Public buildings in Accra don’t reflect who we are, says David Adjaye

The Ghanaian-British architect says his biggest disappointment is that public buildings in Accra do not “reflect who we are as a people”

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  • “Architecture, for me, has always been about the creation of beauty to edify all peoples around the world equally and to contribute to the evolution of the craft.”

The Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye (OBE) says he is disappointed that public buildings in Accra are all versions of buildings from around the world.

He said it is unfortunate that the country is always looking elsewhere in seeking inspiration for how to design its public spaces, adding: “That disappoints me and that’s my greatest regret.”

Sir David said: “I think it’s easy to criticise Accra because it’s a developing city but it has got a lot to go before it becomes [a] world-class city …

“I think my biggest disappointment is that [the public buildings] don’t reflect who we are. I feel that they are all versions of buildings around the world from different places. I just don’t get the sense of our traditions and culture being modernised into the 21st century.”

He was speaking with Nana Yaa Mensah in an exclusive interview before he received the Royal Institute of British Architects 2021 Royal Gold Medal, which was being presented to him on Wednesday (26 May).

Adjaye said: “Our cultural houses, our great shrine structures, our great monuments, our sculptures are being translated into figures and forms that really can’t represent our buildings.

“The way in which we spatially inhabit the ground and the way in which we inhabit landscape, we are always looking elsewhere, and that disappoints me and that’s my greatest regret.

“Accra is a kind of colonial city. It was made by the colonial infrastructure, became an independent city. But I think that because we are a young country, there is plenty of scope to really shift this and to really make it a very powerful and specific West African capital that reflects the culture and traditions of the place …” 

Historic moment

The Royal Institute of British Architects has named Sir David the recipient of its 2021 Royal Gold Medal, one of the highest accolades in the field. 

The judges praised Adjaye as “a singular and timely talent and a strong reminder of the insightful and integrative role of the architect”.

It is the first time in the award’s 173-year history that it has been presented to a black architect. 

Adjaye joins a pantheon of Royal Gold Medal recipients that includes Frank Lloyd Wright (1941), Kenzō Tange (1965), Charles and Ray Eames (1979), Rem Koolhaas (2004) and Zaha Hadid (2016).

“It’s incredibly humbling and a great honour to have my peers recognise the work I have developed with my team and its contribution to the field over the past 25 years,” said Adjaye, 54, in a statement.

“Architecture, for me, has always been about the creation of beauty to edify all peoples around the world equally and to contribute to the evolution of the craft.”

A note in the statement added: “Adjaye has created dazzlingly unique homes, commercial properties, product designs, exhibition spaces, and major art centres through a career defined by contrasts.”

The architecture virtuoso has designed buildings that are among the  most striking in the world.

Watch the full interview below:

“It’s quite an extraordinary feeling, it’s humbling … it’s still hard to believe it’s real. I’m deeply humbled by it,” he told Mensah. 

Of the impact of the prize, Adjaye said: “Well . . . just by the announcement of the prize I think it has sort of elevated [my] practice. Even more, there seems to be an acknowledgement very much now globally that we produce a certain kind of quality in the calibre of work, and that we’re being sought after, and that’s a very, very incredible feeling.”


On the difference the RIBA recognition would make to black architects, Adjaye said: “It’s definitely a glass-shattering moment … Somehow the profession has suffered in Europe and America from lack of representation and diversity.

“I think that somebody like myself winning this finally should prove that it’s nothing to do with the colour of one’s skin, or a lack of ability to understand, or engagement …

“It was always ridiculous. That myth can no longer be propagated …

“I hope I have a lot more time to really prove how much we can do and how much we can add to this profession, to its diversity and to the body of knowledge of architecture, which, for me, its roots are African.

“That root has been lost. I think that this is the beginning of a new generation of young Africans in the diaspora – black architects really contributing and adding their voice to how the built environment looks on our planet for all people …”

About Sir David Adjaye (OBE)

David Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents. His influences range from contemporary art, music and science to African art forms and the civic life of cities.

Adjaye, who recently moved to Ghana from New York and London, is a Ghanaian-British architectural maestro who has won international acclaim for the influence he has had on his profession and for beautifying cities across the world.

Twenty-five years ago, he founded Adjaye Associates, which today operates globally through studios in Accra, London and New York, undertaking projects spanning the globe.

He received an OBE in 2007 and a knighthood for services to architecture in Queen Elizabeth’s biannual honours list in spring 2017.

He is one of a small elite group known as “starchitects”. A starchitect is an architect whose global celebrity and critical acclaim have turned him or her into an idol of the architecture world and beyond.

Known for his ingenious use of materials and his sculptural ability, Adjaye has established himself as an architect with an artist’s sensibility and vision.

His projects range from private houses, bespoke furniture collections, product design, exhibitions and temporary pavilions to major arts centres, civic buildings and architectural masterplans.

Adjaye’s largest project to date – the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC – opened on the National Mall in 2016. Its inauguration was named the “Cultural Event of the Year” by the New York Times.

In 2017, Adjaye was recognised as one of the 100 most influential people of the year by TIME Magazine.

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