Architect David Adjaye on Creating the World We Want to See

Vivienne Flesher

Known for projects like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Adjaye believes in working together to build a better tomorrow.

I don’t come from a formal arts family, but I’ve been very lucky to have had a wonderful education. I’m a son of diplomats, so we moved around a lot, and I was visually very stimulated by all that I encountered as a kid—from the pyramids of Egypt to the savannahs of East Africa to the deserts of the Middle East, right through to European cities.

I didn’t understand them, but I emotionally felt their power. An incredible teacher at art school realized that I had a capability as an architect but that I wasn’t paying attention to it, because I just didn’t have a window to what it could offer. He was a guide for me. I’m where I am because of people like that.

For me, architecture is a future art—it’s a system that we’ve built up to create the world that we want to see. It is literally the manifestation of our civilization. I use architecture to reframe the visual world, to improve narratives. Such “social change projects,” as I call them, include the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Studio Museum in Harlem.

We’re no longer nation-states of single ethnicities. The world that we live in is going to become more complicated, not less. Whoever wishfully thinks otherwise is delusional, because the population is dramatically increasing. We have to grow together, not just play in a world of those who have and those who have not, but try to create a common destiny of improvement. —As told to Christine Ajudua