David Adjaye: designing for meaning, memory and learning

Global architect David Adjaye has won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for 2021. In this exclusive WORKTECH Academy interview, he explains why we need to secularise sacred space

David Adjaye, the British British-Ghanaian architect who is founder of Adjaye Associates, has been named as the recipient of the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the highest honour in British architecture. Adjaye was a keynote speaker at the 2019 WORKTECH London conference. To mark his award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for having a significant influence ‘on the advancement of architecture’, we reproduce here extracts from his on-stage interview with Jeremy Myerson, director of WORKTECH Academy.

Jeremy Myerson: How do you organise your time?

David Adjaye: It’s about understanding how the work is coming in and then I work with an amazing team who’ve been with me for 20 years. A director will take the project on, I come in at interim stages to make sure that it’s following that agenda that we set up front. The team deliver projects on site. I start it formally, then become the agitator to make sure that it keeps to the vision. To keep the rigour and the intellectual intent of the projects clear, I act as the creative director.


JM: The key values that come up in your work are meaning, memory and learning – qualities that are probably absent from most office buildings. There is almost a transcendent quality to the work. Did you set out to establish this reputation in the field?

DA: It happened organically. I was always interested in ways that our communities and cities are evolving – and in facilitating these emerging forces. We became a practice that was using innovation not as a risk but as a way to survive – as an alternative to setting up a repeat business model.


JM: What was the first memorial building you designed?

DA: The first was a temporary pavilion at the Southbank Centre in 2008 for the London Design Festival.  It’s ironic thinking about this idea of the reflective or sacred space – a space in the city which is not just about programme, functions or output, but about the inner qualities of the person. The Southbank project was a room where people could go for some respite, somewhere to explore the materiality and phenomena of that space – I realised there was a huge potential in adding this idea of reflective space. And when you’re reflecting histories and memories – the built fabric of our cities as encoded with memory – you can read the city as a story.

‘In secular societies, we’ve lost the space of reflection…’ David Adjaye

JM: Is this aspect a missing dimension of city architecture?

DA: It is difficult to find the moment of contemplation. I’m not sure it’s a trend yet, but it’s being talked about. In secular societies, we’ve lost the space of reflection. Churches, temples and so on sometimes have a bad reputation in our society, but they created spaces of reflection. If we don’t believe in organised religion, we need a way to secularise introspection. The wellness sector had done that to a degree but made it very commercial. I’m talking about a kind of generosity maybe, in the way that a park might be generous. There’s no obvious visual style, but such spaces have a sensibility, a way of treating people.


JM: Do you feel you’ve got a central core to what you’re doing that allows you to experiment?

DA: When I started, I rejected the trends that were happening in the built environment at the time – deconstruction, postmodernism, and so on. Reducing architecture to polemics of style felt limiting and a blunt instrument given the complexities of what the city was about. As an architecture student at the Royal College of Art, I worked with curators, designers, makers, and artists – there was a discussion about understanding a design ethic, a way of thinking about what we do and why we do it. Now I’ve been building for 20 years, I can spot certain tendencies and I’m always trying to actively counter them or evolve them. I put so much emphasis on the rootedness of the building in geographies, narrative, phenomenology – buildings have a responsibility to the future as well as the commissioning client.


JM: You’ve designed from the chair to the city. How do you manage working at different scales?

DA: It’s not the same process, but it’s the same attitude. That’s why multidisciplinary environments are so exciting. I like the idea of design as a sensibility – each industry and each design sector has its own parameters and narratives, but it’s the job of a designer is to have the awareness to be able to engage with those structures. Value is important to me – in working with Knoll, for example, I wanted to deliver a series of furniture pieces that had a message about sustainability and environment – not to become an expert chair designer. I work with lots of artists and social scientists – it’s about adding value through that process.


JM: How do you build a sense of learning and curiosity into physical space?

DA: We started with the Idea Store in London and took the concept to Washington DC. The architecture is a support frame for the content and should be understood in the context of the diversity of learning opportunities that are out there. I think the role of architecture is to create the scenography that encourage citizens to work at their maximum and use those spaces to activate notions of rethink. What’s great about architecture is that we can make people feel comfortable or uncomfortable. With the ability to do those two things, we can create awareness that heightens the perception of information coming in.

‘Past, present and future are all in dynamic flux…’ David Adjaye

JM: You’re currently working on the UK Holocaust Memorial project in a Westminster park right next door to the Houses of Parliament, which is going through quite a planning battle…

DA: If I hadn’t done this before, I’d have been really disheartened. There’s a sense of resistance to change that I think is understandable. Past, present and future are all in dynamic flux. People will talk about the 20th century in 100 years in the way we talk about the Tudors today. It’s all profoundly disorientating. Wren was derided for destroying the character of London in building St Paul’s Cathedral. The city isn’t static – it’s going to change. We’re collaborating with Ron Arad to develop the enclosure, education experience and contemplative courtyard. Britain is one the last countries involved in the events of the Holocaust to build a monument to this cataclysmic event. The memorial is needed so we can reflect deeper.


JM: Are you disheartened at a lack of meaning, memory and learning in workplace?

DA: It’s no irony that lots of businesses love working with old buildings. There’s an attraction to the fabric of past typologies – a connection to memory. When we build new spaces, we focus so much on the efficiency of the processes of work and less on the quality of the environment. Eventually the business of the desk and the functionality moves away, but the environment stays. Making quality environments which have an inspiring impact, and which can then be part of a history, is really important.


JM: Should workplace design have elements that make you uncomfortable?

DA: You want people to be out of their comfort zone, yes, but not literally destabilised. We should create places of play and reflectivity, of imagination and informality, places for people to think in many ways and use their body in many ways. Part of the opportunity for workspace is to evolve beyond the conference room, the desk, the efficiency of the plan.

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