The long road to the Smithsonian’s new African-American museum

The Smithsonian’s newest museum is a striking homage to African-American history and culture. We get the inside scoop from the architects, and reviews from critics, on the building and its artifacts.

A hundred years ago, African-American Civil War veterans proposed a national monument to their civic contributions. That idea evolved into the museum that finally opens this Saturday, Sept. 24.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture sits on five acres on the National Mall, just yards from the Washington Monument.

The building stands out. While many of the mall’s monuments and museums are white or grey and built in a classical style, the corona of this new museum is bronze in color and covered in a lattice of intricate metal patterns.

The long-awaited projected was designed by the team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup; its lead designer was David Adjaye. He has been quoted as saying he wanted to build a “dark, brooding, bronzelike building.”

The museum has a collection of over 36,000 artifacts, each telling a story about the African-American experience.

“It is a building that is big and bold and stunning in its architecture, and juxtaposed with all of the other buildings that are there on the National Mall, which are stoic but somewhat staid in their architecture, this building is as if there were a bunch of people sitting at a Wall Street meeting all wearing their blue and gray suits and Beyoncé walks in with sequins from head to toe. I mean boom, the building just stands out,” said Michele Norris, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered and founding director of The Race Card Project, who explored the museum in an article for National Geographic.

Norris says there are several artifacts that stood out to her, including a child’s slave shackles.

“They’re just so small and so delicate,” she said, “and when you see the shackles you also see the artistry. They’re oddly beautiful. So you think about the person who made that knowing how it was going to be used. And one of the things the curator said is… they wanted people to think about history from lots of different viewpoints. And so when you look at a shackle like that you think [about] the person who made the shackle and the person who had to place that shackle on a child’s wrist or ankle. And their place in history too. It’s really brilliant how they ask the audience to consider history from lots of different viewpoints and look at it from lots of different sides.”

But despite the heavy subject matter, “it’s not all pain and struggle,” Norris said. “There are also moments of triumph,” such as George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, which was i Clinton’s living room. “They had to cut out part of the ceiling because he literally had the mother ship sitting in George Clinton’s living room for years and years.”

The realization of the museum was an “internecine process,” according to Philip Kennicott, architecture critic for The Washington Post. While there’s much about the design he admires, he’s sorry that cost-cutting meant a change in the materials on the facade from bronze to bronze-coated aluminum.

“It is having a huge impact on what people think of Washington. It has fundamentally changed our sense of the architecture in one of the most important and symbolically freighted parts of the city, and that is the National Mall — and not just the National Mall but where that mall meets the Washington Monument and the axis of the White House,” Kennicott said.

While many of the Mall’s buildings are horizontal,architecturally traditional and neoclassical, The National Museum of African-American History and Culture “has this kind of upward-thrusting energy. It’s as if you had your arms up in a kind of V-shape and then produced that in three tiers,” he said.

The interior of the building is also unlike other Smithsonian museums. Visitors enter a large glass atrium, but then descend deep underground into a vast, cavernous space. “It’s not filled with natural light, so it’s lit in a dramatic way,” Kennicott said. “Downstairs in the dark, going through the history, it’s really quite a somber, painful experience. Upstairs that all changes and there’s a chance to engage, maybe with some nostalgia, with memory for a lot of people who know these artists and remember these sports figures and admire these cultural leaders. And it’s much more of a kind of a big yearbook of possibilities on the third and fourth floor without the same chronological narrative in the history galleries.”

Lead designer David Adjaye is not entirely new to D.C. He’s already designed two small libraries in the district. But his career really took off in the U.K. That’s where the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, born in Tanzania, studied and found his first clients among London’s art world.

“He was very clever at using inexpensive materials in a very opulent way,” said Lucas Dietrich, editorial director of design books for publisher Thames & Hudson, which has published several monographs about Adjaye’s work as well as a seven-volume collection of Adjaye’s photographs of African metropolitan architecture.

“There are a lot of great architects working in many great cities and countries around the world. But he really does stand out. But it’s not just because of his skin color. It’s the combination of his articulateness and his intelligence, which are really crucial to the understanding of his architecture. But he also acts as a kind of medium, I think, for people to understand what tendencies in African design might be,” Dietrich said.

David Adjaye’s partner in the architectural team was Phil Freelon, a leading African-American architect based in Durham, North Carolina. He teamed up the late Max Bond — a patriarch of the African-American architecture world — to work with the Smithsonian on the pre-design and master planning for the museum.

Then in 2008 the design competition for the actual building was announced, and Freelon and Bond got a call from Adjaye, by then already a superstar in the architecture world. They met at a coffeeshop in New York.

“This was late 2008 early 2009,” Freelon said. “We met and we liked David. Obviously he’s a great guy but you never know with ‘starchitects.’ Some have the reputation of being difficult or ego-driven or whatever. And so we were curious to know about David. We knew about his work. We admired his practice. Max and I and David got along very well and then we all agreed that David would be added to the team, which was then called Freelon Adjaye Bond.

Max Bond passed away at the end of the competition phase, just before they submitted their design. The competition included more than 60 teams or firms, among them highly-regarded names like Norman Foster, I.M. Pei, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, Moshe Safdie and others.

What Freelon Adjaye Bond proposed was an engagement between Western architecture and the architecture of African heritage.

“The porch that you see there is an expression of American architecture, particularly in the South, this welcoming gesture of creating a transition from the landscape into the building and merging those two,” Freelon said. “There’s the pattern of the corona which has African-American roots in that concept, how the pattern was derived linking it back to traditional ironwork in places like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, where the guild work of enslaved Africans and freed African-Americans can be seen even today in these ornate patterns of the iron work.”

Freelon said he feels “pride, humility and appreciation” for his role in designing the new museum. One exhibit in the building, right outside of the Oprah Winfrey theater in the lobby, chronicles the design going back to when the idea was first approached a century ago.

This building is a huge moment for the African-American community, and certainly for the African-American design community.

But its significance resonates much further. Joe Osae-Addo is an architect based in Accra, Ghana. He used to live and work in LA and co-founded the A+D Museum. He will host a party for David Adjaye at Howard University in Washington D.C. this Saturday. He says this building is the realization of a pan-African dream.

“It brings together an architect like Max Bond, who did his first building in independent Ghana in the early ‘60s, and his last building that he was involved with, that we know of, is this building. So it has enormous significance, the links and the connections between Africa and the African-American diaspora,” Addo said.

“This is the kind of collaboration and relationship that Africa has always tried to court, but hasn’t done so successfully. This symbolizes a kind of success that our forefathers always dreamed of. And to me it’s very interesting that it hasn’t happened on the political front but it has happened on the architecture front. And it shows the power of creativity to unite and to engage.”