W Magazine | March 2011
…Charismatic and engaging—if fond of architectspeak—Adjaye, 44, is a rarity among his peers, and not just because he’s a black architect working in a predominantly white world. A self-described Robin Hood, he balances spare, geometric private retreats and galleries for art-world A-listers with socially driven public buildings designed to function as urban catalysts. His much lauded Idea stores in London’s East End reimagined the modern library as a bustling community center and helped earn Adjaye an OBE from the Queen in 2007 for services to British architecture. Spend five minutes with him, in fact, and he’ll persuade you that architecture can spur communities to become as open and democratic as an outdoor market.
Since the architect launched Adjaye Associates in 2000, his rise has been meteoric, especially in a profession known to award big-ticket commissions late in a career: He has designed the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and a home for a Nobel Peace Prize winner in Ghana; the Moscow School of Management; and flood-resistant houses in New Orleans for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. (During the same period, Adjaye made a point of visiting all 53 capitals on the African continent, intent on photographing its overlooked modernity and variety.) Now, though, after edging out vets Lord Norman Foster and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, he’s immersed in the largest and most prestigious project of his career: designing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture—what is likely to be the last major building to be erected on the National Mall in Washington, D.C…
In the meantime, he’s designing seven buildings the size of city blocks in Doha, Qatar, as well as low-income housing in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood. In November I joined Adjaye for a birthday party at nearby City College for artist Faith Ringgold, for whom the institution’s children’s museum has been named. Adjaye had been asked to give a toast and was “nervous as hell,” he admitted. “I hate public speaking.” As we walked near the site, he mentioned that he had come up with the idea for the building’s rose-patterned facade while listening to Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Spanish Harlem.” “I listen to a ton of music,” he said. (When he designed a record store in London recently, he bartered his design fees for free CDs for the next decade.)