British architect David Adjaye has been a rising star for a long time, ratcheting up his resume from artist collaborations (with Chris Ofili at the Venice Biennale of 2003) and expensive homes to more public projects such as the Idea Store libraries (Whitechapel and Chrisp Street, London) and the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. So it was hardly surprising this spring when he won the coveted commission with Freelon Adjaye Bond and Smith Group to design the National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The news in July that his practice was on the brink of bankruptcy was therefore all the more shocking. Adjaye spoke frankly with AN about how architects prepare, or don’t, for the inevitable ups and downs of a working practice.
The Architect’s Newspaper: What was your business plan when you went on your own in 1994?
David Adjaye: When I finished my MA in ‘93, there was a recession. It was a difficult time, with no work in the U.K. People had to go abroad. In fact it was probably the last time when you could go abroad to escape recession. Sadly, that’s not a choice people have now.
I was teaching part-time at South Bank University, an inner-city London university, and so was available to do odds and sods and anything to pep up my income. My sense of setting up a practice was about working, not business, and about expediting projects, basically out of my bedroom, that came my way, and the opportunities born out of a series of private commissions in the domestic realm.
You were briefly in a partnership at that time. Was it set up with one person as designer and the other in business development?
No, it was much more naive than that. Basically, it was an extraordinarily willful arrangement, not fiscal at all, just an acknowledgment that we were both working a lot. And to be honest, that’s why it disintegrated, because it was more of a school partnership that got a lot of notoriety but didn’t have a systemic relationship, so it collapsed.
Schools are woefully unconnected to the idea of the profession being entrepreneurial. We were all graduating and trying to get into employment right away. This generation is very different, because they’re paying off their debts. In my day in London, it was still very much in the grant system. Your education wasn’t a noose around your neck in terms of repayment. It was almost like free, and you were very ready to take on the world and come into the world. There was more risk-taking.
You’ve chosen cultural and public projects as your focus. Is the work always steady?
Two years ago, it became clear to me—after winning a large body of work and then completing it all—that I was in a business that had cycles, and unless I could manage to preempt those troughs in the cycle, I would be in trouble. Up to that point, I hadn’t had the time to ponder this in any meaningful way.
And I realized that it required a lot of time and that I wasn’t working in a sector with a lot of repeat clients. The [public and cultural] sector I had chosen to work in and love had a certain speed to it that I hadn’t anticipated. So I started to look at commercial clients in order to deal with the trough I saw over the hill.
When did you notice the economy starting to slip?
Once I decided to keep up the momentum with commercial projects, it took some time to develop but we got it up to about 30 to 40 percent of the workload. Then last summer, it was very clear that the economy was rocking and the first to show it was the commercial work we’d just taken on board. By October, we’d lost all the commercial work because we’d started late and they were the easiest to stop.
We really felt it: It was a huge systemic drain and a very complicated situation. I had to respond in a way that I wasn’t used or trained to do. I had to refinance and learn about downscaling, a horrible thing. It’s much more difficult here than in America—there are incredible employee rights. It took about six months to reduce the workforce by ten because we can’t fire people here. You have to go through consultation periods, etc. Now we’re at about 35.
How do you feel about your current situation?
We’re nearly out of it now. All the nurturing that we’d been working on for the past two and a half years has finally paid dividends. We’ve got four projects on an entirely new scale: Apart from the African American Museum, there’s a cultural center for the city of Lisbon, a college campus in Ghana, and in Qatar we won a competition to rebuild the old city of Doha with three other architects.
I feel more nimble and responsive about sustaining our studio. We’ve been asked to do commercial feasibility studies in India, as they seem to be recovering faster than other places. But I wonder, “Oh, God, here we go again; should we bother?” It took a year to get back to a sustainable practice. It’s been a hell of a lesson.
Read previous articles in the Recession Tales series.
A version of this article appeared in AN 09.23.2009.