A culminating chapter in a century-long push to create a black-history museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., began April 14, when National Museum of African American History and Culture (AAHC) director Lonnie Bunch announced that the team Freelon Adjaye Bond and SmithGroup had been selected to design the museum’s new building at the base of the Washington Monument. The $500 million project will be completed in 2015.
Largely conceived by Tanzanian-born, London-based architect David Adjaye, Freelon Adjaye Bond’s winning proposal features a plinth with broad overhangs topped by a volume whose patterned bronze skin tapers inward twice. Fastidiously placed windows will offer museumgoers curated views of the National Mall, and incisions in this upper volume’s roof will shower the interior with daylight. Yet this design does not represent a literal architectural expression of black identity, and the five other finalists’ proposals similarly avoid such symbolism. Interestingly, the designs for the most important building commission for the African-American community intimates that Modernism is the architectural vocabulary of African-Americans.
Indeed, this sextet of architectural designs is more evocative than explicit. In plan, the entry plaza and building volume of the entry by Foster + Partners and URS Group suggest an infinity sign, symbolizing the continual writing of African-American history and the immutability of the Smithsonian as a repository of national treasures. In section, the design becomes more complex: The plaza, which visitors would enter from 15th Street, is submerged; what seemed to be an elliptical building volume in fact winds upward, terminating in an expansive glass plane facing the Mall’s obelisk. This vertical articulation smartly separates museumgoers from perimeter car traffic. It also handily represents the ascent from darkness — in other words, slavery — into light, and the exhibition content would follow suit closely.
Foster’s scheme is reminiscent of the tightly controlled circulation and signature feature of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio’s 1989—90 concept for Slow House, if at the scale of a national icon. Today, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s museum entry (page 84) recalls Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Blur Building. The proposed building is cloaked in a multistory glass sheath sliced open in its southwestern corner, with two grandly curving glass arches punctuating the large entryway. Most museum galleries are located in the limestone structure enveloped in the transparent skin, with an additional wood-clad interior gallery nestled within the core.

The museum proposed by Freelon Adjaye Bond — comprising The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, and Davis Brody Bond — may be the most contextual of the six finalists’ designs; the rhythm of the Freelon Adjaye Bond design aligns it with the more opaque National Museum of American History and other Classical-style buildings lining the northern edge of the National Mall. The joint venture between Devrouax + Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (page 84) also strives for harmony with the other institutions along Constitution Avenue by proposing a rectilinear frame that represents the maximum building envelope permitted by the museum’s programming document. Their scheme provides a counterpoint to that straightforward move, however, by filling the armature with a sinuous, glazed volume clad in wood louvers.

The collaboration of Moody Nolan and Antoine Predock Architect (page 86) shows the sculptural imprint of Predock, winner of the 2006 AIA Gold Medal. In this case, a series of shardlike masses stack upward in a variety of gentle angles, as if emerging from the earth. Planted surfaces, as well as the proposed construction of adjacent wetlands, underscore the geological quality of the composition. Yet the Moody Nolan/Predock entry also seeks inspiration from African history, including the legacy of slavery. The patterns on rain screens refer to Yoruban art, for example, and an amphitheater carved into one side of the pile evokes the outdoor gathering spaces common to African villages. Carbon-fiber walkways crisscrossing an upper-story “improvisation space” take their shape from ships’ hulls (a replica slave ship was intended to form the centerpiece of the winning building’s permanent exhibition).

Moshe Safdie, FAIA, whose studio created its AAHC proposal with Washington, D.C.—based Sulton Campbell Britt (page 86), also stresses two points. Standing four stories above grade, and sliced diagonally on one side, this design promises a smaller footprint. “I felt a lot of people would say it’s better not to build there,” Safdie says of the 5-acre building site, one of only three excepted from the building moratorium imposed on the National Mall. In addition to its small scale, the contest entry envisions links between Africa and the museum experience through the nomenclature employed throughout. The design team has named the entryway of the museum for that continent, for example, and visitors would then descend a ramp to the so-called “Door of No Return” — a direct reference to coastal launch points in the Atlantic slave trade.

Yet even these attempts are tentative. “I don’t feel that architects should speak too much about the messages intended — I don’t like making it too overt,” Safdie says. “I think the more you leave to interpretation and subjective readings, the richer the experience.” He adds, though, “I don’t mind naming the “Door of No Return” or saying Freedom Bridge or using Memorial, because that’s what they are.” 

Safdie isn’t alone in his preference for suppressing narrative. Like the Devrouax + Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed design, the wood latticework that would be installed in the entrance of the Moshe Safdie and Sulton Campbell Britt proposal could be compared to a basket or bamboo thatching, or a jungle ecosystem. Meanwhile, the circulation, similar to the Foster design, lends itself to a reading of African-American history as an emergence from abjectness to equality and achievement. Similar interpretations are suggested in all six finalist designs, but they are mainly apparent to viewers looking for them.

Mabel Wilson, the Columbia professor who acted as a cultural consultant to Diller Scofidio + Renfro, says that that design team preferred abstraction over literal references; indeed, the buoyant, seemingly levitating limestone structure they envisioned suits Bunch’s hope for a museum that expresses “resilience and optimism, [that] gives you a sense of a historic struggle but also is about joy.” Freelon Adjaye Bond’s zigzagging bronze sheath inverts the geometry of the Washington Monument, to be sure, but that submission’s explanatory text attributes the shape to the crowns topping Yoruban sculptural figures. “African-American artistic expression often has been very figurative for a number of reasons, historically,” says Bradford Grant, AIA, director of Howard University’s School of Architecture and Design, “but at the same time, we’ve always embedded codes in our art, such as hiding double meanings in music.” Examining the group shortly after their unveiling, he sums up the designs as Modernist concepts “refined to relate to our experience.”

The client would have allowed a more literal representation of African heritage than the finalists´ intimations of it. In October 2007, the Smithsonian selected The Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond to execute the programming for the AAHC. Speaking about the programming, Philip Freelon, FAIA, says, “The building ought to be part of the story, it ought to support and go hand in hand with the exhibition design, as opposed to just being an envelope for exhibitions.” The 1,300-page programming document that the two firms completed in January asserts a link between architecture and the AAHC mission. To those ends, it also includes a small portion of unprogrammed space because, Freelon notes, “improvisation and creativity are part of African-American culture, whether it’s in music or elsewhere — we wanted to allow a certain spirit that is free.” But he also notes, “We were very careful to stay out of the design realm.”

When Freelon Adjaye Bond starts to design this summer, the product of that undertaking may more strongly underscore an African aesthetic. That the six finalist designs do not do so, though, is in itself highly suggestive.

The recurrence of abstraction in the six designs is a counterpoint to the last addition to the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in September 2004. That building serves as a reminder of a contentious process that culminated in the dismissal of its lead conceptual designer, Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, in 1998. Myriad consultants, most notably Jones & Jones and Polshek Partnership, shouldered the execution of the design, and multiple sources have said that the AAHC jury will determine a winner partly according to the visible demonstration of teamwork.

Perhaps more important, Cardinal has been quoted as calling the ultimate version of the National Museum of the American Indian a “forgery.” The building relates poorly to the National Mall, putting a blank face to America´s front lawn, and in a similar vein, the excessive entry rotunda goes largely unused. Its organic curves and textures, too, have little to do with surrounding buildings. The result is an aesthetic curiosity that feels both foreign and tenaciously institutional.

The AAHC designs ostensibly reject the figurative architecture of the National Museum of the American Indian as a feasible expression for the African-American experience. They also tap into a perennial concern about black architecture. That conversation is wide-ranging, engaging historical research by Richard Dozier, AIA, head of Tuskegee University’s Department of Architecture and Construction Science, and of Melvin Mitchell, FAIA, and the practice of contemporary architect Jack Travis, FAIA. Despite this breadth of investigation, the underlying question is the same: whether there is or can be an architecture that, as Mitchell states in the preface of his book, The Crisis of the African-American Architect, “reflects the spiritualism, dynamism, improvisational complexity, rich uses of color, strong sensuous rhythm, and the West African roots of African-American culture.”

“An African-American aesthetic has been debated for quite some time,” says Moody Nolan’s Curt Moody, FAIA. “The problem is, nowhere is there a building that we would all point to as an iconic African-American building. But we all have principles we believe ought to be captured in that building.” 

Architects like Freelon have tried realizing these principles. In March, The Freelon Group was selected to design Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights. Speaking about that commission, Freelon refers to related projects, which include the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture forthcoming in Charlotte, which feature multiple rhythms or a vibrant color palette. “There are going to be elements that relate to the African-American experience,” Freelon says of these designs, noting that the work is both the result of clients’ wishes and his personal artistic proclivities as an African-American.

If any architect has the potential to do for American architecture what Buddy Bolden or Louis Armstrong did for American music, James Baldwin for literature, or Willi Smith for fashion, it would be Travis. His contributions to African-American architecture include consultation on projects like the Kalahari Condominiums in New York City, identifying 10 points of black cultural design, and assisting Grant in institutionalizing those principles as part of Howard University’s architecture curriculum. Travis also served as a cultural adviser to the Moody Nolan/Predock team. “There’s so much rich black cultural expression in so many other facets of our lives that something has to happen in the design of the environment,” he says. Yet Travis also concedes, “To make something that tries to be African-American is almost doomed to failure from the beginning. I think an African-American museum has to have roots in an African aesthetic. You have to go back before you go forward.”

This may explain why most finalists referred to African precedent in abstracted ways, and subsumed those allusions within Modernist approaches. The universal lack of an African-American expression, though, could lend credence to Mitchell’s thesis — that is, Modernism itself, from Pablo Picasso´s African Period to the sculptural, late-career compositions of Le Corbusier, has roots in African art, even though the few African-American architects working during Modernism’s birth deferred to the more dominant Beaux-Arts mode.

Mitchell’s understanding of Modernism as ethnically all-encompassing recalls Bunch’s own opinion of what the AAHC is supposed to accomplish as a museum. “In some ways, the African-American story is the quintessential American story: It is a story that tells us what liberty means in stark juxtaposition to slavery, it tells us about the role of public education,” he says. “It is another way into the American experience.”

The inextricable link between America and African-Americans is strongly analogous to Mitchell´s idea of Modernism as a crucible of cultural influences, and of Modernist architectural vocabulary as being as black as it is white. That may be why other impassioned observers of the museum competition have been less focused on the symbolic import of the finalist designs and more intent on the color of the winner’s skin. In early April, for example, National Organization of Minority Architects president Steven Lewis, AIA, submitted an op-ed piece to The Washington Post that admits, “I would be less than honest if I were to say that there is not a sense of nervousness over the prospect of someone other than a black architect landing this commission.” Lewis’s wish for black architects, so often unheralded even today, to grab a larger piece of the pie was granted. But the AAHC decision does not mean that Freelon Adjaye Bond will invent an all-new African-American architecture. Evidently, the Modernist approach is fundamental to it already.