‘Design is about design thinking,’ architect David Adjaye

David Adjaye is of the most exciting contemporary architects. Last year Time magazine’s 100 most influential people called the 51-year-old British-Ghanaian designer an ‘architectural visionary’. He has won the London Design Medal and received a knighthood. Amongst his most notable buildings are the Dirty House and Stephen Lawrence Centre in London, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – a complex work rooted in the past and present. His latest project is Ghana’s National Cathedral, a building conceptualised as a landmark where people from all faiths can gather, worship and celebrate.

David Adjaye

We caught up with him in Milan following the annual Lexus Design Awards as part of Salone del Mobile. Now in its sixth year, the scheme attracts emerging creatives from around the world with the winners given the chance to help realise their ideas. ‘The Lexus project is about design in the global sense and I like that,’ he begins. ‘There are regional differences and concerns and this is exciting. I like the idea of encouraging and supporting diversity in design. I feel part of my job as a designer and architect is to support and encourage a new generation to understand some of the problems that we face in our work and to offer scenarios for solutions.’

There were some 1300 applications from 68 countries – all answering to the topical theme of ‘Co’ in its Latin sense to mean harmony, community and collaboration. The winner isn’t an archetype design concept. Rather the New York-based research studio Extrapolation Factory’s ‘testing hypotheticals’ is concerned with ideas – the test site involves a diverse group of locals to help understand the implications of design and in the process imagining and exploring alternate futures for their communities.

Winner "Testing Hypotheticals" offers workshops for navigating the future

Adjaye says of the winner: ‘It is about design thinking and it excites me. Younger designers are questioning the concept of simply manufacturing products and there appears to be a rebirth of design thinking.’ He feels he is more and more interested in how innovation is not just about manufacturing products, but providing social solutions. ‘For me design is about design thinking. I’m always impressed by how the younger generation champion strong views.’

If the job of designers is to no longer make products, I ask how does he see his role as an architect evolving? ‘Design can play a key role in helping people navigate an increasingly complicated world. It shouldn’t just be about making things but understanding the responsibility of the product. Products have implications and it is up to design thinking to tackle that,’ he offers passionately. ‘Democratisation through technology means that we need new tools to understand how to function in this new society. The codes of the twentieth-century are no longer relevant and designers need to be part of this dialogue.’

Nargess Banks
All images are © Lexus and Adjaye Associates

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History © Adjaye Associates
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