Lunch with the FT

September 14, 2012 8:30 pm

Lunch with the FT: David Adjaye

Between meeting the Obamas and designing for Putin, the globe-trotting British architect talks to Edwin Heathcote over lunch at Dinner in London
Illustration of David Adjaye by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

The name of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant at London’s Mandarin Oriental makes text messaging exchanges difficult. I confirmed Dinner on Friday with David Adjaye. Lunch would be better for me, he texted back. Yes, yes, I text, it’s Lunch with the FT – Dinner is the name of the restaurant. Lunch at Dinner. And so on. Luckily, when Friday comes, the napkin ring at the restaurant explains everything. Dinner, it tells us, was once the name for breakfast. Then for lunch, then for supper. “I’m learning something all the time,” grins Adjaye.

The 45-year-old African-British architect, one of the highest-profile and most consistently interesting of his generation, has recently returned from Washington, DC, where he attended the groundbreaking ceremony for his biggest blockbuster building to date, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American Culture and History – due to open in 2015.

There he met, and was profoundly impressed by, Barack and Michelle Obama. “He’s a consummate politician,” Adjaye says, “very personable and very smart. I never met Bill Clinton but I think Obama has that same sense of being able to create an intimacy in a room that you heard about [with Clinton]. And Michelle is incredible. She manages to get around to everyone – embrace those who need a hug, very warm, very careful, and they’re very obviously in love. It looks like a new, more intimate model of statesmanship.”

Adjaye, I suggest, has become something of a statesman himself with buildings for high-profile international institutions from the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo to the Skolkovo School of Management in Moscow. “Skolkovo was a Putin project that turned into a Medvedev delivery and was funded by just about every oligarch you’ve ever heard of,” he says. “I’ve suddenly entered this world of political leaders.”

In fact, Adjaye has long seemed to be destined for that league. His father was a Ghanaian diplomat whose family followed him round the globe. Adjaye was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and subsequently lived in Ghana, Jeddah, Cairo, Yemen, Beirut and elsewhere before finally settling in London when he was 14.

I’ve known him since he was setting up in practice on his own 12 years ago, when he already had the distinct aura of a star, despite only having designed a few small houses and studios. But it was who those houses and studios were for – actor Ewan McGregor, artist Chris Ofili, artist and fashion photographer Juergen Teller, fashion designer Alexander McQueen among others. “I never set out to do celebrities’ houses,” he says, with a hint of defensiveness, “but to do houses for people who were interested in trying out new ideas.”

The waiter arrives but we haven’t looked at the menu. He asks if it has been explained to us, which it hasn’t, so he does. The dishes at Dinner, he says, are all based on, or inspired by, recipes found in historical cookbooks. I’ve heard a lot about meat fruit (circa 1500), so go for that. Adjaye (c1966) has buttered crab loaf (c1714). Neither of us orders wine.

The starters come quickly and are intriguing enough to distract us. Adjaye talks fluently, engagingly and a lot, as if he’s used to it. You can see how clients would be seduced. My meat fruit is a perfect simulacrum of a tangerine. An orange jelly-clad ball of rich chicken liver parfait. The waiter helpfully tells me that the stalk is not edible. With its slice of griddled toast, Adjaye suggests it looks architectural. It does. Like a pavilion from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The crab loaf appears less architectural, or perhaps just represents a more commercial form of architecture.

. . .

Inspired by the appearance of my starter, we get back to buildings. Adjaye has already designed a US museum, the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, but the $500m National Museum of African American History and Culture is in another league. Destined to be the last major museum on the National Mall, it is a project of genuine national – and international – significance, but also of sensitivities and a real political charge in a country where race is still very much an issue. How is it going?

“Listen,” Adjaye says, “you can dislike the US for all kinds of things. It is an empire and it makes mistakes but, every so often, it learns from those mistakes and does something incredible – it elected Obama.” Not everyone in the US thinks that’s such a good thing, I suggest. “You’re right,” he replies, “It’s 50/50. But America has been defined through the African-American experience.” That’s a big claim, I suggest. “The civil war was about emancipation,” he says, “and it was the civil rights movement that brought an understanding of human rights, which influenced the whole world. These are totemic things, which the black experience has allowed to happen. Look at music, too, or fashion. The museum is about telling this story, about acknowledging it as a cultural contribution.”

Interestingly, Adjaye points out, it was President George W. Bush who realised the significance of the project – he endorsed the location of the site, and his wife Laura sits on the museum board. He adds, however, that it was Obama who guaranteed funds against a difficult economic background. Was there, I wonder, any resentment about the project going not to an African-American but to an African-Brit? “I guess I’m the first architect of African descent who has managed to build a global reputation,” Adjaye replies. To his credit he looks visibly uncomfortable saying the words, “but this was a project won on the building, not on the architect. You don’t entrust half a billion dollars to tokenism.”

The design that won Adjaye the project is extremely distinctive. He explains it thus: “The site is on the Mall between the museums and the monuments and this museum is a fusion of the two, the building is part of the story you’re trying to tell. The Yoruba crown and the African column [which inspire the design] are about where the African-American experience comes from. The Yoruba see their roots as Pharaonic and that same symbolism is here on the Mall with the obelisk of the Washington Monument.”

Our main courses arrive and Adjaye’s cod in cider (c1940) reminds me slightly of the liver in lager that Timothy Spall’s useless restaurateur character comes up with for his opening night in Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet. My rice and flesh (c1390) is like a big sloppy risotto and a bit stodgy. I wish I’d ordered wine.

We briefly discuss Adjaye’s other major building project, the striking Skolkovo School of Management. “The model for development in Russia seems to have been classical St Petersburg,” he says, “It had all become a bit pastiche. I tried to persuade the clients that there was this Russian heritage of visionary constructivism, most of which had never been realised.” The building’s plan is a kind of suprematist composition, inspired by the abstract geometries of Malevich. It has, he says, been a huge success, the basis for a whole new business city on the edge of Moscow. It also, inadvertently, leads us to Adjaye’s big subject – Africa.

“The African political class all went to Russia to see how they urbanised so fast,” he points out. “It wasn’t America they chose to go to.” I mention that when I was teaching engineers English in Hungary in the 1990s, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, half my students were Africans. “That’s right,” Adjaye says, “they all learnt Marxism there.”

Africa has been a particular focus of Adjaye’s work over the past decade. He has spent every spare moment visiting virtually every significant city on the continent. “What has been amazing has been to watch the growth in Africa over the past 10 years,” he says. A recent book, Adjaye Africa Architecture, presents the evidence. A vast compendium of the architect’s simple snaps, it illustrates the variety of architectural responses seen across Africa, from self-built informal to grand colonial styles. It also demonstrates the richness of expression to emerge from a continent too often dismissed in its entirety as a lost cause.

“There are a lot of basket cases, of course, but there are also a lot of engine countries, places where you have to spend time and invest but there is so much entrepreneurial action. The past 10 years in Lagos and Ghana have seen the cities change so much, but also Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and there’s this fantastic generation of young Africans who went abroad and are now returning.” He says he’s “more than optimistic” about the future of Africa.

. . .

What, I ask, can an architect add to that future? “That’s what’s so beautiful,” he responds. “The new infrastructure of Africa is being imagined and built and these countries haven’t got time to wait for architects to come in later, it’s all happening together right now. The iconography of the cities is being created and architects are best placed to imagine the form of these new cities.”

He speaks with such verve about Africa – and a certain reticence about the UK – that I ask him if he feels more African than British. He balks at the question, averts his eyes. “Well, look at me,” he says. “I’m obviously African and I have an African soul but I can’t deny my Britishness either – I’m both those things. But I don’t think my generation needs a passport to define their nationality. Immigration has changed, it’s not what it used to be. After the Smithsonian, I might spend five years in Africa. Or Asia.”

Which brings me to where, exactly, he lives now – when I was trying to set up the interview, it was difficult to tell. “It’s about 50/50 New York and London,” he replies, “but those are split – London also means Europe, India and the Middle East; New York also means South America and the Caribbean.” His girlfriend, model Ashley Shaw Scott, lives in New York, where they have an apartment in Chelsea; in London, it’s a flat in Whitehall.

If he sounds like the ultimate global architectural superstar, it hasn’t always been that easy. About eight years ago, when he switched from houses to public buildings, there was a palpable if intangible resentment in the architectural world – he was too young, too flash. His public architecture, however, has been widely acclaimed, notably the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo (2005) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver (2007). His “Ideas Stores” (public libraries) in east London took a lot of critical flak but were, in fact, extraordinary successes, and his occasional collaborations with artists, including Olafur Eliasson and now with Doug Aitken for the Liverpool Biennial (which opens at the Albert Dock today), have been restrained and elegant.

But when Adjaye’s practice ran into financial trouble in 2007, the architectural and even the national press seemed unpleasantly pleased, some of that resentment of his early successes resurfacing as Schadenfreude. “It was a bad time,” he explains. “All our commissions had been finished and the new ones hadn’t started and all got cancelled. I was scrambling about for work all around the world. We’re fine now. I could have just carried on doing houses but I always wanted to do public, civic architecture – which isn’t lucrative.”

In his defence, financial turmoil is not unusual in the up and down trade of architecture. Big names from Jean Nouvel to Will Alsop have struggled with the business end of design, and those who do well from it, such as Lord Foster – whose tax exile in Switzerland raised eyebrows – or left-leaning, ennobled Lord Rogers, whose practice designed One Hyde Park, the most expensive apartments in the world, are often equally pilloried.

We refuse dessert; Adjaye orders a lemon grass and ginger tea and I have an espresso. His tea has a delicious aroma, my coffee doesn’t.

I put it to him that sometimes global superstars can end up spending more time flying than drawing or thinking. Is this the case with Adjaye? “I learnt from my friend Chris Ofili that the whole point of creativity is freedom,” he says. “Any piece of information can become putty in your hands, something to remake.” And has success changed him, the sudden jump in league from Hoxton houses to mega-museums? “Only in that I’ve become more trusting of history. My sense of newness is that there is no tabula rasa. It’s more like Adorno, an idea of remaking the past in the present.”

I look around and have a feeling that Dinner, situated beside One Hyde Park, hasn’t witnessed many mentions of the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno. As I lose concentration for an instant, Adjaye grins and asks, “Are we done?”

“I think so,” I say, and he’s off and I’m left thinking about remaking the past as the present, which seems to be exactly what Blumenthal is doing at Dinner. I wonder if he, too, has been reading Adorno?

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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Dinner

Mandarin Oriental, 66 Knightsbridge, London

Meat fruit £14.50

Crab loaf £16.00

Cod in cider £26.00

Rice and flesh £24.00

Espresso x 2 £7.00

Lemon grass tea £5.00

Total (incl service) £104.06

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