A few years ago collector Adam Lindemann and his wife, Amalia Dayan, an art dealer, began thinking about a new home for themselves and their sizable collection of contemporary art. They had in mind something iconic, something that would make a statement—something, say, on the order of such modernist masterpieces as Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris or Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House on East 52nd Street in Manhattan. But along with providing space for art, the house had to be livable. The couple own large, commanding works by the likes of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Maurizio Cattelan, and Urs Fischer. Their collection needed both ample room to be experienced and architecture commensurate with its bravado.
Lindemann, a private investor and a son of billionaire George Lindemann, had purchased a wreck of a carriage house on East 77th Street with the intent of tearing it down, leaving in place only the building’s landmarked facade. “We wanted to push the envelope of what was possible within a little piece of New York City,” he says. While the couple had their pick of big names for the job, they chose David Adjaye, a Tanzanian-born British architect of Ghanaian descent, then a rising star in the UK but little known anywhere else. “It was a bit of an experiment,” Lindemann says. Adjaye, who was working on Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, hadn’t yet unveiled a major building in the U.S. To Lindemann and Dayan, though, that was part of his appeal: He was innovative, a new name, and, above all, had serious art-world cred, having made his mark designing gritty, luminous homes and studios for a number of the artists that the couple collected. (Adjaye was also a fixture at London’s Frieze Art Fair and the Venice Biennale and had collaborated on pavilions for artists Chris Ofili and Olafur Eliasson.)
At their first meeting, however, the architect told Lindemann and Dayan that he probably wouldn’t take the job. “I wasn’t convinced if [Lindemann] wanted to make a project that explored ideas about art and architecture, or if he just needed a stylish home by a trendy architect,” Adjaye explains. “I don’t want to do stylish homes.”
Charismatic and engaging—if fond of architectspeak—Adjaye, 44, is a rarity among his peers, and not just because he’s a black architect working in a predominantly white world. A self-described Robin Hood, he balances spare, geometric private retreats and galleries for art-world A-listers with socially driven public buildings designed to function as urban catalysts. His much lauded Idea stores in London’s East End reimagined the modern library as a bustling community center and helped earn Adjaye an OBE from the Queen in 2007 for services to British architecture. Spend five minutes with him, in fact, and he’ll persuade you that architecture can spur communities to become as open and democratic as an outdoor market.