David Adjaye is architecture's latest rising star. His controversial Elektra House scandalised fellow architects but it hasn't deterred the celebrity clients. So what is he doing right?
Imagine you're a Brit artist with a studio that needs the kind of sleight-of-hand intervention that makes the word "architecture" sound too lumpy. Or the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, looking for a designer who can transport visitors from its 1960s office slab in Waterloo to a realm where good design feels as natural as breathing. Or an American millionaire industrialist, in search of a statement for his London penthouse that reflects more than his bank balance.

The solution for a growing number of discerning clients searching for an alternative to spray-on modernism is David Adjaye, a rising star who offers the kind of simple contextual solutions that seem to have evolved in situ. His designs also come with their own intellectual credentials, based on the belief that changing social and working patterns – such as the live–work phenomenon, free-style careers or lifelong learning – should be distilled into new built forms.

These touchstones are evident in the Elektra House in Whitechapel, a studio and home for an artist couple and their young children.

Adjaye is proud of his most controversial project to date because it "isn't a house with a studio bolted on, but a house and studio welded into one enclosure" where the owners can combine family life with public viewings.

But it scandalised the architectural world because of the controversial way the streetside facade has no windows, allowing the tight budget to be directed at pouring light into the rear. The RIBA Journal received a torrent of outraged correspondence following the building's publication in its pages: "frightening", "arrogant" and "cappuccino-fuelled self-indulgent nonsense" were among fellow architects' comments.

However, a string of high-profile clients attracted by Adjaye's creative integrity have certainly not been put off: the list includes artists Chris Ofili and Jake Chapman and actor Ewan McGregor.

Adjaye explains this as the result of connections made while studying and later teaching at the Royal College of Art, but jokes that he has now "exhausted all my friends". But a new wave of clients is happy to adopt Adjaye's ideas, bringing varied commissions including the womenswear floor in Selfridges' Birmingham store, an Islington town house and an arts and education centre in Boston, Massachusetts.

It would be scary to be led by the work and not have any principles. I’d rather work in McDonald’s

Adjaye cites Elektra House as a perfect example of how interiors and the built environment are becoming more fluid to reflect more fluid lifestyles. "Houses, institutions, are collapsing and compressing into each other. It has immense implications on how materials and spaces are read," he says. The high concept vocabulary has plenty of down-to-earth examples: the way bookshops are sprouting cafes to become the salons of their age, or employers are realising that offices need to become flexible "workspaces" with coffee bars and chill-out zones.

Built for just £80,000, Elektra also demonstrates Adjaye's non-commercial credo. "I want to do things, even if they're only small, that strengthen the practice," he says, also citing an outdoor "storytelling" pavilion for an east London housing association. At the other extreme, the project to remodel an apartment overlooking Hyde Park for an American millionaire carries a £2m price tag, but Adjaye is comfortable with the contrast: "Scale is not the issue – it's about the work." These touchstones, and the abhorrence of the "weird vernacular modernism" he believes is on offer from too many commercial architects with more magazine subscriptions than talent, has led him back to the old-fashioned idea of the architect as creative artist, running a studio rather than a business. "I really wanted to make the kind of studio that builds on what it's done in the past, that doesn't necessarily make a lot of money, but is more interested in developing a position," he asserts.

Adjaye is determined that his "position" will remain the studio's magnetic north. Clients who genuinely want to explore new forms will be attracted to it; those who come with fixed ideas or photocopies from The RIBA Journal will find themselves meeting a very negative force.

Certainly, visitors to Adjaye's 12-strong office will be aware of a different atmosphere. The location, in a part of Hackney that's neither up nor coming, makes the point about not following fashion.

Similarly, his ideas are drawn from more eclectic sources than most of his contemporaries'. After a childhood in the Middle East (Adjaye's father was a Ghanian diplomat), he switched to architecture after a stint as an art student. Architecture's collaborative side appealed when he helped a friend design a bar. "I can't work in a solitary bubble, I need the discipline of a brief," he says.

As half of Adjaye & Russell, a practice with the distinction of being one of only two British practices singled out in Phaidon's 40 Architects Under 40, he notched up a series of well-received bar and restaurant interiors. Following what he says was an amicable parting of the ways after five years together, Adjaye Associates was established in August last year.

Personal effects

Where do you buy your clothes?
I go to Browns Focus on South Molton Street. In fact, it’s got so much of my money it has just asked me to redo the store.
What are you listening to?
My favourite CD is Nitin Sawhney’s Beyond Skin. I insist on having music in the studio.
What are you reading at the moment?
Leon Alberti Battista’s On Painting. It’s about attitudes to painting in the Renaissance.
Which architects have influenced you?
Lasdun is an eternal favourite, I’ve always loved his work. I also like Alvaro Siza.