David Adjaye’s Design for Living

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David Adjaye interview: 'I'm not always looking at the usual references'

AT THE INTERSECTION of Canal Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan, worlds meet. To the north-east is Little Italy, to the south-east Chinatown, to the south-west the warehouse austerity of TriBeCa, to the north-west the tourist excess of SoHo. And above all this is the New York office of a Ghanaian-British architect. I’m struggling to find it, using cryptic instructions from David Adjaye’s assistant, and have twice walked past the street vendor who is hissing “handbags, handbags”. A call to the front desk helps: under the scaffolding, find the payphone, then look for an unmarked door. I finally find my way upstairs to a gleaming box, where I’m whisked into a conference room by Adjaye’s lipsticked PA. The street would feel miles away were it not for the whirr of construction outside the window.

Adjaye has an open, attractive face, with a wide smile, not a fake, tight-lipped thing. He looks younger than his 48 years: the only signs of middle age are a few grey hairs in his beard and a slight weariness about his posture. He speaks quickly, intently, but quietly. His eyes are heavily lidded, and early in our conversation he interrupts himself and slides them closed. “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to bring my head here.”

The problem doesn’t seem to be tiredness, though he flew in from London only yesterday. It’s more that he is geo-locating himself. Adjaye is a self-described citizen of the world who works on five continents and has offices on four, who spends 14 days a month shuttling between his homes in New York and London, and 14 elsewhere—though with his new baby, he’s trying to change that ratio. But it is in America that his stardom is crystallising. He is the hot tip to design Barack Obama’s presidential library in Chicago: at a 2012 state dinner for David Cameron, Adjaye was on the Obamas’ table. And it is in America that two projects which will define him are already taking shape. The second-biggest building of Adjaye’s career so far is one for people: Sugar Hill, a low-cost housing project in Harlem. But the biggest is one for the people: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the first museum on this subject, and the last piece in the jigsaw of the National Mall in Washington, DC. []

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