You’ve designed a beautiful statue for the BRIT Awards. Talk us through the concept…
Designing the award was a fantastic opportunity to pursue my longstanding fascination with glass and its forms. My take on the BRIT trophy is the manifestation of a great material forged in fire and shaped into the body of a woman. Proportionally she is very different… and far from the idealised version. Cast in solid glass each statue is unique, carrying its own distinctive imperfections. For me this was a great opportunity to challenge the static notions of beauty and perfection and to dig deep into what makes us beautifully real, imperfect and distinct.
Did you enjoy the challenge of imposing your vision on such a small object?
The BRIT Awards are a powerful forum to really talk about the evolving nature of culture and creativity. For me, designing the award was an opportunity to question and explore – what is the nature of perfection and imperfection, what is the notion of beauty... it was exciting to transfer those ideas to a smaller object charged with such a symbolic cultural importance.
Do you have a particular method when it comes to conceptualising a design? Where do you start?
I start by collecting information, researching and immersing myself in narrative. It’s really how I creatively listen and put things together, rather than making something that represents other things. I would always fail if I tried to do that. I need to give myself that moment of the creative synthesis, which is finding out about stuff, and then figuring out what I’ve got to do. The gap between those two things is the moment of creativity, that’s the creation.
When commissioned for a particularly important project – e.g. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture – do you feel additional pressure?
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture is truly so much bigger than a building. It is the culmination of a 100-year struggle to do justice to a complex and significant history of a people whose stories are still too rarely told.
For me, the project was about uncovering history and trying to convey the contributions of a community whose importance to the social fabric of American life has too often been invisible. There is an immense responsibility inherent in this project. That was weighty and challenging, but also invigorating. Ultimately the museum has become a real cultural phenomenon and a pilgrimage point to people from all communities and backgrounds. The interest and positive reception is immense. To be afforded the chance to contribute something with so much resonance is what architects dream about. It’s a true testament to the power of a politically and socially charged space.
I am lucky that I never did a project that I did not want to do
Is there a building you’re particularly proud of? Equally, are there any designs that didn’t turn out as successfully as you’d hoped?
I love them all. I am lucky that I never did a project that I did not want to do.
Do you agree that the London skyline has become too crowded?
We can accommodate the explosion of urbanism and people moving to the city in a way which we could not have done with the techniques of the past. London is going to go on growing and towers will be an inevitable part of the city’s development.
What really concerns me is not the changing skyline, it is the real value that these large high profile developments bring to urban life and communities. For me public architecture is a social act. It offers an opportunity to create more than a building that fulfils a programme, it is about advocation of citizens and inspiring their belief in civic life, inviting them to take part. In that sense each new landmark London development is a precious opportunity to introduce new thinking about shared space and values in the city – it brings a massive potential and responsibility that we as architects and city makers should not undermine and neglect.
What made you want to become an architect?
My younger brother suffered a tragic illness as a child and became physically and mentally disabled. In the 1980s, during my teens, access laws weren’t universal yet. Whether it was on holidays or at school, I remember taking him behind buildings in sort of makeshift settings, carrying him in his wheelchair up stairs. The horror of how environments can subjugate and suppress people, and bring whole communities and families down – this was the lightbulb moment that made me realise the potential of architecture to change lives.
Use your voice, be brave and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty
Who do you take inspiration from?
I am inspired by humanity in its biggest sense, I am inspired by culture and the stories of people’s lives and what details make up places. The things that are formal and sometimes the things that are informal.
What’s the most common misconception about architecture you encounter?
That it is all about instant fame and glory, whereas in reality it is about very long hours and hard work.
Are there any handy ‘cheat’ phrases or terms to use if we want to sound clever when talking about a building’s design?
Hahaha. Forget about clever. Just think and enjoy the human experience.
What advice would you give to aspiring architects?
Use your voice, be brave and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Stay focused and work hard pursuing big ideas.
For more info, see Adjaye Associates