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Adjaye Associates’ NMAAHC couldn’t be just a building that was a background to its content

The filigree facade of David Adjaye’s museum references the artful metalsmithing of freed slaves

For the past century, Washington DC has been a graveyard for architectural innovation, a place where conformity rules. IM Pei’s East Building for the National Gallery of Art and Maya Lin’s fiercely contested Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial are among the few exceptions to a dismal saga of compromise and mediocrity.  Now there is another. 

A team headed by David Adjaye won the 2009 competition for the National Museum of African American History and Culture with a design that is radically different from its neighbours. Still more surprisingly, prolonged negotations with a dozen agencies improved the original scheme. Occupying the last vacant site on the Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, and in contrast to the pompous Federal Triangle and bland containers for recent additions to the Smithsonian that flank the Mall, the NMAAHC is expressive of purpose, porous and airy. As architecture, it’s as powerful but much lighter than the iconic buildings that give the capital what little distinction it has – and it is a potent symbol of America confronting its racial divide. 

In Washington, as in Rome, a city of brick was transformed into a city of marble when the republic acquired imperial ambitions, and the official buildings are as white as the power structure was until quite recently. Though the capital was built astride the Mason-Dixon line, it was long segregated, and President Kennedy dubbed it ‘a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm’. The noblest feature is the Baroque plan, a diagram of radiating boulevards and grand axes that Pierre l’Enfant borrowed from Versailles and superimposed on a swamp. Lacking a Sun King to respond to his vision, the authorities have minutely regulated development and almost every project (including the National World War II Memorial, which could be mistaken for a posthumous design by Albert Speer) has been nibbled to death. Douglas Cardinal, a Canadian architect who was selected for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, was fired after construction began and his design was imperfectly realised by another firm.  

Afro section

Afro section

Section & concourse level floor plan - click to expand

It is tempting to see the NMAAHC as a replay of David and Goliath – an outsider winning over a reactionary establishment – but in fact it was a group effort. Phil Freelon and Max Bond, highly regarded African-American architects, drew up a detailed programme for the new museum. Adjaye had earlier won a commission to design two branch libraries in Washington, but was not yet licensed to practise in the US. Bond suggested the three of them make a joint submission for the competition, with Adjaye as lead designer, Freelon as architect of record, and Bond adding the weight of his experience. Further to improve their chances and reassure the Smithsonian, they brought in the SmithGroupJJR, a leading architecture and engineering firm, and called themselves the FAB team. 

In preparing their entry, Adjaye admits he was nervous about stepping out of line, but says he was convinced it was the right thing to do. ‘This couldn’t be just a building that was a background to its content’, he says. ‘The Mall is a representational space and the African-American community has always been in the back room. This was its chance to be on the front lawn. We were the only ones who went there, the board reacted very favourably, and that is why I think we won.’ 

The prizewinning scheme had a two-storey podium extending almost the full length of the site, north to Constitution Avenue and south to the Mall, crowned by the signature feature of a corona: three flared tiers of metal filigree. Adjaye, who has spent 10 years exploring the cultural heritage of his native continent, was inspired by traditional Yoruba wood sculptures, but equally by a desire to respond to the context. He describes the site as a ‘knuckle joint’ that links the Washington Monument to the Mall. The tiers of his corona have the same 17-degree slope as the capstone of the obelisk, and the corners play off its tip, which rises more than five times as high as the 31.5 metres of the museum. The bronze-toned cast-aluminium panels have six different patterns and vary in density, to provide more shade or reveal more of the view. They refer back to a long tradition of African-American craftsmanship, for it was slaves and their descendants who created the ornamental ironwork of Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans. Adjaye wanted a panoptic tower, to embrace the arc of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, Arlington National Cemetery (where the slain Kennedys are buried alongside casualties of war), and the White House. These are potent symbols of a nation founded in a spirit of idealism that all too often fell short of its promise. The NMAAHC is another symbol – of a reckoning with history and a troubled legacy, alongside a celebration of black culture and community.

‘The bronze-toned cast aluminium filigree panels refer back to a long tradition of African-American craftsmanship’

Agencies reviewing the competition-winning design argued it occupied too much of the site. Adjaye reluctantly agreed to develop three alternatives: splitting the building down the middle, increasing its height beyond the mandatory limits, and putting 60 per cent of the 39,000m2 interior underground. Everyone agreed the third option was best – though the retaining walls had to be thickened to exclude ground water. Essentially, the podium was buried and grassed over, leaving a glazed cube with its corona, and a free-standing south porch. The existing site, which dipped down from the street, was raised 3 metres to put it above the 100-year flood plain. Contracting the footprint makes the building even more of an icon, comparable in width to Gordon Bunshaft’s concrete cylinder for Hirshhorn Museum on the far side of the Mall. Once the square plan was accepted, its placement was another subject of debate; the team recalls moving it a few feet forwards and back over several months until it finally came to rest, aligned with its nearest neighbour.  

The corona is in full view as you walk around the building, raised above the exposed glazing of the ground floor, and the 55-metre span of the south porch. This concrete monolith, tapered to a knife edge to reduce its mass, tilts up to catch the reflections from a pool and create a cool, shady portal. Beside it, the filigree appears even more insubstantial, sparkling softly as the sun catches it and basket-like when viewed in silhouette or lit from within. It casts a tracery of shadows over the glass and across the peripheral floors, cutting glare and heat gain, thereby helping the building achieve its Gold LEED rating. Structural engineer Guy Nordenson suspended the glass walls and the frame supporting the corona from the roof trusses, devising flexible joints that allow the metal screens to move as much as 350mm in a high wind. The corona also serves as a blast wall; Nordenson describes it as a sacrificial skin, which could absorb the energy of a terrorist bomb and protect occupants from the shock wave.

Too often, history museums (like the National Museum of American History to the east) are windowless boxes, sealing off visitors from natural light and views. The ground floor and upper levels of Adjaye’s museum feel even more open and permeable than the exterior. Four service cores support the building like table legs. The reception desk, a glass-walled orientation theatre and the shop seem to float within this lofty void. Visitors can stand at its centre to gaze out on all sides at greenery and the columned cliff face of the Federal Triangle. Moving to the periphery, they can look up the skirts of the museum and admire the play of light and shade within the corona. The ceiling, clad in the same grey drywall panels as the cores, steps up around the edges; the floors and stairs are a brown-black terrazzo, creating a dark-toned foil to the surging crowd of visitors. A large glass lift, supplemented by stairs and escalators, descends 20 metres to the lowest level, where the historical narrative begins with the arrival of slaves from Africa. Five subterranean display levels open out of a concourse, and are partially cut away to provide room for the largest exhibits, including a reconstructed slave cabin, a segregated railway carriage and a trainer flown by the Tuskegee Airmen – a group of mainly black members of the US Army Air Force in the Second World War. 

Afro plans

Afro plans

Floor plans - click to expand

Telling a story with iconic objects and everyday artefacts is a specialty of the Smithsonian, earning it the nickname, ‘the nation’s attic’. The architects collaborated with museum curators and installation specialists from Ralph Appelbaum Associates to display key exhibits (drawn from a collection of 33,000) to best advantage. The interior is conceived in three dimensions, as a visceral experience of what it was like to be shipped in chains across an ocean, owned and worked to death, before emancipation brought grudging acceptance, and a life of poverty and prejudice. The narrative highlights the leaders and popular movements that emerged from the struggle for freedom and dignity, and continues to the present. It’s a harrowing tale, intensified by the physical effort of ascending ramps that lead from darkness to light. 

At the upper concourse level is a moment of release: a room in which a circle of water descends into a sunken pool from an oculus, through which you can catch a glimpse of the sky and, from one corner, the sharp tip of the Washington Monument. A 300-seat theatre, named after Oprah Winfrey, hosts lectures, movies and varied events.

From the lower ground, a steel-enclosed staircase spirals up to the ground floor from where escalators rise to the first-floor library and educational spaces, an exploration of community on the second floor and, on the third, an exuberant celebration of black culture – from jazz, cooking and hairstyles to Chuck Berry’s flamboyant red Cadillac convertible. A strategically located cut-out in the corona frames the Monument from base to tip; another focuses on the Lincoln Memorial, rising from a grove of trees at the far end of the Mall. Visitors can step out onto a green terrace atop the south portal, and from the staff offices on the fourth floor, which rises above the corona, there is an unbroken view over this horizontal city.

‘The building and its contents offer a voyage of discovery that will enlighten and appall’

It’s easy to find hints of the NMAAHC in the Francis Gregory Library, which Adjaye designed for a leafy suburban site, south-east of the Capitol. A three-storey glass-walled block is partially shaded by a projecting roof and an inner screen of Douglas-fir plywood boxes tilted on their corners. This casts a chequerboard of shadows over the floors while allowing views out, with the natural wood softening the sharp-edged geometry. A few years later, when Adjaye developed his design for the museum, he strove to create a building that would clearly express the uniqueness of its role and location. 

‘I didn’t want a louvred cage that was a Modernist abstraction’, he says, ‘but rather a symbol that would spark the story and reveal itself as you approached.’ His vision, and the strategy he adopted to realise it, have given Washington something more than a well-designed display case of artefacts. The Holocaust Memorial Museum across the Mall offers an immersive experience but its exterior is bland, generic. Cardinal strove to capture the geological formations of the American West in his National Museum of the American Indian, but far too little is made of the undulating forms within. At the NMAAHC, everything comes together seamlessly in a flow of  space and an integration of narrative, exhibits and the architectural promenade. The building and its contents offer a voyage of discovery that will enlighten and appall. It may even help a divided nation find common ground.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Architect: David Adjaye, Max Bond, Phil Frelon, SmithGroupJJR

Structural engineers: Guy Nordenson & Associates

Photographs: Alan Karchmer (exterior shots), Wade Zimmerman (interior shots)

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