David Ajdaye wearing Royal Gold Medal

Obama and Bono praise David Adjaye's "genius" at star-studded Royal Gold Medal virtual event

David Adjaye received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal last night in a virtual ceremony featuring video messages from luminaries including Bono and Barack Obama, who said the architect creates spaces "unlike any the world has ever seen".

The event also featured video messages from Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo, former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki and Paul Kagame, president of the Republic of Rwanda.

"It's not often you get to hear from four presidents and a rock star from amongst so many others at the same event," said Alan Vallance, the RIBA CEO and president who hosted the event.

Adjaye has a "different perspective", Obama says

A number of global celebrities delivered messages describing their relationship with the British-Ghanian architect.

Former US president Barack Obama was one of the first speakers, describing the architect's work as "genius."

Smithsonian National Museum David Adjaye
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Growing up in many different places – as both he and Adjaye did – gives you "a perspective that others may not have," said Obama, who inaugurated the Adjaye-designed Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.

"Over the years, David has used that perspective to create spaces unlike any the world has ever seen," he added.

"I'll never forget watching the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture rise near the White House, that bold bronze statement in a city of marble, and then having a chance to step inside and feel how this Ghanaian British architect helped tell a uniquely American story," Obama said.

"That was genius, pure and simple.”

Musician Bono, who worked with Adjaye on his AIDS charity Red Project, said Adjaye raised "boatloads of resources" to help people afford retroviral drugs.

"I think there's a problem-solving aspect to David, which I also think you're recognising today," he said.

"We're so thrilled to be your colleagues, your comrades and friends," Bono added.

Ghana's president Nana Akufo-Addo "proud of knowing" Adjaye

Adjaye was presented with the medal, which is personally approved by the Queen and recognises those who have dedicated their lives to the "advancement of architecture", at a pre-recorded ceremony in Accra by the British High Commissioner to Ghana, Iain Walker.

Adjaye's studio has an office in Accra, Ghana, as well as in London and New York, and is set to build Ghana's national cathedral.

Ghana's president, Nana Akufo-Addo, spoke of his friendship with Adjaye, saying: "I'm very proud of knowing him and proud of the work that he has done as an architect and an artist."

"One [thing] that stands out of course is our collaboration to build a national cathedral for Ghana," he added.

"He was the architect I selected to do the design and he's done a design that, God willing, when we're able to finish it is going to be truly iconic."

Adjaye wearing RIBA Royal Gold Medal
Adjaye was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal at a ceremony in Accra

Paul Kagame, president of the Republic of Rwanda, and former South African president Thabo Mbeki also spoke warmly of Adjaye and his work.

"I can't avoid the temptation to say we feel very proud that this venerable British institution, RIBA, which is more than 170 years old, for the very first time recognises, for us, a fellow African as an outstanding architect. It gives us a great deal of pride," Mbeki said.

"Sir David at some point in one of his interviews said that architecture must also serve to reinforce a story," he added.

"So that it's not only beautiful and striking buildings, but they've got to have that kind of meaning, in that sense; they have a soul."

Adjaye designed the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in Johannesburg, South Africa, which Mbeki also mentioned in his speech, adding he is "quite certain that in the future we will produce more dazzling buildings."

Leading architects share celebratory messages 

A string of leading architects also delivered messages of praise to Adjaye, including Moshe Safdie, Lesley Lokko and Balkrishna Doshi.

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, who won the 2020 RIBA Royal Gold Medal – the first all-woman pair to be given the medal – joined in the congratulations.

"Architecture is a silent language that speaks," Farrell said. "Your work embraces the civic component of architecture, your work speaks of challenge with a strong, urban and social remit, David. This award is truly merited."

In his own speech, Adjaye talked of how his design came out of a frustration with the architecture industry. "I barely saw anyone of my same skin colour in the room," he said.

"And so I just very quickly felt that I needed to try on a very different path. From day one, it was about always wanting to be in control and to have the freedom of my own destiny."

Today, he is hopeful about the future of the architectural industry. "There's a generation who have the opportunity to remake the world," Adjaye said.

"And I just think that that is a renaissance, the younger generation coming up are in this opportunity to really define what the built environment is going to be about for future generations. And I think that that's so exciting."

Watch the ceremony here.

Images of David Adjaye by Francis Kokoroko.