May 1, 2009
  David Adjaye’s Smithsonian Crowns African-American Culture as a Global Culture
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture integrates ancient design traditions

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . design a museum for an international culture?

Summary: “What’s left to be done?,” asks David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, with a laugh, about his conceptual design for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. A Smithsonian jury just selected his design from a short list of six design teams on April 14. “Everything. It’s got a lot more to go before we can say it’s a building.”

Architect: Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, Rendering: Imaging Atelier
Image 1: The central circulation hall of the museum. Wood planks hang down vertically from the ceiling.
Image 2: The National Museum of African-American Culture and History.
Image 3: The National Museum of African-American Culture and History is organized as a three tiered volume that begins with a broad stone base on the ground floor and has two crown-shaped trapezoidal volumes stacked on top.
Image 4: From the terrace on the roof of the stone base, visitors can see the richly textural perforated bronze corona.
Image 5: “Gallery lenses” take visitors out of the regular circulation of the museum and show them views across the exhibit floors and outside.

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What Adjaye can say he has now is a “conceptual diagram” he’ll be “testing” with the Smithsonian from now until the museum is put into the National Mall in 2012, but the Africa-born, London-based architect doesn’t have to face down building committees and design review boards all by himself. As with all the competing submission teams, he’s got a formidable group of architects around him to help shepherd the design from conception to reality. While Adjaye is the lead designer, Philip Freelon, FAIA, of the Freelon Group will be the architect of record, and they’ll get additional help from Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroup.

What’s most clear about this design team’s conceptual starting point is that it embraces evolving notions of African-American identity as an international culture that are likely to disrupt the status quo of cultural ownership, and perhaps most importantly—gain additional weight and power from the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. just a few blocks away from the site: an African-American with a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father, who grew up, in part, in Indonesia.

This Black British architect’s design combines ziggurat-like forms inspired by West African crowns or sculpture with the tripartite organization (base, shaft, capital) of Classical columns. The idea of a British designer bringing a plan that even implicitly hints at antebellum porticos, friezes, and colonnades to New World shores could invoke the imperial specter of colonialism, especially in a cultural facility meant to honor a colonized people, but Adjaye’s work merges Classical and iconic African representations so that the two motifs blend together in multicultural, international celebration. The museum removes African-American culture from narrow, provincial illusions of homogeneity. Its design elements can’t be atomized into ‘Classical’ and ‘African; features; ‘white’ and ‘black’ features—they are wholly integrated and unified. The artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, musicians, academics, and statesmen that will be featured in the museum will be recognizable not just to American tourists, but also to the vast international throngs that crowd the Mall—and that’s the key observation that Adjaye and his team have made.

“That’s the point of there being a British architect,” Adjaye says. “[Black culture] is a global phenomenon.”

Crowns, kings, columns
The museum is slated to be complete by 2015, taking its place as the last Smithsonian on the Mall. Its cost is projected to be roughly $500 million, half of which Congress will provide. The building will be located on the far northwest corner of the National Mall, next to the Washington Monument immediately to the southwest. Adjaye’s building will face south with a glass façade that’s part of a broad stone base he likens to a front porch. This base contains the first two levels of the museum, and will provide roof terraces for visitors. Like much of Adjaye’s work, this part of the museum is meant to create a widely democratic and inviting public space where it might not be otherwise expected. He sees it as the last urban gathering outpost before the landscaped wildness of Constitution Gardens and the Washington Monument grounds: a “powerful public gathering place for Washington,” he says. “We see the idea of making a museum now as about making a public space, not just making a public building.”

On top of this stone base are two trapezoidal volumes, stacked like a ziggurat—the “crown” of the design, inspired by similarly tiered African head sculptures. These volumes are enclosed in glass, but a perforated bronze corona wraps around them which will allow daylight to penetrate to the museum’s interiors. It will also take the familiar material majesty of the National Mall (marble, sandstone, granite) in a fresh and entirely new direction. These perforations texturize the façade so that its iconic expression becomes more singular and definite as visitors move away from it, and loses focus and blurs as patrons move closer. “When you come [near it], it kind of atomizes,” Adjaye says. “When you move away, it becomes more objectified.”

The design also has a deceptively vertical expression. Its stacked, overhanging tiered crown forms appear tall and proud down to their conceptual essence, despite the museum’s broad outline. As is rarely the case in low-rise Washington, this vertical pride can be called contextual because of the adjacent Washington Monument. The reappropriation of the Monument’s obelisk form from ancient Egyptian (or African) architects, to the Greeks, and again to the Enlightenment-era Neo-Classical designers that created it further bolsters Adjaye’s ideas about design motifs’ fluid movement across and between cultures. The Tanzania-born architect says the mixing and matching of these Classical and African elements should exist beyond suspicions of racial motivations. The nation’s founding fathers borrowed their architecture from the Greeks, who had borrowed from Africans. The discriminatory pitfalls of this particular historical transmission can be avoided by simply acknowledging that the sources of this original text were not Platonic ideals, but African engineering.

Adjaye’s museum gives credit where credit is due, and then lets the work speak for itself. “These are powerful references that architecture has that get racialized in a way that I find annoying,” he says. “For me, they’re part of a global context of references that we can draw on as architects.”

Inside, cantilevering “gallery lenses” take visitors out of the regular circulation of the museum and show them views across the exhibit floors and outside. In the base volume, a central hall ceiling is covered in vertically suspended planks of wood that are lit from above to form a glowing cloud. These forms are meant to convey heaviness and oppression as well as an earthy optimism and joy. Adjaye developed this idea after experimenting with it in a pavilion he designed for the London Design Festival.

The call-up?
Adjaye’s work with the African-American museum, and through the rest of his small (30 people across three offices) 9-year-old firm’s portfolio, displays a geometric succinctness, a light conceptual hand, a material inventiveness, and a respect for the public realm that has made him one of the world’s most well-known emerging voices in contemporary architecture. These qualities are likely to help him withstand the recession-induced winnowing of the design field, as his buildings speak to the humble, humanistic aspirations of democratic, egalitarian community which have all become important rallying cries after a decade of formal extravagance facilitated by a class of practitioners called “starchitects.” Had he gotten started in a different era, Adjaye might just be joining such a group with this very commission.

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