Internationally renowned architect David Adjaye began practicing in London in 1993. Both the Tanzania-born architect and his firm, which through installations and commissions bridge the worlds of art and architecture, are archetypes of a generation of London-based designers. In addition, Adjaye has become an increasingly public figure after hosting two mini-series of BBC’s “Dream Spaces” and presenting a documentary for the network titled “Building Africa” in 2005. With his success, though, has come a price: Adjaye/Associates has extended his practice abroad, opening offices in New York and Berlin. With a bevy of international projects including the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, will the architect have time for the city in which he made his name?

Jaffer Kolb: How has London changed since you opened your practice?

David Adjaye: I think London has changed a lot in the last ten years. There has been a significant re-imagining of its urban context and the way in which it uses that context. There has been a much greater sense of possibility and change. This was most strongly felt in the east—the practice moved here from the west side because of that quality—where there was a real emergent possibility to change this part of the city.

Why was it important to be located in the east end rather than just taking on projects there?

I wanted to practice within the context of this part of the city. There’s a certain relationship in performing an urban position. We followed a migration of artists that moved from the west to the east side a few years before. London is very curious to me—in many ways it is not like other European cities. It’s a collection of towns that come together, and all have unique personalities. In that sense, moving across the city was like moving to another town.

At the time, the east end had incredible potential for a young practice. It wasn’t about consolidating work, but rather there was a larger cultural evaluation about reimagining the urban context. It was a significant moment for architecture; we needed this to manifest our ideas of change. The east end didn’t have the history of Chelsea of Kensington, nor did it have the glass and steel of the city. Instead, there was this instrumental role to re-imagine a certain kind of modernity as a fast way to move forward but with an alternative way to the rest of the city.

How was this shift affected by the changes of governance and political ideology after 1997 with the ascension of New Labour?

New Labour brought a very top-down political climate. There were all these big ideas on the Urban Renaissance and reimagining everything. On the local level, there was little confidence that these ideas would succeed, but the vision was centralized and they used top-down strategies to empower the local authorities. With Tower Hamlets, for example, you saw the handing over of Canary Wharf to the council, which basically turned an incredibly poor district into a wealthy one. Tower Hamlets was left to imagine itself in its future as it related to its past.

New policies helped to nurture a new gang of architects, like us, who were moving east. It was a generation that benefited from the patronage driven by the government, a younger generation that could acquire wealth in a way they couldn’t before. Those people could then commission works from other members of their generation. Because of these new funding sources from the Arts Council, the Lottery, Heritage Grants et cetera, there was a sudden positivism. We didn’t have to be harangued by the profit diagram, so there was a focus on trying to establish value through making things and to establish a position to make this place, which was critical to its success.

Arguably that success led to the gentrification and post-gentrification of the east side. How has this shift changed your work in London?

The area is, of course, very different now. The transformation has forced me to realize quickly that the trajectory I’m interested in lies in the engagement of what’s happened and what’s happening economically.

London itself is very, very different now in terms of it’s own context. Politically what we’re talking about now is notions of identity and of nation-hood. During depression and times of collapse, like in much of the late 1970s and 1980s, issues of identity go out the window, but now all of these have come to the fore with the new economic comfort—it’s really an incredibly privileged place for the city. It perplexes London, which to me is both half-worrying and half-not, because you get into a very difficult area when trying to pin down identity. It seems to lead to writing history too fast, and I’m suspicious of what it does to the communities.

But these issues are about the people, not necessarily the spaces. The moment to work here for me is finished—the transformation has occurred. So now I have moved on to a more global scale.

What lessons from London do you take with you to new projects internationally?

My new projects are not about creating a model of London that’s re-enacted. Rather, all the new work is about how cities are made. My London projects were about making boxes and objects that stitch—or glue—certain parts of the city together. I’ve moved away from that, though, now my concern is about how you create character in new places.

There are lessons learned in London, such as what you do with a cosmopolitan culture, mass diversity, and so on. It’s about the sense of a dominant culture, and the disruption thereof. Also the notion of change: it’s a natural think that London has been very good at, this evolving continuously.

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Debate London is organised by The Architecture Foundation Charity Registration no.1006361
The Architecture Foundation is funded by Arts Council England