Sir David Adjaye: the celebrated architect accused of sexual misconduct
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
When Sir David Adjaye was awarded the Gold Medal in 2021 by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the guest of honour at the virtual ceremony was Barack Obama.
The former president had inaugurated the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington in 2016 — one of the crowning achievements of Adjaye’s gilded career designing buildings around the world. Obama was in no doubt about the talent of the Ghanaian-British architect: “Genius, pure and simple.”
The moment cemented Adjaye’s status as one of the most prominent architects of the age. He has been commissioned to design the UK’s new Holocaust memorial, Ghana’s national cathedral in Accra and a museum of west African art in Benin City, Nigeria.
But while his work is praised around the world, he also faces claims of serious misconduct. Three women formerly employed by Adjaye, 56, have accused him and his firm of different forms of exploitation — from alleged sexual assault and sexual harassment by him to a toxic work culture — that have gone unchecked for years.
The three women say their dealings with Adjaye have disrupted their careers, left them in precarious financial circumstances and caused them serious mental distress.
The women, who requested their names be changed, share common characteristics. They were all black women in their forties at the time the alleged abuse occurred, and are single mothers, well-connected professionally and from influential families. All three women knew Adjaye before their employment and had friends and acquaintances in common with him.
They joined his business not only to provide for their families but also because they believed in his mission to showcase the best of black talent in the industry. One of the women said she was particularly inspired by his goal to transform architecture in Africa.
They said they felt compelled to come forward about their experiences in order to prevent other women from encountering similar abuse and to make public the architect’s private behaviour. In all three cases the Financial Times has worked to corroborate their accounts by interviewing colleagues, family members and friends who were confided in by the women, as well as reviewing contemporaneous emails, documents and text messages.
Born in Tanzania in 1966 to Ghanaian parents, Adjaye moved to the UK during his school years and graduated with a BA in architecture from London South Bank University in 1990, winning a prize for one of the best undergraduate design projects. His early commissions included artists’ houses, retail stores and art fairs, before taking on civic buildings such as a museum in Denver, a school of management in Moscow and, most prominently, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Honours have flowed his way: he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017 and made a member of the prestigious Order of Merit last November by King Charles III. He is seen by many as a champion of diversity in a very white profession. “It’s a heavy thing being put on a gilded pedestal,” he once said in an interview.
A lawyer for Adjaye said that the three women each had “their own grievances” against Adjaye. In response to questions about allegations made by the three women, Adjaye said: “I absolutely reject any claims of sexual misconduct, abuse or criminal wrongdoing. These allegations are untrue, distressing for me and my family and run counter to everything I stand for.”
He added: “I am ashamed to say that I entered into relationships which though entirely consensual, blurred the boundaries between my professional and personal lives. I am deeply sorry. To restore trust and accountability, I will be immediately seeking professional help in order to learn from these mistakes to ensure that they never happen again.”
Grand ambitions for Ghana office
In the middle of 2018, two women moved to Ghana to pursue what they thought would be an exciting career opportunity — helping to set up an office of Adjaye Associates in Accra. Maya and Gene were enthused by Adjaye’s ambition: to make it the leading architectural practice in Africa.
But there was a gulf between aspirations and reality. Maya and Gene, who had both brought their children to Ghana, said that the Accra office regularly failed to pay their salaries on time and was slow to secure their work visas. They were both left struggling for money and uncertain about their immigration position, according to interviews with the women, their friends and their families, as well as documents including bank statements.
Adjaye said through his lawyer that in 2018-19 the Ghana office “functioned as a start-up”. There were “cash flow issues” and “an initial lack of structure and process” in its early months but these “shortcomings” were resolved over time.
When Adjaye visited Accra in September 2018 Maya and Gene hoped they would be able to lobby him directly about these problems. Their chance came when they went for dinner with Adjaye and then moved on to his corporate apartment.
What took place in his flat is highly contested.
According to both Maya and Gene, Adjaye left the living room soon after they entered the flat, and then reappeared in a robe. He steered both women into his bedroom and propositioned them, stroking and grabbing Maya. This triggered an argument with Gene. She had been friends with Adjaye for more than a decade and on three occasions had had sex with him. But she only accepted the job in Accra, she says, after having made it explicitly clear to him that their relationship from then on would be strictly professional.
“I said, ‘No, this is not right’ . . . I said he was our employer. But he persisted. He applied more pressure and the feeling was, if you don’t do this, you’re silly, you’re stupid,” said Gene. She left the bedroom, saying to him that she was on her period, and stood outside by the door, unwilling to leave the apartment without Maya but unable to watch what was happening in the bedroom.
Maya said that she was tipsy, having drunk strong cocktails over dinner, and that Adjaye, after drawing her into the bedroom, pulled her on to his bed. Maya said he told her: “You’ve just got to do this.” She continued: “I felt overpowered, both emotionally and physically . . . There was this domineering feeling of ‘I’m going to have my way with you, and that’s it.’”
Maya said her recollection of exactly what happened next is blurry, which is not uncommon with people who have experienced a traumatic event. But she remembered “feeling that his penis was on me” and described the incident as an assault. They both left the bedroom a few minutes later, where Gene confronted Adjaye again, accusing him of abusing his position. After he told them to leave, the women returned to Maya’s apartment which was in the same complex, where they say they sank to the floor in tears.
The next day, Maya said, Adjaye called her and requested that she meet him outside the apartment block, where she saw him taking money out of an ATM. After that he gave her around 4,000 Ghanaian cedi in cash (approximately £770). Adjaye did not acknowledge or apologise for the previous evening. Maya said she accepted the money because of her financial circumstances and soon afterwards shared it with Gene, telling her: “You need this as you need to buy food.”
Three of Gene’s friends say she told them the details about what happened in Adjaye’s apartment and about the precarious nature of her finances. One, who spoke to Gene the day after the apartment incident, said she was “very upset and shocked, in disbelief at Adjaye’s behaviour and . . . what he thought he was entitled to” from the two women.
Adjaye’s lawyer confirms the three met for dinner, discussed relocation issues and that Maya and Gene came up to his apartment “for a drink to end the evening”.
But Adjaye “strongly denies making any sexual advances towards” them and “categorically denies forcing [Maya] to enter his bedroom and sexually assaulting her”. Adjaye’s lawyer also denied that Adjaye met or gave cash to Maya the day after and says Adjaye’s company has no record of any such payment; Adjaye did make a withdrawal that day, he said, but only “to pay for a police escort to assist with driving through traffic” for a site visit.
The lawyer cited “extremely cordial” text messages over the following weeks and months between Adjaye, Maya and Gene, which he said was evidence of the positive relationship between the two employees and their boss.
Maya and Gene said they had no choice but to maintain friendly relations as he was their employer. The two women not only needed the income but they said they did not wish to uproot their children’s lives again.
Travelling back from South Africa
Having decided to stay at the company, Maya went to South Africa in mid-2019 to work with Adjaye on a project launch.
The day after the launch, Maya and Adjaye headed to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, from where they were due to take different flights.
Their accounts differ about what happened after they got there. As they walked through the terminal, Maya said Adjaye demanded she “get in the bathroom”. She says she was confused at the time but assumed in the moment it was something to do with reorganising their luggage.
After they entered the disabled bathroom, according to Maya, Adjaye shoved her against the baby-changing table, reached under her skirt, pulled aside her underwear and pushed his penis against her. Despite her shock, she said she pushed him back and yelled, “No, David!” She said he then ejaculated in the sink, fixed himself up and walked out the door.
“I felt so ill, I felt so worthless, like dirt, like nothing,” Maya said. She said she was so traumatised by the attack that she has no recollection of her flight back to Ghana that day.
Maya’s mother, a cousin and a colleague all confirm that she shared the allegations about Adjaye with them over the next 18 months. Her colleague recalls Maya “always making comments [about Adjaye] like, ‘He’s not who I thought he was.’” Maya also “kept telling me to be careful with him”.
Through his lawyer, Adjaye denied Maya’s version of events. The lawyer confirmed that Adjaye asked Maya to go into the airport bathroom with him, but said it was so he could transfer some rugs to her luggage without the “chaos and crowds of the check-in area”, which he says they did quickly and then left the bathroom. (He says they had agreed a transfer of rugs the night before.) He says he did not “engage in sexual activity with her during this encounter” and denies the allegation “in the strongest possible terms”.
In the following months, Maya says her mental health spiralled into anger, depression and suicidal thoughts, which was confirmed by colleagues and family members. Her cousin says: “She was so depressed, she was so insecure, she had fallen apart at the seams.”
That autumn, Maya attempted to raise a grievance within the firm about the alleged sexual assault, but was instead told by an assistant in London to have a meeting with Adjaye when he was next in Ghana. She tried to confront him in the Accra office when he visited in October, but she said he brushed her off. Her attempt to report the assault to the Ghanaian police failed. They told her they lacked jurisdiction for a criminal allegation in another country.
In January 2020, eight months after the bathroom incident, Maya was dismissed without notice. She was left with a settlement of $1,475, after the Accra office deducted money it had advanced to her, and she says she also received a cease and desist letter from Adjaye’s lawyers in Ghana, delivered to her apartment the evening she was fired and demanding that she stop spreading rumours about Adjaye.
Now unemployed, she tried to stabilise her family life over the next few months. In May 2020 she sent a personal email to Adjaye, describing the “inconceivable sexual violation” she had suffered and calling him a predator. “I have lost EVERYTHING and have absolutely NOTHING to lose,” she wrote in the letter, seen by the FT, then suggested he compensate her for the assault and the loss of earnings after her dismissal. In response she received a second cease and desist letter, accusing her of extortion.
Maya later made a criminal complaint against Adjaye to the police in South Africa in September 2021. In response to an inquiry from the FT, the police said they had “registered” the complaint but declined to give any further information.
Adjaye’s London lawyer says that “this allegation was framed well after the event in order to extract a payment” from Adjaye or his company and stems from Maya’s grievance at being dismissed after what he alleges was her poor performance at work. While Adjaye’s legal letter suggested he had had an “intimate relationship” with Maya prior to her joining the business, she categorically denies this.
Adjaye, through his lawyer, presented to the FT a second message from Maya’s email account, this time demanding $120,000; Maya does not recall sending the second email, but says she had already made the same allegations and suggested compensation in the first letter.
‘Diapers or baked beans’
Gene’s time working for Adjaye also ended in acrimony. She had been promised a loan for a full year’s rent, so that she could make the upfront payment that is often required to secure accommodation in Accra. But when that money did not come through, her financial situation started to get desperate. At one point she said she had to choose “whether to buy diapers or . . . baked beans and pasta”.
When she had to move out of the corporate apartment provided when she first arrived, she spent a day driving around the city with her family’s belongings until she secured temporary accommodation. “That stint in Ghana decimated me financially,” she said. She resorted to using personal connections to secure a bank loan to cover the cost of getting a new home. Friends sent her emergency cash. She felt the whole situation was “a betrayal”, given her friendship with Adjaye.
Four months after the apartment incident, Gene was called into a meeting with a senior executive in the Accra office, immediately dismissed from her job and offered two months’ salary and a cheque for $10,000. The two parties eventually reached a financial settlement of $40,000 which she received in May 2019.
Gene said the events have had a devastating effect on her health, causing depression and extreme weight loss, and severely disrupted her family life, forcing her to uproot her family yet again and putting at risk the custody of one of her children.
Adjaye’s lawyer says that Maya and Gene were dismissed “due to concerns about their conduct and capabilities, which were raised by other employees”. The two women say no such concerns were disclosed to them at the time they were fired.
They are not alone in having complaints about working for Adjaye and his practice. Of 13 former employees the FT spoke to, most described a disorganised and frantic workplace in both Accra and London where they worked long hours and where, in some cases, individuals were paid less than they might have received elsewhere in the industry for the level of work they were undertaking. “The main priority is to feed this personality cult,” said one.
The business, which has more than 200 employees, has an office in New York as well as London and Accra. Adjaye’s wife, Lady Ashley, is employed as global head of research.
One woman who was hired in the UK in 2018 as a junior architect to work in the Accra office said she was told to come to Ghana even though a contract and visa had not been arranged for her. She received her visa on arrival in Ghana and her written contract several months later. Her negative experiences at the practice — which included a salary reduction from her initial offer, working hours she describes as “toxic” and aggressive behaviour by a senior employee — made her feel “very taken advantage of”.
Another said Adjaye encouraged her to use her sexuality to win a client. “‘If you have to flirt with him to get something in the interest of Adjaye, just do it,’ he said to me. I was stunned, I couldn’t even respond,” she said. Adjaye’s lawyer says he has no recollection of issuing such an instruction.
At the Royal Academy
In January 2019, Adjaye met the third woman, Dunia, at an industry event in the UK. Two weeks later he met her for dinner because he said he wanted to hear her ideas for business projects. As a longtime admirer of Adjaye’s work, she was thrilled to be consulted. “He was an African cultural icon and we were proud of him,” she said.
After the dinner in central London, Adjaye asked her to drive him to the Royal Academy of Arts, well after closing time. He used his sway as a member of the institution to gain entry from a security guard and as they walked through the building Dunia says Adjaye pushed her up against an alcove. “He told me to be a good girl and be quiet,” she said. She felt blindsided and froze as his tongue pushed into her mouth. “He was pressed up against me and his penis was erect,” she said. “That’s where the fairytale ended.”
Despite being appalled by his behaviour, Dunia still wanted to prove to Adjaye that she had value as a professional, which is why she started working for him informally as a communications and marketing specialist. Over the following months, she said that she endured a series of controlling and emotionally abusive sexual encounters with him; she refused to characterise their interactions as a “relationship”. She said she felt pressured to work for him for a period without pay and to comply with his sexual demands because of his influence in the arts world.
By the summer of 2019 she said she knew she “needed to get out of this” but was fearful. “My career’s going to be over if he’s pissed off with me,” she recalls thinking at the time. “He can block opportunities and give me a bad reputation . . . his network is vast.” She says this explains why, despite her shame and sense of violation at his treatment of her, she accepted a formal three-month contract with his firm. “Maybe he would see others appreciate me professionally instead of making me a servant worker,” she says of her mindset.
Dunia said that she sought to placate him and make herself agreeable to him despite his controlling behaviour. “I had to make him ‘feel special’, those were his words,” she said. She paid him compliments, responded to requests for intimate photographs of herself and drove him wherever he wanted. She was instructed not to call him but to respond to his calls within three rings. “If he says he misses me, I was to say I miss him too,” Dunia said. “Even when he was wrong, I often apologised to him to calm him down.”
She claims he belittled and mocked her, questioning her expertise in public and private, shattering her confidence. Adjaye also used her race to undermine her, she alleges, and questioned if she was “black enough” to understand his vision for his practice and Africa. Dunia describes herself as a “lighter-skinned” black woman, as do Maya and Gene.
Dunia says he told her what to wear and instructed her not to put on make-up: he often made remarks about her skin tone and said he did not want her lighter foundation to rub off on him. He would tug at her hair to ensure it was real and she was not wearing extensions. She said he described black women as “low-hanging fruit”, meaning they were “easy, cheap — like we are sitting waiting to be picked”. She added: “If I was white he would have had respect for my body.”
On one occasion she thought she was going on a business trip with colleagues, but on arrival discovered it was just her and Adjaye and that she was expected to stay in his bedroom. “It felt like entrapment,” she said. “I was never imprisoned, I was never locked in a room, but [I went] thinking there would be four people there and it was just me and him.”
After her three-month contract ended, she returned to working for Adjaye informally to prevent a rupture that could have consequences for her career, but she also tried to phase out their contact. By March 2020 the coronavirus lockdown enabled Dunia to sever ties. “I felt good with the pandemic because it saved me from him,” she said.
Dunia sent a legal letter to Adjaye in February 2022 accusing him of sexual misconduct; she says she was more interested in an admission of responsibility than any financial outcome. In response to her solicitor’s letter, Adjaye said their WhatsApp history indicated a consensual relationship. She was dispirited, frustrated and searched for alternative legal avenues. She later became closer with other women who had worked for Adjaye, including Maya and Gene. But while the three women are now represented by an organisation that specialises in human rights and whistleblowing, they have also had fractious relationships with each other.
Dunia says her mental health has continued to deteriorate: she suffers from social anxiety and has suicidal thoughts. Friends of Dunia describe a fundamental change in her character since her experiences with Adjaye, from an engaged and enthusiastic person to someone who withdrew from those close to her. Her career has stalled and she can no longer conceive of accomplishing the ambitions she used to have. “She is tearful, anxious and more guarded,” said one friend. Another said: “Someone who was so passionate has been broken by it all.”
Experts in coercive control, a phrase used to describe a pattern of manipulative and abusive behaviour, say that undermining and demeaning victims, for example with racial insults or criticism about their appearance, is a classic tactic of perpetrators.
Emma Katz, associate professor of sociology at Durham University, said: “Coercive control is an attack upon everything about you that makes you, you. It’s like somebody is trying to turn you into a puppet on a string and take away your rights, your autonomy, your independence.” The shame generated in the victim by their treatment can also explain why they do not try and leave the perpetrator: “People can keep pursuing the same course of action because changing course means facing up to how bad things are, facing up to how traumatised they’ve been by it, so it can be better to keep your head down, stay numb, keep complying and not face up to it.”
Adjaye’s lawyer says that Adjaye kissed Dunia at the Royal Academy but “categorically denies” that her version of events is correct or that “he exhibited abusive and controlling behaviour towards [her]”. He said contemporaneous communications show that their interactions were consensual. Through his lawyer, Adjaye “rejects entirely the overall portrayal of his conduct during their relationship, such as the claims about his attitudes towards black women and the imputation that his behaviour was ‘belittling’”.
However Adjaye “accepts that sexual interactions continued with [Dunia] after she started providing professional services to the company, and that this was inappropriate, as was the decision to recommend her as a consultant given that they were engaged in a relationship”.
Adjaye’s lawyer said Adjaye understands employing individuals with whom he had had personal, intimate relationships is not in line with good governance nor appropriate levels of personal conduct. Since early 2020, he said, the company has taken a number of steps to formalise procedures relating to recruitment and employment, but did not give details.
The three women, who want to protect others from similar experiences, said even if these changes are true, they do not believe it is nearly enough.
“David has been able to hoodwink so many people into believing he is who he says he is,” said Maya. “He does whatever he wants, however he wants.”
Additional reporting by Alastair Bailey and Joseph Cotterill