Design Matters: architect David Adjaye on the destructive processes involved in building, and why he thinks mud is a good thing.

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Design Matters: The Elements

Material: David Adjaye


“Architecture is one of the most labour-intensive, most abusive sort of processes on the planet. And it also happens to be one of the most fundamental things we make as human beings.” We visited the architect David Adjaye in his London studio and discussed the importance of science and digital technology in making materials smarter, responsive and more ecological.



Shelter is as vital to human life as clean water and food are. Yet, building the structures we've come to depend on, be they homes, workplaces, infrastructure and cultural spaces, can be an “abusive” process in our colonisation of the planet, as David Adjaye describes in an edition of B&O PLAY and Frieze magazine’s Design Matters: The Elements video series.

How to make this process less detrimental to the environment? This is a question that absorbs the Tanzanian-born, London-educated architect – who was recently included in Time magazine's prestigious "100 most influential people of 2017" list for his trailblazing work. It has led Adjaye right back to a substance that would have been used to construct some of the earliest structures created by humans – mud.

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“We live in a world where we should be thinking about changing certain practices, and giving up certain lifestyles”

Geographically Driven Architecture 

His frustration at the impact architects can have on issues including climate change and environmental destruction has led Adjaye to explore how the latest in digital and computer technology might be allied with ancient materials to make more efficient buildings, a philosophy he described in a Guardian interview as "geographically driven architecture"

This began in his very first building, a cafe designed and constructed with cheap, easily sourced materials in Hampstead, London. Most recently it can be encountered in his designs employing earth bricks and natural ventilation for the World Bank's International Finance Corporation headquarters in Dakar. A private house built for former UN secretary general Kofi Annan combined the latest in concrete technology with the red soil of his birthplace.



These days, his practice employs sociologists and researchers to examine the significance and history of the location of each commission – getting to grips with the complexities of the past to inform sustainably-constructed buildings that will endure for generations. This connecting of history with the present and future, combined with Adjaye's heritage – his parents are Ghanaian – has led him to commissions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and emphasises that so many of our human stories are, like the basic materials we've used to house ourselves over the millennia, not confined by borders and national identity.

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Social conscience

In parallel to this, Adjaye's strong social conscience has led him to projects in areas that are often home to immigrant communities – where buildings by world-class architects are thin on the ground. For every financial headquarters there are community-focused projects, such as an arts centre named after a British politician of Caribbean descent Bernie Grant in London, England, or low income housing in the deprived Sugar Hill neighbourhood of New York.

Changing practices

By following Adjaye's example of examining the built environment as a dialogue between the history and present of place, materials, social context and technology, we might discover a much-needed new philosophy of design, engineering and construction. As he himself puts it, “We live in a world where we should be thinking about changing certain practices, and giving up certain lifestyles, and developing a much more radical sense of stewardship of this incredibly delicate planet”.


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Nathaniel Budzinski
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