A long weekend in New York with David Adjaye

The celebrated architect – currently building his first residential tower in Manhattan – talks cocktails in Dumbo and art in Harlem with Christina Ohly Evans. Portrait by Nicholas Calcott

David Adjaye in front of a work by Glenn Ligon at The Studio Museum in Harlem
David Adjaye in front of a work by Glenn Ligon at The Studio Museum in Harlem | Image: Nicholas Calcott. Glenn Ligon, courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

I first came to New York as a wide-eyed architecture student in the 1990s and was immediately in awe of the greatest metropolitan skyline of the 20th century. It is truly a 24-hour city and the energy of it is just fascinating; it’s a world prototype for how different communities can come together and create a model of density. 

I divide my time between London, New York and Accra, but my home here is in Harlem. And while I spend much of my time uptown, I find charm in every neighbourhood, including the outer boroughs. I especially love Prospect Park in Brooklyn – which feels like more of a hidden, suburban area – and also the burgeoning Financial District

The terrace at Cecconi’s in Dumbo, Brooklyn, ideal for cocktails
The terrace at Cecconi’s in Dumbo, Brooklyn, ideal for cocktails | Image: Dave Burk

In London you have about 30 different neighbourhoods that are all like little hamlets crashed into each other, but in New York there is a very different kind of urbanism. You can almost do resort breaks in this city: if you’re bored in a certain area, you can go to a park in a different borough, or walk along the water somewhere else. That diversity is its power. Another strength is the authentic intermingling of cultures and groups, which intertwine at moments to produce something new and beautiful, and diverge at others to allow differences to be preserved and respected. 

One of the things New York does really, really well is tall buildings. Some of the best skyscraper architecture is downtown, including the iconic Woolworth Building and the Potter Building, with its fantastic, deep façade. Their craftsmanship and detailing make them not only unique but beloved. You can sense the human hand in their design and construction and they have inspired my current condominium project at 130 William Street. 

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There’s an organic quality to the layout downtown versus the more regimental grid uptown; and the incredible density of scale in this part of lower Manhattan is unlike anything in Europe. I’ve discovered a whole new world of amazing artisans, restaurants and shops down here, such as the incredible floral designs of Emily Thompson Flowers. The Beekman, with its dramatic atrium, has been faithfully restored and is a lovely hotel from which to explore some of the city’s first streets. Augustine is a new favourite for fantastic, unfussy food, while The Wooly Public – in the original restaurant space of the Woolworth Building – serves dishes that pay homage to the 1913 menu. It’s a fun play with the area’s history. 

When friends come to New York I’ll often recommend they stay at The Mercer in SoHo; André Balazs is a master of crafting hotel experiences that reflect the cities they’re in, and this is no exception. The Mercer Kitchen is a great place to meet for a drink before dinner at Mission Chinese Food – an incredibly lively, fun spot that represents downtown done well. SoHo is also perfect for shopping: the fashion store Opening Ceremony on Howard Street is incredible. I think what Humberto [Leon] and Carol [Lim] have achieved there is remarkable, and the store is truly a trendsetter and a global destination. Rick Owens’ flagship, with its stark space that lets the collection shine, is another shop I always have to visit.

The northernmost stretch of the High Line at the Rail Yards
The northernmost stretch of the High Line at the Rail Yards | Image: Iwan Baan

Obviously, this city is rich in museums and galleries. Salon 94 on the Upper East Side is a great alternative to conventional white-box galleries, as visitors can experience artworks and performances in a furnished, inhabited space. And The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City is the perfect spotlight for a brilliant mind: the artist’s works are highlighted beautifully in a very peaceful space. 

David Zwirner and Luhring Augustine are excellent galleries as well, and, of course, Marian Goodman is a must: Tony Cragg’s show there last year was stunning. The Brooklyn Museum has brought some of the most exciting and innovative exhibitions to the city, and its permanent collection is both daring and contextual, while The Studio Museum in Harlem is unparalleled in the way it supports both artists and its community. It’s incredibly rare to find an institution with a keen sensitivity to both these groups – its director and chief curator Thelma Golden is a national treasure. In terms of combining culture and food you can’t get more New York than The Modern, which overlooks MoMA’s sculpture garden: the restaurant is consistently good and integrated seamlessly into the institution.

The Beekman hotel in downtown Manhattan
The Beekman hotel in downtown Manhattan

The Upper East Side holds a particular charm for me, with its incredible mansion blocks and a street life that feels very much like London. It’s packed with cultural places, restaurants and local shops, and despite the height of some of the buildings and the density, it has a unique intimacy and generosity. I always recommend a stay at The Lowell because the rooms are cosy and personal; they feel almost like apartments.

The area also houses one of the world’s great modernist buildings, The Met Breuer. It’s a remarkable study in contrasts: the insular presence of the exterior, and the openness and intimacy of the interiors. A few blocks away is an Italian restaurant called Sette Mezzo, which I like for the grilled salmon and old-world feel – it harks back to a bygone era, when neighbourhood communities felt entrenched.

Prospect Park in Brooklyn
Prospect Park in Brooklyn | Image: Getty Images

I am a huge admirer of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and beyond Central Park I really love Prospect and Fort Greene Parks, both in Brooklyn. Prospect Park is a masterpiece: the bucolic beating heart of Brooklyn that is at once a retreat and a cultural hub. Fort Greene Park is a great example of neighbourhood place-making. It’s a true community gathering space with an extremely local feel. And after a day spent in Brooklyn, there’s no better place than Cecconi’s, in Dumbo, for a cocktail with great skyline views on a summer evening.

Back uptown in Harlem there is such a rich history; in many ways it represents the quintessence of black urban modernity across the globe. Architecturally there are so many inspiring elements – from the iconic brownstone stoops to the beautiful churches with dramatic interiors, like the First Corinthian Baptist Church and the Salvation and Deliverance Church. Sometimes I’ll take friends to the Sunday church services at the Abyssinian Baptist Church – not so much for religious reasons, but because I just love the singing and the atmosphere. 

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An artistic Harlem highlight is Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, with its series of dramatic exhibition spaces. And, of course, there’s the Apollo. This theatre represents the successes and struggles of Harlem as the epicentre of urban black life, and the sense of history is palpable. 

One of the best restaurants – and definitely the best jerk chicken – in the area is Red Rooster; not only is [chef] Marcus [Samuelsson] a culinary genius, but this place represents to me the true promise of New York, which is a space that actually supports and embraces diversity, and that is at once specific and personal. A more under-the-radar place is Accra Restaurant, which serves completely authentic Ghanaian food – plantain fufu, jollof rice – in a simple, lively setting. 

When a city succeeds, it gives spaces back to its residents – like the High Line, or the wonderful little parks and squares that are found between the office towers in midtown Manhattan. Both New York and London are struggling with environmental issues and we need bold vision and leadership to keep imagining the possibilities for these magical, underused spaces. The mayors of both cities are exemplary in that they are both for the public – and when you get it right the money follows, because it creates a quality of place. I believe architecture can be a big part of that.

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