Sir David Adjaye OBE RA
Interview By Joy Sigaud
His illustrative answers are inspirational. The British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye’s views on overcoming racism, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ultimate sacrifice of Cherry Groce representing so many victims come to the forefront as his latest monument – a lasting memorial to her, is unveiled this year. The interview gives great insight into an unquestionably brilliant mind.
J.Sigaud (J.S). We have seen the incredibly successful exhibition at the Design Museum London Making Memory which won the 2019 Beazley Design of the Year. The award winning Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Washington is an international landmark of architectural excellence and was named Design of the Year for 2017. Along with an accolade of landmark structures, tell us a bit about the driving force behind you. When did you decide to become an architect?
Sir David Adjaye (D.A). I knew from early on that I wanted to do something creative while still honoring my education which was so important to my family. I thought, how can I have a career and also bring artistic sensibilities into question? I took a foundations course and from there enrolled in an interior and three dimensional course at Middlesex. It was at this time that I decided specifically to concentrate on architecture. After a few years of working within the profession, I applied and received acceptance to the South Bank University in London. I made a deal with the Dean of the school where I said “I am quite mature and have come to this quite late, but I’d like to see if I can do this in one year. Can I do this degree in one year instead of three?” and he said “I’ll tell you what, you can do the first term and if you pass with excellent grades then you can go through, if you don’t, you go back to first year”. Him giving me a chance made me so happy that it put the fire beneath me. I passed, got a first class honours, and received the national award.
While I was studying at South Bank University, I designed a facility for the handicapped after witnessing my brother’s day school for the disabled. His current school was inefficient and I wanted to design something with dignity where he didn’t have to negotiate the world on such a grand level everyday. This project demonstrated to me, that not only can architecture provide a connection between ‘creativity’ and ‘career’ but it can also act on the level of great service. Designing for difference and dynamism within societies and questioning the “norms” of the built environment as they operate across time and space are ever-present tasks that I choose to undertake within my designs.
J.S. Studying architecture is a long course which requires dedication, the vision of an artist and engineering and technical skills. What advice do you have for young people of colour who are contemplating or indeed already studying the subject?
D.A. For students of colour in architecture going into the world, I can only tell you that you are the front lines and the profession needs what you represent. We live in a world where the voices of diversity, the voices of colour, are not a part of the built environment. What you will be contributing is critical and it’s a criticality that will not come easy. Unlike your contemporaries and students who aren’t of colour, the world doesn’t contain our history. Institutions are built on the Western-European narratives, the colonial narrative, that works to erase whoever exists outside of them. You have to take this education and root it in your own history. Look to your ancestors, your heritage and your own profound historical past.
One of my favourite Ghanaian words in the Twi language is ‘sankofa’ which literally means ‘go back and get it’ or go to the past to learn for the future. You have to search for the histories that are hidden from you, tap into your abilities as a collective to remember, and move with this honourable memory into a transformation so powerful that it changes the world all together. People will question why you’re questioning and moving outside of a supposed norm, but don’t be disheartened by this. Challenges will arise but know that you are the champions upholding the legacy of your ancestors and the dream to live in a world where you’re able to see yourself directly in the cities, towns and communities of the world.
J.S. A trailblazer in modern architecture and design in an already competitive field, your work has been described by some as a “major turning point” in architecture from buildings to monuments and having jointly, with Ron Arad, won the bid to design the Holocaust Memorial in Westminster, tell us a bit about your latest project, The Cherry Groce Memorial.
D.A. The Cherry Groce Memorial in Brixton is a project sited in Windrush Square as a tribute to the life of an innocent mother who was shot in her home in 1985 by the Metropolitan Police. Her name was Cherry Groce. The memorial is designed to act as a beacon of hope, to honour and inspire the community who rose up to protest the institutional racism and systemic injustice faced by the Black British community.
The single column represents Cherry’s strength which is balanced with a base symbolising the support of the community emphasised by benches, meant to enhance the functionality of seating and engaging with the structure. The roof speaks to the protection and shelter of the Brixton community while its planting serves as a reminder of change, growth and optimism.
J.S. In the context of the Black Lives Matter wave in all that it encompasses, this is very timely, and although Cherry Groce for the most part was not a household name, in spite of being the catalyst for the 1985 uprising in Brixton can you tell us a bit about the message behind the design and what it is you are trying to achieve.
D.A. It’s unfortunate that only now, with the amazing work of the Black Lives Matter movement, are issues of systemic racism and oppression within society surfacing as they’ve existed previously to this moment.
Monumentalised in this memorial is a remembrance to a woman who represents an entire community – the African-Caribbean community in the UK – who live, navigate and negotiate the racism of Empire every single day. The importance of creating the memorial within the public realm is so that the memory of a struggle becomes entangled with, and ritualised in everyday life to inspire the community with a power that seeks justice. This is a new type of monument that isn’t a colonial structure or memory of a slave owner. This is a monument to inspire a community and future generations with the hope and power of the truth.