Sir David Adjaye, the Tanzanian-born British architect of Ghanaian descent, has been announced as recipient of the 2021 royal gold medal, one of the world’s highest accolades for architecture. It marks the first time in the 173-year history of the medal, awarded annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), that it has been given to a black architect.
The announcement comes as the institute is examining its own role in Britain’s colonial past and struggling to address the continued lack of black representation in architecture. Only 5.2% of students accepted on to architecture courses in the UK are black, while the number of black registered architects has dropped to just 1% of the total.
“It’s incredibly humbling and a great honour to have my peers recognise the work I have developed with my team and its contribution to the field over the past 25 years,” said Adjaye, 54, on hearing the news. “Architecture for me has always been about the creation of beauty to edify all peoples around the world equally and to contribute to the evolution of the craft.”
Whether private houses or major international museums, Adjaye’s buildings have always reflected his cosmopolitan worldview, taking inspiration from a broad range of cultures and traditions. As the son of a diplomat, Adjaye attended international schools in Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Nairobi, Cairo, Beirut, Accra and Jeddah before he moved to London aged 11.
“His work is local and specific, and at the same time global and inclusive,” said the RIBA president, Alan Jones. “Blending history, art and science he creates highly crafted and engaging environments that balance contrasting themes and inspire us all.”
Adjaye has long been weary of being defined as a “black architect”, but he has served as an undeniable role model in such a white-dominated industry. “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.”
Adjaye trained at Southbank University and the Royal College of Art, establishing his first practice with William Russell in 1994, before setting up Adjaye Associates in 2000. He shot to fame in his early 30s on the back of an inventive series of bar interiors and private homes in London for a star-studded client list, including Chris Ofili, Ewan McGregor and Alexander McQueen. In many critics’ eyes, these are still some of his best projects. They were thrillingly inventive, imbued with a raw, rough-and-ready power, and exhibited a deft talent for combining unexpected materials with maximum sensuous effect – from using honeycomb aluminium to make a bar, to slathering coarse slabs of chipboard with a seductive slick of lacquer.
As the gold medal citation puts it: “Adjaye’s work is contradictory and yet coherent, contrasting and courageous, setting up and balancing elegance and grit, weightlessness and weight, dark and light.” His buildings revel in contrasts, compressing people through dark passageways and into light-flooded chambers, while combining tough, abrasive surfaces with slick mirror-polished finishes.