amazement. I investigate Adjaye’s face to find how he is dealing with the mark he has left on the people. All I see is a loose face which occasionally and briefly adjusts to accommodate his boyish smile. At the end of the meeting I request to have a chat with him and he obliges.
I fail to find a better way of starting our conversation than pitching to know more about Adjaye than just his name. “I am a son of Africa, born in Dar-es-salaam. My parents are Ghanaian. My dad is a retired Ghanaian diplomat. His job involved a lot of travelling. So, I spent most of my early childhood on the move, living in a couple of countries in Africa, the Arab world and Europe. We finally settled in London when I was 14 years,” Adjaye narrates.
As a young man he was interested in many disciplines, such as art and technology but, he was not sure of the career he wanted to pursue. His experiences of visiting different countries and seeing glamorous works of architecture like the pyramids in Egypt, Lourve Museum in Paris and the Vatican in Italy made him conscious that architecture could be his calling. “I did not only draw inspiration from seeing these buildings but I also wanted to be part of making them happen. This emotion grew by the day till I was certain that my passion was in architecture. Once I was sure of this, I set out to be one of the best architects in the world,” he says. His works suggest that he has achieved this.
I inquire what attracted a man of his stature to a project in Kampala. “My young brother was born in Kampala. Besides I also had my formative years in this region, so I identify myself very much with East Africa. I have always wanted to do a project which would contribute to the signature of the skyline. So when the prince – Hassan Kimbugwe, CEO of Opec Prime Properties – approached me to take up the project. I thought it was opportunity to return home,” he states.
His company Adjaye Associates has offices in Accra, Ghana and has constructed a number of civic and private buildings in the country and its neighbours like Nigeria.
Adjaye does not build simply for the sake of it. “I am more interested in the meaning of my buildings. I want my work to represent the society and culture of the community. I want it to reflect the future of architecture. I want the lay person to appreciate architecture. I think that is what sets me apart from other architects,” he remarks. “I am also a lecturer at Harvard and Yale. That has been an opportunity for me to be at the fore front of new thinking and work in the world of architecture. It is such innovations that I bring to my work.”
With the apparent success in Adjaye’s career life, I am eager to know who the great woman behind it, is. He grins, pats my shoulder and informs me that he is getting married this year. Though he does not tell me the name, I am aware, from an interview he gave the Financial Times, last year, that that the lady in question is Ashley Shaw – Scott a former model-cum-business consultant. The architect is a soccer fan who only supports Ghana’s Black Stars. He has hope he will once see it carry the World Cup.
As I walk Adjaye to an awaiting car, after our chat, I keenly observe him and wish he could take on humility as his third name. I am not surprised when he calls it the firm foundation of his achievements, and it is a good lesson we could all learn from him.
He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, a diploma in architecture distinction and a Master’s degree in architecture. In 2000, he founded his company Adjaye Associates where he is the principal architect. In 2007, he was awarded an OBE for his services to architecture. In 2011, he received the Design Miami/Artiste of the Year title. He has lectured at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, the Royal College of Art, and Princeton University School of architecture. He is a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letter. Adjaye was a co-author of BBC’s Dreamspaces television series. Newspapers in the United Kingdom have recognised him as one of the most popular black people.