By DAVID J. HILL
Published March 23, 2023
Sir David Adjaye, a champion for the role architecture and design can play in creating a more equitable world and lead designer of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., was awarded a SUNY honorary doctorate during a special presentation hosted by the School of Architecture and Planning.
“Through your innovative contributions to architecture and design, and your prolific scholarship on these subjects, you have distinguished yourself as a global leader in your profession and beyond,” President Satish K. Tripathi said during the degree conferral presentation, which was held virtually due to Adjaye’s schedule.
Renowned for his work in designing the Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, among other projects, Adjaye is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Gold Medal.
The Ghanaian-British architect’s work has “tremendously influenced” the field of architecture, Tripathi said, adding that it also serves as a source of great inspiration for UB students and faculty in architecture and planning.
“As an advocate for equity and inclusion, you embrace values our university holds dear,” Tripathi said. “Moreover, in using your platform to promote these values, you are furthering a conversation that is of critical importance to us as a scholarly community as we seek to dismantle structural barriers to equity.”
SUNY Trustee and UB alumna Eunice Lewin conferred the honorary doctorate in humane letters to Adjaye on behalf of the SUNY system. The entire presentation is available on the School of Architecture and Planning’s YouTube channel.
“I am deeply humbled by this honor,” Adjaye said.
Adjaye is the first architect to receive this distinction since the School of Architecture and Planning was founded in SUNY more than 50 years ago, said Robert G. Shibley, SUNY Distinguished Professor and dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. (In 1962, UB awarded Japanese architect Kenzō Tange an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.)
“While his prestige as a designer is well known, he has used his voice to promote ideas that are nesting in significant ways with respect to anti-racism, equity and inclusion. In the summer of 2020, Adjaye used his platform to call for the removal of monuments that are rooted in racist ideology and is helping to further the conversation on a national scale,” Shibley said.
Following the degree conferral, Adjaye took part in a panel discussion with Shibley and Charles L. Davis II, a UB alumnus and former faculty member who is now associate professor of architectural history and criticism in the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. Davis is known worldwide for his research on race in architecture, particularly the role of racial identity and race thinking in architectural history and contemporary design culture.
The conversation covered a range of topics centered on the role the fields of architecture and planning can play, especially within the academy, in breaking down barriers and addressing matters of social justice and equity.
Adjaye recalled a formative moment in his childhood, when he realized the inequities that his brother, Emmanuel, who was partially paralyzed, faced when visiting his specialized school. Adjaye noted how inefficient, run down and degrading the facility was.
During his university education at South Bank, he began to think about designing a facility that would provide better care for the handicapped, a moment he described as changing everything. He came to the understanding that architecture should serve people, and as a prevalent force within all of our lives, it too should be egalitarian.
“I saw within that experience of life how structurally inefficient the world was. That was a tipping point for me,” he said, adding that those experiences opened his eyes to the indispensable role of research in the process of designing buildings.
“It just felt as though there simply was not enough information about other ways of looking at the world and other knowledge systems, and also facing head on some of the structural issues that were just baked into architecture.”
Adjaye also shared his belief that the city is forever dynamic. “To understand it as a living dynamic system that continually has to be rebuilt is to then fully understand and embrace the idea that there is no fear of what has been done, but there is always a questioning that has to happen,” he said.
Architecture schools and the research their faculty and students conduct play a pivotal role in that questioning, which is central to the profession’s renewed urgency to dismantle structural barriers to social justice and equity, Adjaye said.
“Research is a device, and it’s amazing what the academy does,” he said. “Research is the deep dive to re-analyze, to rethink and also to evaluate, to conduct post-occupancy evaluations through the lens of history to test whether the propositions that were proposed in the built environment actually hold true, and hold true for all citizens.”
Adjaye’s challenge to young architects and planners is to continue to ask questions that push the boundary of knowledge within these fields.
“It’s not interesting to play in the arena that we know, but to keep expanding it,” he said.