Artistry in oak – Sir David Adjaye discusses design, history and sustainability at the unveiling of the world’s oldest single malt whisky

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By Hannah Norman

Known for designing some of the world’s most iconic buildings, Sir David Adjaye has embarked upon one his most unusual projects to date – whisky.

Not just any whisky, of course. This is Gordon & MacPhail’s Generations 80YO, a rare expression which has aged for 80 years – in fact, the world’s oldest single malt Scotch whisky, first laid down in 1940. Adjaye was tasked with creating both the decanter, and the case (or more specifically, the pavilion) that the decanter will be placed in. To give you an idea of just how rare this whisky is, only 250 decanters will be made to house this liquid gold. But for a man known for the design of the Moscow School of Management and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., this seems an unusual side step. Or does it? I meet the architect at Sotheby’s auction house in London, at a very special unveiling of his creation, with a tasting of the whisky – a rare privilege that is seemingly only going to be bestowed on just a very select handful of people.

“I’m not a wine person, but I love whisky! It’s my vice,” Adjaye confesses, revealing that when Gordon & MacPhail first approached him with the idea, “they didn’t know that I like whisky – I’m not public about that – and we’ve never done a bottle, or a case. But I think they wanted to see how an architect would interpret the idea.”

Adjaye, for his part, was given a blank canvas for the design. “They didn’t want me to come with any pre-conceived ideas, and that I really enjoyed,” he says of Gordon & MacPhail. “But I realised in making something that was going to be a first in the world, it really transcended a package. It was a moment. Architecturally, the way we celebrate moments is to make a pavilion, a structure that frames something, like a shrine. Something that – and not in any way meaning to be sacrilegious – really is like an altar.”

Adjaye’s reasoning is not so wide of the mark. Gordon & MacPhail didn’t reveal the final sale price at our meeting, but the very first decanter of Generations80 is set to be sold at auction in Hong Kong, with buyers unlikely to be paying less than around £80,000.

The end design is truly a work of art, with the decanter itself – hand-blown by experienced artisans overseen by Glencairn Crystal Studio – containing lenses to allow the drinker to really see the rich liquid within. The pavilion, meanwhile, is constructed from sustainably sourced oaks grown less than five miles from its makers, Wardour Workshops, based in Dorset in the South West of England. “I wanted to create a design that pays tribute to the role oak plays in transforming liquid into an elixir with almost magical properties,” Adjaye says, with the opened casing of the pavilion mimicking the way light shines through trees in a forest.

The concept of nature – and more fundamentally, sustainability – is one that has long occupied the architect’s mind. “We are – without being in any way alarmist – in a climate emergency,” he tells me. “We have a real crisis. It’s an alarm call, to make sure that we are doing everything possible, in a world that consumes and makes things, to be as environmentally sustainable as we can. I’ve always insisted in our work that we always have a sustainable agenda, even when it was completely unfashionable. It’s just not even a discussion – it’s part of the DNA of life, and the world has to get onto this, so that we’re in a normal scenario of not even talking about sustainability, because it’s just how we consume and do things.”

Adjaye’s passion and commitment to this is as palpable as it is inspiring but, as it transpires, he’s always been steadfast in his beliefs about how things should be done. “You know, I’ve always been very stubborn, because from day one, I’ve never done anything I didn’t want to do – which usually meant that I didn’t get any work!” he laughs. “But actually, it’s come full circle because people now know what I do, and they seek out what I do. It’s very nice.”

He’s equally as keen that those coming up the ranks behind him follow the same advice. “The advice I was given as a young professional starting out is, start as you mean to go on, i.e. point the boat that you’re on in the direction you mean to go. What I mean by that is, don’t be swayed by fashions and trends. Search for your voice and it’ll get clearer and clearer, and it’ll be your true north star.”

Adjaye is also an advocate for travel as a means of educating oneself, borne from a childhood spent travelling due to the nature of the work of his diplomat parents. “I am someone who’s very interested in learning by seeing and actually experiencing things,” he admits. “I travel because if I see something, I’m not happy to just look at it in a magazine and read about it – I need to go and experience it, so I travel a lot. It’s an education, basically. I have an incredible archive of experiences that I refer to.”

Of course, Adjaye doesn’t just travel for pleasure, and his work has taken him all around the world. But it was his design for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (pictured above) of which he is most proud – “only because of the gravity of working on the biggest superpower in the world’s front lawn,” he laughs. “It was a bit intense but thankfully, people have responded incredibly well to it, so that does make me incredibly proud. But I’m also proud of the small things I’ve done, for communities where people just enjoy things. For me, it’s not really about which [project] is the best and which is the worst, because all my work really inspires me. It’s why I chose architecture – because when it’s done well and when it works, it has this really incredible effect, which gives me goosebumps.”

It’s hard to know where on earth he finds the time, but outside of the day job, Adjaye is also a musician, but uses sound as an important point of reference for his work. “Please don’t ask what my favourite song is!” he laughs. “There is always sound, that’s what you learn – that there’s acoustic, a vibration, in every space. I think just as much as light affects the way that you perceive space, and that affects your emotions, the vibration in a space also affects you. I’m very sensitive to it. It’s an important part of how we make and form spaces.”

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Adjaye the one question we ask everyone – his favourite luxury. He thinks for a moment, before telling me, “alone time,” reasoning that “luxury is nothing to do with physicality.” He adds that much-needed alone time is “ very precious to me, because I’m in a very public world and I have a lot of people that I work with, but I do my deepest thinking when I’m alone. The way my brain works is almost like an iPhone – it’s constantly working so I need to meditate on the things that are coming to the fore, and I need space to do that. But it takes so long to process things – I’m just not one of those [where something comes to me] like a lighting flash. So I process a lot and then as it starts to feel like it’s ready for out-put into the world, that’s when it suddenly becomes creative. It’s literally like being possessed!” He laughs, and then seemingly checks himself. “That’s just a metaphor,” he clarifies, laughing, “I didn’t mean for that to sound creepy!”

For more information about Gordon & MacPhail, visit www.gordonandmacphail.com, and for more information about Sir David Adjaye, visit www.adjaye.com.

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