‘Seeing the Relationship Between Things’: Sir David Adjaye and the Social Ramifications of Architecture

Ignacio Infante is an associate professor of comparative literature and Spanish and associate director of the Center for the Humanities.

Sir David Adjaye, recipient of the 2018 Washington University International Humanities Prize. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy Adjaye Associates.

Sir David Adjaye has described his own conception of architecture as a way to “produce in the world.” In this sense, Adjaye’s work as an architect — encompassing civic, commercial and residential buildings, as well as master planning or design projects — constitutes a creative process through which he critically engages the intricate relationship between geography and form. Adjaye’s commitment to architecture as a profession and discipline thus reflects a deep engagement with a complex world in its many forms (spatial, aesthetic, material) and contexts (social, economic, historical).

Adjaye’s decision to become an architect originally emerged as an attempt to explore the social and historical implications of “form making,” as he explains in the following terms: “I got into architecture because I was searching for a way to produce in the world. I went to art school and thought I would do it through art, but I realized very quickly that I was interested in the social ramifications of form making.”

Adjaye’s creative vision as an architect is deeply influenced by a childhood spent across Africa, as well as his training in art and architecture in Europe (primarily based in London) and Japan. As mentioned in his essay, “African Metropolitan Architecture,” Adjaye’s family, originally from Ghana, lived in a range of cities across Africa throughout his childhood — including Dar es Salaam (where he was born in 1966), Kampala, Nairobi, Beirut and Cairo — where Adjaye was exposed to what he refers to as the “incredible diversity that existed in this continent.” Adjaye experienced this diversity as a multiplicity of different geographies, languages and cultures, as well as urban spaces, terrains and climates across Africa. The experience during his childhood of this particular sense of diversity represents for Adjaye the “kind of internationalism” that would become one of the key foundations for the development of his “strategic view” as one of the most notorious creators in the world today.

Aïshti Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon, 2015. Photo by Julien Lanloo, courtesy Adjaye Associates.

Adjaye’s impressive work as an architect represents one of the most powerful contemporary examples of the kind of revolutionary work posited by Walter Benjamin as being located “within the production relations of its time.” As Adjaye mentions in his essay “The Lesson of Africa,” one of the main functions of his designs is precisely to unveil the very relations of production — from its most material, to its most abstract or symbolic — effectively shaping our world, our spaces and our lives today: “When I look at brickwork, for instance, it is not the bricks I am interested in but the lattice created by the horizontal and vertical joints, which tells me how the bricks were put together. This approach offers an immediate basis for understanding the relationship between things.”

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., 2016. Photo by Alan Karchmar, courtesy Adjaye Associates.

For Adjaye, architecture constitutes a process in which technique is the result of a critical act of looking into the world: looking at material form as a way of tracing the relations of production shaping those forms, and creating new formal configurations whose function is to critically and vibrantly respond to those relations.

Asymmetric Chamber, London and Manchester, UK. Photo by Lyndon Douglas, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

The extreme importance of Adjaye’s own “strategic view” articulated in the many groundbreaking buildings he has designed over the years lies in how his work ultimately aims to unveil the “relationship between things” as a creative exploration of form and space within their most complex social and historical ramifications — joyful and painful alike.

It is precisely the uniqueness and commitment at the core of Adjaye’s creative vision in relation to the conditions of life and production in the world today — as determined by various historical, cultural and economic forces — that impressed the selection committee for the 2018 Washington University International Humanities Prize awarded by the Center for the Humanities. By consistently placing his work as an architect within the production relations of our time through new and impressive forms, shapes and spatial configurations, Sir David Adjaye continues to expand our understanding of our world, our human ties and the very fabric of our human condition.


International Humanities Prize Lecture & Celebration
Monday, October 29, 5 pm
Washington University
Hillman Hall, Clark-Fox Forum
Free & open to the public