Sir David Adjaye: the UAE is creating cities of the 21st century

Award-winning architect will give a keynote speech on his design for the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi

Sir David Adjaye says the UAE has become a leader in typifying the openness of intercultural interfaith. Photo: Chris Schwagga
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There’s no denying that Sir David Adjaye is an architect with a vision.

He is one of the world’s leading architects, born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and has lived in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and studied in the UK and now resides in Accra, Ghana.

His multicultural experience laid the foundation for his own practice, informing his architectural point of view and interests, and leading him to create an impressive international portfolio of work of award-winning and notable buildings. These include the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC; the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway; Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and most recently, Adjaye is designing the Abrahamic Family House on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

Inspired by the Document on Human Fraternity celebrating the three major Abrahamic religions, the Abrahamic Family House will have a mosque, church and synagogue, and include a cultural centre. The site aims to serve inter-religious dialogue and promote, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

“The UAE is creating cities of the 21st century, communities of the 21st century,” Adjaye tells The National.

“The UAE has become a leader in typifying the openness of intercultural interfaith. This dialogue is a powerful message about moving away from a world where people separate themselves, to a world where people can enjoy, celebrate and respect their common humanity.”

Adjaye will be in Abu Dhabi to give a keynote speech during this year’s Culture Summit. His presentation will be on the Abrahamic Family House, followed by a Q&A where he will delve into his practice and his work around the world.

Adjaye’s portfolio of designs centre on structures that house, share and celebrate knowledge: places of worship, museums and libraries, spaces where ideas and knowledge from around the world come together. The period Adjaye spent in the Middle East during his youth is evident in his work, reflecting in his interest in diversity, experiencing the other and knowledge sharing.

“What was amazing about having that experience of living in the Middle East, was to tune me to understand at a very young age, that the world is made of different geographies, cultures and different worlds,” he says.

“Each of these worlds made extraordinary architecture out of the contexts that they found themselves in, by creating incredible beauty, out of the resources around them, whether they were scarce or plentiful.”

Adjaye’s experiences and observations during his time in the region helped form his theoretical practice, which has been focused on understanding where we came from before knowing where we should head as a society. A fundamental part of that theory is to reject a universal hierarchy and to celebrate all cultures equally. And while diversity feels like an overused, redundant word, Adjaye is clear on how it can function within architecture and how we can greatly benefit from its implementation.

“If we're just looking at what Europeans have done, in terms of architectural modernism, it is a blunt instrument that works only so far,” he says.

“That ability to understand the complexity that's been made by other people, in their context and the sophistication of that, is what we now need to rest on to understand the complexity of the world.”

Exploring and studying how other cultures have occupied spaces and created structures from the resources available to them is an idea that also extends out to the theories and practices of indigenous architecture.

“I believe in learning from the lessons of indigenous architecture, not in recreating indigenous architecture,” he says. “So understanding the life cycles, the material use, and the role and proportional relationship of, systems in symbiosis, to create fantastic artefacts, spaces and places.”

With the advent and exponential growth of and need for technology, especially during the pandemic, it seems challenging to see how we can fuse indigenous and technological innovations.

However, Adjaye sees this synthesis as an incredibly vital one.

“The two cannot live without each other,” he says. “We need to use science, we need to use technology, and we need to use engineering excellence and indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is about understanding how the world has been made for humanity and civilisations to then propel ourselves in the future.”

Adjaye’s keynote presentation will take place on October 25 during the Culture Summit.

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Updated: October 24, 2022, 9:04 AM