Smithsonian Selects Finalists for African-American Museum

Deborah K. Dietsch, Washington Times, January 30, 2009

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be constructed on Constitution Avenue near the Washington Monument, may turn out to be a stony sculptural edifice or a glass-faced building framed in steel.

The Smithsonian Institution announced Thursday that it has narrowed the list of 22 firms competing for the museum commission to six finalists with diverse outlooks on design.

“They’ve all demonstrated a passion for African-American culture,” museum director Lonnie Bunch said at a press briefing yesterday. “They have the skills to help us craft a structure that will enhance the National Mall.”

All six teams include black design principals, and four firms are members of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Several are led by architects experienced in designing museums and institutions in Washington.

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Architect Philip Freelon of Durham, N.C., designed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. New York-based Max Bond is the architect behind the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala.

This team may have a leg up in the two-month-long competition. In 2007, Mr. Freelon and Mr. Bond were hired by the Smithsonian to come up with a conceptual framework for the 300,000- to 350,000-square-foot museum on the Mall.

The six teams of finalists will base their designs for the museum on these preliminary plans. Each group will be paid a stipend of $50,000 to develop its final vision.

The submitted proposals will be judged by a panel of museum officials, architects and other experts from April 1 through 3. Mr. Bunch, who is one of the 11 jurors, said he is looking for a “signature green building” that “speaks about the resiliency, optimism and spirituality of the African-American experience.”

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The Smithsonian obviously does not want to repeat its experiences with the National Museum of the American Indian; disagreements over its construction led to the removal of the design architect.

After being selected, the winning team will spend the next few years developing the design of the $500 million black-history museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015. Renderings of all six competition schemes will be exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution Building–popularly known as “the Castle”–this spring.

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