Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History And Culture

by | 07. Nov 2016

Cultural | Project
National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (17)-min.jpg

The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo © Alan Karchmer

Written by Finn MacLeod

Washington, D.C., is one of the most architecturally uniform and meticulously planned cities in the United States. Awash in rows of imposing colonial buildings, each housing various arms of the nation’s federal government, the city posed a unique challenge to the designers of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the latest addition to the country’s arsenal of national museums. Previously housed in a small gallery inside the American History Museum, the NMAAHC is the newest standalone museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (7)-min.jpg

View of the NMAAHC on the National Mall. Photo © Alan Karchmer

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (8)-min.jpg

The museum is said to be located on the city’s most prized plot, as evidenced by its proximity to the Washington Monument. Photo © Alan Karchmer

The evolution of the creation of the NMAAHC is equal parts politics and design. Beginning in 1988, the Federal Government of the United States began discussing the establishment of a national museum for African American history, under the stewardship of the Smithsonian. Little progress was made until 2003 when then-President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the museum. In 2008, a design competition was held and a shortlist unveiled, which included many of the world’s leading firms: Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Foster + Partners, Moshe Safdie and Associates, and a consortium of firms led by David Adjaye, among others.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (6)-min.jpg

The United States House of Representatives can be seen in the background, just beyond the NMAAHC on the National Mall. Photo © Alan Karchmer

The winning group, collectively known as Freelon Adjaye Bond-composed of Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, and Davis Brody Bond (architects of the National 9/11 Museum and Memorial in New York)-with SmithGroup JJR, were tasked with designing what would become one of the nation’s most contentious public buildings. Located on the National Mall adjacent to the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument, the new building occupies a unique space, both physically and metaphorically, and represents the ongoing struggles of a deeply marginalized population within the United States. Serving as lead designer, Adjaye was charged with telling the story of the largest racial minority in the United States.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (10)-min.jpg

Sited on the last available plot on the National Mall, the NMAAHC is placed favourably between the Washington Monument and the Museum of American History. Photo © Alan Karchmer

The culmination of nearly twenty years of political red tape, the NMAAHC finally opened in 2016 to great fanfare, with Presidents Obama and Bush in attendance to celebrate the historic milestone. An emblem of the African American community, the museum is an elegant, understated architectural gesture that, like the community it represents, maintains a distinct identity in the landscape while remaining aware of its context and profound history.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (18)-min.jpg

Landscaping surrounding the museum helps to integrate it into the fabric of the city. Photo © Alan Karchmer

Clad in a porous bronze pyramid-like lattice skin inspired by Yoruban culture and African American craftsmanship, the building appears fortress-like in comparison to the classical, staid architecture of its neighbours. Challenged by Washington’s age-old building height restrictions-no structure can be taller than the Washington Monument, which is relatively short in modern terms-the museum rises five stories above ground and houses nearly as many below.

MAA-Long Section 1 200 (c) Adjaye Associates.jpg

The building’s complex program extends above and below Constitution Avenue. © Adjaye Associates

In designing the first dedicated building for the NMAAHC, the designers were tasked to project spatial usage for a museum with a brief history and a rapidly evolving mission in an increasingly racially heated period for the United States. The resulting building is a flexible, airy, and multifunctional centre capable of keeping pace with the museum’s changing needs. Incorporating a complex combination of galleries, education, event, and contemplative spaces, the building was designed for longevity, but most importantly, to convey respect to the community it represents.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (4)-min.jpg

The porous bronze lattice was inspired by Yoruban patterns and African American craftsmanship, simultaneously providing shade to the building’s interior. Photo © Alan Karchmer

Inside, the building’s expansive, column-free spaces are punctuated by dramatically integrated daylight, and surrounded by panoramic views of the city and nearby monuments. Underground, a three story memorial space sits adjacent to a contemplation chamber featuring a waterfall pouring from an illuminated oculus-a reminder of the gravity of the history of the African American population and its influence on the development of the United States. Designed to evoke powerful emotions in its visitors, the museum’s interiors are finished with raw, dark materials, namely concrete, timber and bronze, a symbolic nod to the raw, diverse, and unresolved systemic challenges felt by African Americans.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (14)-min.jpg

The bronze lattice as seen from inside. Photo © Alan Karchmer

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (12)-min.jpg

View of the main lobby and escalators. Photo © Alan Karchmer

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (16)-min.jpg

View of the Washington Monument from inside the museum. Photo © Alan Karchmer

The National Museum of African American History and Culture recounts the tangled history of its constituents while simultaneously setting an optimistic tone for the future of the nation. The genesis of its spaces-from dark and meditative underground to bright and open at the upper levels-tells the story of a thriving people undeterred by the darkest moments of their history. A poetic response to a deeply complex and intersectional subject, the museum intuitively recognizes the African American experience with the dignity and importance it is owed, while reminding visitors that its history continues to be written. The building stands tall on Constitution Avenue, a steadfast lantern glowing ceaselessly, and a beacon for progress in America.

National Museum of African American History and Culture_Adjaye Associates (c) Alan Karchmer (9)-min.jpg

At night, the building glows like a lantern, emphasizing its unique design. Photo © Alan Karchmer

INFORMATION

CITYWashington, DC
COUNTRYUSA
ARCHITECTFreelon Adjaye Bond SmithGroup
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTGustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd.

CLIENT

CONTRACTOR