April 10, 2009
  Six Teams Compete to Write a New Chapter of African-American History and the Final Chapter of the National Mall
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture is blessed with tangled history and a demanding site

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: The six design teams short listed for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture are faced with a steep challenge. As in all quality architecture, each of these challenges must be made into strength.

Images courtesy of the Smithsonian.
1: Antoine Predock and Moody Nolan’s proposal.
2: Pei Cobb Freed and Partners and Devrouax & Purnell’s design.
3: Diller Scofidio + Renfro and KlingStubbins’ proposal.
4: Adjaye Freelon Bond and Smith Group’s plan.
5: Foster + Partners and URS’s design.
6: The proposal by Moshe Safdie and Associates and Sultan Campbell Britt & Associates.

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A few common motifs emerge from the proposals. Several appropriate the form of a table to suggest a sense of community and family unity. The museums’ circulation patterns often present a linear, narrative journey from slavery to freedom. All the museums present contemporary conceptions of unprogrammed, open public space with green roof terraces, landscaped plazas, and outdoor performance spaces. The diversity of these proposals is most apparent in how they work within, or defy, the material precedents set by the buildings of John Russell Pope, James Renwick, and Charles Bullfinch that surround them.

Construction is slated to begin in 2012 and be completed by 2015. All six teams have at least one minority principal and four firms are members of the National Organization of Minority Architects. The museum’s cost is projected to be roughly $500 million, half of which Congress will provide. An 11-member jury will announce the winner on April 14.

Whichever design rises from the 5-acre site at the far northwest corner of the Mall will become the period at the end of its 200-year-long story. This museum will be the last Smithsonian addition to the Mall and that’s likely the most exciting, and risky, challenge of the plan. Architectural revisionism will have no place in the Mall after the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

The primary concern of Antoine Predock, FAIA and Moody Nolan’s design is making a monumental impact on the Mall without a typically monumental presence. This team’s design is made of a loose assemblage of natural stone materials, arranged to appear as a natural, rocky, extension of the land, thus diffusing the museum’s mass. Instead of celebrating African-American history and culture with a singular, sculptural, and iconic statement, this proposal calls for a diverse village of forms that creates a collaborative and welcoming community while acknowledging the diversity inherent in its own subject matter. It’s a very contemporary way to approach a building site, and no other building on the Mall has ever attempted it, though the rough-hewn golden limestone of the National Museum of the American Indian has a similar vernacular material presence. Predock and Moody Nolan’s design also includes an outdoor amphitheater and restores wetlands on the site, a healing gesture that acknowledges American history’s debt to African-Americans. An obelisk-like tower at the top of the building does give the museum some level of iconic charisma. It also creates a dialogue between the African-American museum, the Washington Monument, and the African architects who first pioneered the form of the obelisk thousands of years ago in Egypt.

The Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Devrouax & Purnell design is the most contextual and respectful of Washington’s historic Neo-Classical traditions. It presents a comparable amount of Federal gravitas as the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History, and others, but, like Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn Museum, its form is largely determined by the manipulation of basic geometric shapes. It begins as a square volume, which is then hollowed and voided. A curvilinear core surrounded by a pond is added under it, partially sheltered by the hollowed cube’s roof garden. Its play of void and opacity recalls one of the greatest works by I.M. Pei, FAIA, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, which will also be one of the African-American museum’s neighbors.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s proposal, in association with KlingStubbins, pushes form and materials on the Mall ahead the furthest. Their “Stone Cloud” design is a table-like form that rises up from the ground on four legs over a pedestrian trail that feeds into the museum. It’s primarily made of limestone, like many of its serious and honorific neighbors, but this limestone is sculpted with organic curves made possible by computerized fabrication technology that give it an otherworldly presence, reinforced by the glass façade the entire building will be wrapped in. Large, ocular windows break up its otherwise unadorned facades. Inside, a dark, richly textural space called the “Culture Core” balances the pale limestone on the outside. This material juxtaposition echoes the team’s presentation of W.E.B. Dubois’ ideas about African-American identity as a double consciousness born of separation.

The proposal by Adjaye Freelon Bond and SmithGroup blends African and Neo-Classical American iconography in a design that displays the clever hand of David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, with materials and basic geometric forms. This three-tired plan is composed of a rectilinear base level and two trapezoidal sections on top, inspired by West African Yoruban crowns and the tripartite organization (base, shaft, capital) of a classical column. Both trapezoidal sections are covered in a perforated, bronze-clad corona that emits light into the museum. Cantilevering “gallery lenses” take visitors out of the regular circulation of the museum and show them views across the exhibit floors and outside. Inside the base volume, the central hall ceiling is covered in vertically suspended planks of wood meant to convey heaviness and oppression. Alternately, these planks are lit from above to form a glowing cloud, communicating optimism, joy, and the chapters of African-American history that have yet to be written.

Linear circulation patterns manipulated to fit onto the museum’s site are used to communicate the symbolic, narrative journey of African-Americans in Foster + Partners and URS’s proposal. This design begins by bringing visitors down through a curving landscaped plaza to the museum’s entrance below grade. They enter, shrouded in darkness and presented with exhibits that focus on the equally dark history of African-Americans’ first experiences with America. As the museum progresses, patrons move gradually upward and witness African-Americans’ historic struggle and epic victories. The museum wraps this linear, skyward journey around itself, curving a rectilinear bar into a coiled infinity loop. The path terminates at an observation deck window that looks out over Washington, D.C., capital city of the free world.

The sensuously curving butterfly wing entry pavilion in the Moshe Safdie and Associates design is equated with Africa and stands separate from the rest of the museum, accessible from the upper levels via a skywalk as a distant vista of origin, separate from the life of the museum itself. Light reaches deep into the museum (designed in association with Sultan Campbell Britt & Associates) through its front glass curtain wall. Much of the building lies underground, which reduces the building’s footprint. In the rear, a section of the museum is cut away for a glass pavilion that is on axis with the front pavilion and the Washington Monument. This rear pavilion contains long vertical strips that run the height of the museum, tapering as they rise, to create a womb-like space that honors the creative vitality with which African-Americans have infused American culture.

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