The recent allegations of sexual assault and harassment against world-famous architect David Adjaye – strongly denied by lawyers speaking on his behalf – have already been described as architecture’s #MeToo moment and have provoked anger, incredulity, and dismay in the profession.
For his practice, the fallout has been immediate. Many of his major clients, including The Africa Institute in Sharjah, UAE, the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, and Rice University in Houston, Texas, have cut ties with him on major projects. Here in Britain the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities (which is backing the UK Holocaust memorial) and Museums of Liverpool have done the same. Meanwhile, Adjaye has stepped down from his role as architectural advisor to London mayor Sadiq Khan and left his role as a trustee at London’s Serpentine Galleries.
His company is also having to make significant redundancies. Several sources have told have told the AJ that almost half of Adjaye Associates’ 110-strong workforce in London are set to lose their jobs. The practice has declined to say whether this estimate is accurate.
In recent years, Adjaye has risen to global prominence, his reputation built on a growing portfolio of community-led and game-changing cultural projects. Mixing with the likes of Barack Obama and honoured by King Charles III only last November through his admittance to Britain’s prestigious Order of Merit, at 56, the Ghanaian-British architect seemed to be at the peak of his powers.
But the FT article in July aired shocking claims that Adjaye had allegedly exploited these powers by sexually harassing and assaulting women who worked in his practice. One of the women told the newspaper in its harrowing exclusive that Adjaye made her feel overpowered and caused her to experience a ‘domineering feeling of “I’m going to have my way with you, and that’s it.”’ Adjaye has denied the claims.
The article also made disturbing allegations about the wider workplace culture within Adjaye Associates. One junior architect branded the regime ‘toxic’, saying they had felt taken advantage of, as well as being subjected to aggressive behaviour by a senior employee.
Focusing on the issue of workplace culture, the AJ has over recent weeks seen and heard a string of similar allegations by other former staff members – the FT story prompting them to re-live painful, packed-away memories of their time at Adjaye Associates. It is not known what David Adjaye or Adjaye Associates’ response to these claims is, and whether or not they are contested. Many of the claims have been made on social media and it is unclear whether or not they have been investigated.
Highly personal claims posted on social media describe a dysfunctional and ‘chaotic’ workplace run by an unkind and uncaring management. One former employee, who asked the AJ to change her name – we shall call her Laura – described experiencing a ‘culture of bullying, oppression and fear’ in the firm’s London office, underpinned by a ‘cult of David’.
‘There was a reverential tone [towards Adjaye],’ said Laura. ‘It was very messianic […] and he has other people to enable that.
‘We used to joke about one of the directors being a “high priest”.’
Meanwhile, on Instagram a former employee of both Adjaye’s Ghana and London practices, Ewa Lenart, also spoke of a harsh, long-hours culture enforced by senior leadership.
Lenart – who worked for Adjaye’s office in Ghana in 2014 and in London from 2017-2018 – said: ‘One was expected to work at all times. We were advised not to connect with each other and were policed when we did.’
Lenart alleged Adjaye himself fostered a culture in which ‘the “leadership” team took advantage of their power dynamic’. Those who spoke out would face ‘ad-hoc “disciplinary” meetings’ in which they were ‘called “confrontational” and [their] “unacceptable behaviour” was punished’, she said.
Another AJ source said some senior leaders at the practice were known as the ‘rottweilers’.
Other former staff members described on Instagram the crushing feeling of seeing their long-held perceptions of the firm shatter.
Sheila Lin, who worked at the firm’s New York office between November 2020 and August 2022, explained on the social media platform how ‘for many of us, Adjaye Associates was this kind of fantasy of diversity within architecture’.
And in a LinkedIn post, fellow one-time New York employee Ngozi Olojede said she felt she had landed a ‘dream job’ when she arrived there during the pandemic in June 2020.
‘Here I was at the start of my career about to work for arguably the most prominent Black architect, known for drawing on African art and histories to create spaces that exalted the Black experience,’ wrote Olojede. ‘It felt too good to be true – and it was.’
Olojede, who worked for the firm for 11 months, continued: ‘I believe the fish rots from the head […] it was clear to me that the biggest problem at Adjaye Associates was David Adjaye.’
As for Laura – who says she and other former colleagues speak of being in an Adjaye Associates ‘survivor group’ – she recalls employees wanting desperately to please Adjaye and his lieutenants.
‘I would say proximity to David [and his senior team] and an ability to get along with them and not get erased by them is equivalent to […] being safe,’ she said.
Laura recounted an incident in which one woman, who worked as Adjaye’s PA, was there one day and gone the next – brutally ‘erased’ in the eyes of staff.
‘This woman had been going to parties with David, had been doing evening events, lots of late nights,’ she said. ‘He often gets his PAs to go to his garage, bring his Ferrari to the office, so that he can drive it around. So they are [in this role] somewhere between a PA and a dogsbody who also does front-of-house [duties].
‘One day, she just disappeared, like she was just gone. We were told not to bring it up again. And obviously the culture of fear meant that it was implied that, if we did bring it up again, we would be following the same path.’
The circumstances surrounding this employee’s departure, and whether there was a legitimate reason for her dismissal, are not known. The claims of an exploitative work environment at Adjaye Associates were put to representatives of the practice. Such allegations made by former staff members remain unverified.
Laura recalled working directly with Adjaye only occasionally and said he was often travelling to other parts of the world.
It is not known whether Adjaye was aware of the alleged issues at the practice’s various offices, although anonymous reviews on the website Glassdoor paint a negative and disturbing picture.
One post reads: ‘The salaries are very low and you feel as if you’re exploited and disposable.’ Others take a swipe at the ‘painfully mismanaged’ set-up which ‘expects and encourages absurd devotion to working insane hours, poor pay, limited benefits’.
A wider read through various architecture practices listed on the website, which allows current and former employees to critique their workplace incognito – and could conceivably be exploited by those with a grudge – also suggests much wider problems across the profession with staff facing hostile conditions and ‘brutal working hours’.
Adjaye Associates is far from the only practice – nor the only studio headed by a star designer – to come in for criticism.
Marsha Ramroop, the RIBA’s former director of diversity and inclusion, said the ‘deification’ of some architects and ‘the massaging of ego, in education, practice and media […] produces and tolerates warped and unacceptable behaviours across the board’.
She added that this exploitative culture was ‘not news to anyone in the profession’.
Indeed, in 2021 an investigation by the AJ into the working conditions of architectural assistants uncovered a landscape of poor pay, precarious contracts and lengthy, unpaid overtime.
Equally, it is true that allegations of sexual misconduct have in the past been levelled against other famous male architects. In 2018, the Shitty Architecture Men list was widely shared online. This open-access spreadsheet detailed anonymous allegations of demeaning – and in many cases illegal – behaviour towards women (and men) in architecture schools and practices across the world.
Those accused included current architecture students, well-known practising architects and even Pritzker Prize winners. Their alleged wrongdoing, as architecture critic Ellis Woodman wrote, ranged from unsolicited back-rubs to rape.
In response to the original FT article, Adjaye – who in 2018 was the recipient of the AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award – vehemently denied accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
A statement released on his behalf, said: ‘I absolutely reject any claims of sexual misconduct, abuse or criminal wrongdoing. These allegations are untrue, distressing for me and my family and run counter to everything I stand for.’
The founder and principal of Adjaye Associates did admit he had relationships with more junior staff and that he kissed one employee at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.
He said: ‘I am ashamed to say that I entered into relationships which, though entirely consensual, blurred the boundaries between my professional and personal lives.’
Adjaye said he was ‘deeply sorry’ for these ‘mistakes’ and said he would be ‘immediately seeking professional help in order to learn from [them]’.
Adjaye’s representatives said there was no current criminal investigation into sexual misconduct allegations made against the architect.
Representatives for Adjaye and Adjaye Associates were approached by the AJ for comment in relation to this article.
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