Sir David Adjaye saw his name added to the history books earlier this month as the first Black architect to be awarded The Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) 173-year-old history.
An announcement that, though positive on the part of RIBA, will nevertheless serve to put a spotlight on the lack of black representation in the industry within which it operates.
Only 5.2% of students accepted into architecture courses in the UK are black, and the total percentage of registered black architects has now dropped to a total of 1%.
Therefore Adjaye has had to deal with the title of a ‘black architect’, and although he has always been fully aware of how he is perceived in a white-dominated industry, he continues to stand as a role model for others.
Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and was raised in Britain, Saudi Arabia and various parts of Africa. This has provided him with a unique upbringing, and he attempts to display this in his work.
“I am an architect first of all, whose background is complex,” he told the Observer in 2014. “I use the continent of Africa as a background. But I also grew up in London…I’m just not always looking at the usual references.”
He began his career at Southbank University and the Royal College of Art, where he formed his first practice with William Russell in 1994, before founding Adjaye Associates, in 2000. Here he began his rise to stardom, designing inventive bar interiors and private homes for A-list celebrities such as Chris Ofili, Ewan McGregor and Alexander McQueen. Many critics note these as his best work to date.
It has been a long journey for Adjaye over the past 27 years, working diligently to get to this point, on projects that range from monumental public developments to more intimate private spaces. In this process, he has and continues to be an influence on his peers and future generations of architects.
“I was incredibly, incredibly inspired by the breadth of his vision,” says Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, of the time she first heard him speak. “There’s Bauhaus in it,” artist Lorna Simpson says, for whom Adjaye designed a studio building in Brooklyn, “but also the places where he grew up as a child – ornament, pattern, the way light comes in, different things from different places.”
In an industry bereft of black representation; represent he does.
This article first appeared in the West African Times as the first in a series.