The Smithsonian’s African American Museum Finally Arrives

Oliver Wainwright, Guardian, September 16, 2016

A small circular piggybank stands on display in Washington DC, featuring a drawing of a grand neoclassical edifice, much like the ones that march up and down the city’s National Mall, where America’s cultural and historical booty is housed. Except this building was to be different. “The National Negro Memorial,” reads the title above the drawing–a plan for a monument where “the achievements of the Negro may be placed before the world”.

Exactly 100 years after the founding of the National Memorial Association, which distributed these pocket-sized coin-banks as encouragements to start saving for the construction of a repository of African American culture, that ambition has finally come to pass. In the intervening century, with momentum for the project relentlessly hindered in Congress, the building has shed its Corinthian columns and acquired a glittering new costume, unlike anything else in the city.

Standing assertively in the middle of a 15-acre lawn, between the sharp white obelisk of the Washington Monument and the colossal stone shed of the National Museum of American History, the latest arrival to this hallowed parade ground certainly holds its own. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture erupts from the ground, an inverted pagoda of three angular bronzed tiers on an all-glass base, departing from its neighbours’ sombre palette of limestone and concrete with joyous glee.

“It was tough to convince the planners,” says David Adjaye, the British-Ghanaian lead designer of the museum, who is, shamefully, about the only black architect of international prominence. “But once you start looking at the Mall, you realise there are a lot of other materials here beyond stone, from terracotta to bronze mouldings.”

Given the sensitivity of the site and the conservation-minded bent of the DC authorities, these arguments were needed. The building’s sloping tiers lean at the same angle as the tip of the Washington Monument. The museum’s volume is politely set back to align with its neighbours. A planned podium,on which the gilded crown would have sat, has been pushed below ground–where half the museum’s accommodation is also buried. These are departures from the competition-winning scheme, but improvements, giving the museum a seductive jewel-box scale. At 400,000 sq ft, it is twice the size of the new Whitney Museumin New York but looks dinky in comparison with its neighbouring Goliaths here in DC.

Picking up on the city’s quasi-masonic web of ley-lines, set out in Pierre l’Enfant’s1791 urban plan, which weave Washington’s main landmarks into a sometimes suffocating web, Adjaye has slashed great slots into his facade to align with important features in the surrounding landscape. With the forbidding air of defensive arrow-slit windows, these cuts frame views to the White House and the Washington Monument, to the Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King memorials a kilometre away, binding DC’s ceremonial landscape to the African American story–and suggesting the museum is here to keep a watchful eye out.

The design also draws on African precedents. The pagoda-like form was inspired by the crown of a carved figure on a veranda post, made by a Yoruba sculptor in west Africa, which Adjaye spotted in an overlooked corner of a Munich museum (it’s now on loan here, with pride of place in the centre of the uppermost gallery). The filigree metal cladding is a reference to the decorative ironwork found on houses in Charleston and New Orleans, made by slave craftsmen. Adjaye has created his own abstract version, with a repeat pattern of 3,600 panels that have an organic, slightly sci-fi air. Somewhere between art nouveau and HR Giger, it gives the building the look of an exotic mothership, ready for takeoff.

Picking up on the city’s quasi-masonic web of ley-lines, set out in Pierre l’Enfant’s1791 urban plan, which weave Washington’s main landmarks into a sometimes suffocating web, Adjaye has slashed great slots into his facade to align with important features in the surrounding landscape. With the forbidding air of defensive arrow-slit windows, these cuts frame views to the White House and the Washington Monument, to the Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King memorials a kilometre away, binding DC’s ceremonial landscape to the African American story–and suggesting the museum is here to keep a watchful eye out.

The design also draws on African precedents. The pagoda-like form was inspired by the crown of a carved figure on a veranda post, made by a Yoruba sculptor in west Africa, which Adjaye spotted in an overlooked corner of a Munich museum (it’s now on loan here, with pride of place in the centre of the uppermost gallery). The filigree metal cladding is a reference to the decorative ironwork found on houses in Charleston and New Orleans, made by slave craftsmen. Adjaye has created his own abstract version, with a repeat pattern of 3,600 panels that have an organic, slightly sci-fi air. Somewhere between art nouveau and HR Giger, it gives the building the look of an exotic mothership, ready for takeoff.

It might also have been out of his hands. Although credited as lead designer, Adjaye is one of four architecture practices responsible for the project, a cocktail of divided responsibilities that feels like too many cooks. The Freelon Group, headed by African American architect Philip Freelon, was the lead practice, with specific responsibility for the building’s interior from the ground floor up. Davis Brody Bond, co-founded by another black architect, the late Max Bond, handled the interiors below ground.

Long-time Smithsonian collaborator, SmithGroup, was in charge of the envelope and foundations, while Adjaye is described as the “creative force” behind the “formal development” of the building: he came up with the shape and the key organisational ideas. The whole project, then, was co-ordinated in the cloud, using BIM modelling software, and there are moments where you sense the left hand might not have quite understood the right hand’s intentions, areas that appear to have slipped through the contractual cracks.

The circulation areas, housed in the gap between the outer facade and the gallery levels within, promised to be a dramatic sequence up escalators and along cantilevered landings, veiled by the lacy mesh. The result feels half-baked. From the inside, the cumbersome steel structure needed to hold up the facade takes up most of the view, while the impact of specially framed vistas to nearby monuments is lessened by clunky fixings.

In the heart of the exhibition spaces, these niggles fade away. Davis Brody Bond, who designed the evocative subterranean lair of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, have brought a similarly crepuscular atmosphere to the underground history galleries, an appropriate setting for the story of the darkest hours of the Atlantic slave trade. A warren of low-ceilinged rooms give way to a gaping triple-height hall, lined with rough-textured grey plaster walls, and a winding route past such haunting exhibits as a whipping post and a segregated train carriage, slave huts and a stone auction block, along with an overwhelming number of artefacts, text panels, films and interactive video screens.

Things get cheerier upstairs. Once you’ve passed through the “contemplative court”, a much-needed respite space lit by an oculus and waterfall (still under construction), you ascend to the upper levels of the community and culture galleries, where the full kaleidoscope of African American contributions to musicvisual arts, sports, food, business and the military is documented in all its multifaceted glory.

Like theexhibitions inside it, the museum building embodies its complexities and contradictions, charged as it is with a brief and a site as impossibly fraught as the history it is telling. Despite some clunks, the result has a compelling, spiky otherness, standing on the Mall as a welcome rebuke to the world of white marble monuments to dead white men.

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