Annual lecturer Adjaye makes case for greater diversity

Tuesday 13 June 2017

David Adjaye

The built environment sector specifically – and society more generally – should aim to make ‘big jumps’ rather than incremental changes to secure greater diversity.

So said Sir David Adjaye as he gave the NLA’s annual lecture at the Royal Geographical Society last night.

Adjaye, who was knighted in the Queen’s honours list and says he is not taking the responsibility lightly, with public talks and lobbying on his agenda, was in conversation with NLA chairman Peter Murray – and features in the latest NLQ out this Thursday. He told a packed audience at the RGS that it shouldn’t even be a question that diversity should be a given and it was at the heart of London’s success economically as a ‘mosaic’, ‘tapestry’ and even as the reason behind its success as the cuisine capital of the world. So it was a ‘terrible mistake’ to lose talent from the capital – ‘immigration is the city’, he said. ‘London has always been my teacher. It’s the crucible.’

Adjaye reflected on his career so far, on how ‘density’ with a social mix is the most important issue of the 21st century, and on how many cities in the African continent were failing to grasp key tenets of urbanism and the ‘phenomenon’ of the city. Asked by RIBA president elect Ben Derbyshire from the audience to throw his weight behind his provocation for architecture to be a four-year course, Adjaye gave a ‘diplomatic’ answer. He reflected that his growing practice had staff who had come in almost as apprentices, and others who had done eight years of training, but Derbyshire’s idea had ‘a lot of sense’, particularly when an education was becoming more like a ‘privilege’ with the costs involved. But on diversity Adjaye said he couldn’t understand why people said it would be too hard to introduce more equality – if you are interviewing 20 men for a post you have to ask what is going wrong, he suggested. ‘As a society, we have to make big jumps’, and as an industry ‘getting on with it rather than stagnating and making excuses’. Much better to take a leaf out of French president Macron’s book and implement swift change, with 50% of his cabinet women. Adjaye aims to keep similar levels across both gender and race in his offices in New York and London, not as a feelgood factor but to get better experiences and, ultimately, better, smarter architecture. And his message to the UK prime minister was to avoid ignoring the talent of a diverse city which can serve us all, because London’s talent pool was the envy of many of the countries Adjaye visits.

Adjaye also touched on issues regarding his study of Africa, its impact on what is now thought of as sustainable measures and the early forms of building and the idea of democratic market halls that informed his Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. He also revealed that he has an ‘obsession’ about trying to build ‘buildings with four sides’ and that ‘we are now in a world where it is really hard to hold onto monoliths as a definition of who we are’. Finally, he made clear his views on the power of architecture: ‘I’m not interested in good or bad space, or in the judgment of space’, he said. ‘I’m interested in the potential of space.’


David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

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