David Adjaye is fast becoming a household name among architects, notwithstanding the widespread confusion over how to pronounce his surname (Adj-eye, for the record). There is, however, one characteristic of his rapid ascension to the top of the profession that is unmistakable. Adjaye is a black man. Born in Tanzania and educated in London, he has a global practice at an opportune time in history, when being black is arguably fashionable, the way it was for artists, writers, and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance. What is interesting and ironic about the comparison of that epic period in black American history with today is that few, if any, black architects of the 1920s attained the status that Langston Hughes did as a writer and Aaron Douglas did as an artist.
Adjaye's success can most credibly be attributed to a perfect storm—a confluence of design talent, business acumen, a boundlessly high level of self-expectation, good fortune with respect to early clients and publicity, an embrace of cultural iconography as inspiration, and perhaps just a little bit of novelty in the persona of the man himself. He exudes self-assurance and confidence, humility and grace.
Adjaye has rock star status in the architecture community—as evidenced by the capacity crowd (above) at his lecture for the 2008 National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) Conference in Washington, D.C.—and he has the potential to achieve that status in the mainstream. He has transcended the limitations that typically encumber anyone who is non-white in becoming a "starchitect."
Adjaye is emblematic of all that is possible when talent is the primary factor in achievement. David is a compelling phenomenon who is boldly going where no black architect has gone before. He has made accessible to aspiring architects, irrespective of race, gender, or physical disability, the possibility of transcendent success.
R. Steven Lewis is the 2009-2010 president of NOMA.