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21 First Drafts: David Adjaye's Elektra House

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

David Adjaye
Elektra House in London, England
Date completed: 2000

Getting the Gig:
Many architect's first independent commissions are humble works that offer an opportunity to stand out and introduce themselves to the wider world. At the point in his career when David Adjaye was stepping out on his own as the sole employee of Adjaye Associates in 2000, he'd not only already designed private homes for international movie star Ewan McGregor and Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili, an old friend, but also had created a video set for the Pretenders and a wine cellar for Pink Floyd member David Gilmour (a proposed house for fashion icon Alexander McQueen was never realized). He once told the Guardian that fellow architects called him "Prince Charming" due to his ability to socialize and work the room. This kind of early resume may suggest Adjaye was the son of privilege, but the diplomat's kid from Tanzania grew up bouncing between cities during his childhood, eventually ending up in London attending a state school where he would be taunted by classmates. After dropping out of college and briefly working for an architecture firm, Adjaye graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1993, winning the RIBA Bronze Medal for his design for a home for the disabled, inspired by the experiences of his brother Emmanuel, paralyzed during childhood. After brief stints working in the offices of David Chipperfield and Eduardo Souto de Moura, he partnered with William Russell, with whom he would work with until 2000 designing a series of hip restaurants and interiors that would see him come into contact with artists Giorgio Sadotti and Elizabeth Wright, who were looking to build a specialized new home.

Description and Reception:
A budget-conscious project built on the site of a former shoe factory, the two-story, 1,400-square-feet Elektra House, named after the clients' daughter, was conceived of as both a live/work space and a theoretical lightbox, a means to maximize space and allow for an art display inside a multi-story home. Roof lights set above the back of the home provides overhead lighting for the rest of the boxy structure, which exudes a rich sheen on the exterior due to the dark, phenolic resin that treats the layered timber panels. In many ways a continuation of ideas Adjaye played with when designing a space for Olifi, the home's stark interior, which shields residents from views of nearby buildings, and blank front made it something of a sensation when it was revealed. When images of the projects were printed in the RIBA Journal, one of the numerous letters that came in response said putting children inside a windowless home was akin to a form of abuse.

Impact on His Career:
Adjaye's first independent project was almost his last. During construction, as the budget set by Sadotti and Wright was running low, Adjaye had decided to cover many parts of the facade with low-cost plywood instead of glass. But due the home's location in a historic district, the end result violated building codes. Adjaye's appeal to the building commission to revisit their decision to demolish the home was rejected, and he was requested to appear in court. Slightly freaked out, he approached architect Richard Rogers for advice; the Pritzker winner wrote a letter to the commission that read, in part, "David Adjaye is one of the best architects of his generation in Britain, and this house reflects his great ability." In a speedy turnaround, the council not only let the supposedly out-of-place residence remain standing, but asked him to join a contest to reimagine a local library, which resulted in the 2005 Whitechapel Idea Lab, a project the Guardian said "marks a significant step forward for him" and shows he can do challenging civic buildings and not just "houses for the rich and famous." Those Whitechapel projects helped establish Adjaye's reputation right when he was taking a bashing from a former client, newspaper editor Janet Street-Porter, who wrote a blistering series of columns which not only attacked the architect and his designs for a private residence for her later named the Fog House, but noted that as far as she's concerned, Adjaye is someone she "dreams of regularly ritually disembowelling or forcing to go through a nasty form of torture before mopping up the storm water in my living room with his designer sweaters."

Famous Future Works:
Dirty House (London: 2002), Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (Denver: 2007); Nobel Peace Center (Oslo: 2005), Skolkovo Moscow School of Management (Moscow: 2010), Sugar Hill Housing Development (New York: 2014)

Current Status:
The building is still being used as a live/work space and family home by its original owners.

For $6.14M, David Adjaye's Glassy 'Fog House' with a Winning Cantilevered Extension [Curbed]
David Adjaye Designed This Wild, Gorgeous London House Now Listing For $8.4M [Curbed]
Man With Starchitect-Designed Pad Wants His Own Rail Station [Curbed]