The building’s roof was gone—Adjaye remembers pigeons flying around—and only an interior staircase and bits of floor remained. “Chris wanted to respect the nature of the building, not fight it,” says Adjaye, who kept the staircase and rebuilt around it. “His aesthetic is to try to search for the essence of things. So luxury was in the plainness of things—and that position rhymed very much with my own sensibility.” At the time Ofili, like the other artists Adjaye knew, was rethinking what art could be made of: While Ofili was using elephant dung in his paintings, his friends Noble and Webster were making works out of recycled trash. Forced to come up with inventive solutions himself, Adjaye eschewed high-end materials in favor of simple, familiar ones—concrete, plaster, glass. Their lack of refinement, as he saw it, packed a visceral punch.
What Adjaye ultimately developed with Ofili was a way of working that brought an artist’s sensibility to his architecture. Seeing one’s home as a refuge from urban life, a kind of emotional incubator, Adjaye created a sensuous internal world hidden from the street, with the spaces for living and artmaking connected in unexpected ways. (Ofili’s studio, for example, was designed with a factory-glass-brick ceiling and sat directly beneath a cubelike glass conservatory open to both the back and the sky.) The experience underscored Adjaye’s growing realization of how profoundly architecture shapes our psyches on an almost granular level.
“That house is really the DNA for almost all of the artist houses that I did,” Adjaye says. “It was a complete collaboration. In the beginning I wasn’t very articulate; I needed people who understood what I was doing rather than what I was saying. I’d draw something, and Chris would say: ‘Yeah, that’s amazing. Let’s go.’ Artists nurtured me to be confident about the language I was developing.”
A dozen or so years later, Adjaye is now “the model of the new architect,” says Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. “He’s not just someone who makes abstract forms wearing a conceptual white lab coat. He’s well versed in contemporary art and architecture and is part of a global culture mash-up in which all the various arts and design fields are talking to each other.”
Adjaye has gone on to collaborate with Ofili on projects ranging from “The Upper Room”—13 paintings of rhesus monkeys displayed in a chapel-like environment—to a new studio and a beach house for Ofili in Port of Spain, Trinidad, now under construction. “We sometimes speak about how things are best designed on the run,” Ofili says. “Walls get built and knocked down and reshaped. It’s a bit like making a painting with him, because you can change it as you go along.”