High riser

Architecture - Jay Merrick on the young talent making waves with his "baroque modernist" creations

David Adjaye is the British media's favourite new architect. He is flamboyant, young and black in a profession dominated by austere, middle-aged, white men; he is close friends with the Saatchi generation of Young British Artists; he has presented television and radio programmes; and his commissions range from the Social bar in central London to the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo. Now, like Wren, Hawksmoor and Mies van der Rohe before him, he is the subject of a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. How did a 39-year-old with only a modest number of built projects to his name become the first living architect to be given an exhibition at one of London's hippest art spaces?

Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, was born in Dar es Salaam in 1966 and travelled the world with his family before settling in north London at the age of nine. His status has been bolstered by his famous charm: he has offended nobody with either his architecture or his manner. He is a Gatsby-esque figure whose gaze, like that of F Scott Fitzgerald's hero, assures you that it has precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hope to convey. He did once, however, fall out with Janet Street-Porter over the completion of her new home. The argument stemmed, Adjaye told me, from her failure to grasp the difference between the responsibilities of architects and builders.

Adjaye's coolly deployed ambition has gained him more notable commissions than some of his equally talented British peers. The newly opened Idea Store in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, twin to another "idea store" on Chrisp Street, in Poplar, has a crisply gaudy glass shell, but its underlying programme is tautly pragmatic. Inside, the clear-cut structure is interrupted with voids and strangely arrayed lighting, creating the characteristic tension between utility and display that aligns its designer with influential "baroque modernists" such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.

But Adjaye's standing as a serious architect, rather than a glamorous showman, has been fiercely debated. His rise to fame began in his early thirties when, with his ex-business partner William Russell, he co-designed a series of villas for celebrity clients including Jake Chapman, Ewan McGregor and Alexander McQueen. In 2003, he co-presented a TV series on architecture, Dreamspaces, on the brand-new BBC3. Since studying for a Master's degree at the Royal College of Art, he has been friends with a slew of YBAs, and in 2002 collaborated with Chris Ofili on the renovation of Folkestone Library and on an installation at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, The Upper Room, created to display Ofili's paintings. These offbeat works were followed by weightier public commissions: last year, Adjaye created both the Olafur Eliasson pavilion at the Venice Biennale for TBA21 and the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo.

So how does Adjaye's work compare with the early buildings of established stars? His houses are finely wrought; the Peace Centre is an elegantly arranged exhibition space; and the Eliasson pavilion possesses grace and gravitas. But none radiates the potential of, say, Hadid's small but riveting fire station for the Vitra design and manufacturing complex near Weil am Rhein (1993). Nor do they possess the stark insouciance of the plastic cigarette lighter on prongs that is Will Alsop's 1994 Cardiff Visitor Centre. And they certainly can't begin to compete with the still shocking brilliance of Norman Foster's headquarters for Willis Faber and Dumas, completed in 1975.

Adjaye must also be measured against baroque modernism's heavy mob - Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel. Last year they completed three buildings of almost outrageous complexity: respectively, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Casa da Musica in Porto, and the extension of Madrid's Centro de Arte Reina SofIa. Adjaye can't yet deliver architecture of such powerful presence; nor, despite his A-list art-world connections, is he nearly as influential as Koolhaas, the self-proclaimed decoder of "the violent surf of information".

Despite his dynamism, his ambition and his famous friends, Adjaye's creations are subtle and fastidious rather than strident or attention-grabbing. In his highly controlled designs, inflection has greater significance than overall form. He has suggested that the dialogue between playfulness and decorum in his work may stem from the tensions of his upbringing. Moving from Tanzania to London, then from a comprehensive school to the rarefied atmosphere of the Royal College of Art, he never felt completely at home in what he has described as "the most closed, middle-class, middle-aged, trust-fund pro-fession you could ever be in". "I was in a quandary," he says. "Was I going to uphold this modernist history, or was I trying to exist only in my own universe? It took me a long time to explain this to myself."

The buildings generated by that "quandary" have given him a higher profile than acutely talented British architects such as Caruso St John, Sergison Bates and Patrick Lynch. And, with his forthcoming Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, he seems intent on proving that his tactful baroque modernism can survive the lure of more flamboyant virtuosity.

"David Adjaye: making public buildings" is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, from 24 January to 26 March (tel: 020 7522 7878). The architect will discuss his work with Professor Richard Sennett at the gallery on 29 January

Jay Merrick writes about architecture for the Independent

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