Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition, Lange visits the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to examine its place on the National Mall and the ways the institution's architecture helps tell a complex, still-unfolding story.
You don’t even need to go inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture to get the point. Imagine the alphabet soup of agencies that govern the National Mall gave you a site, just to the right of the Washington Monument. When you came to them with your first idea, they cut it down. Too tall. So you draw a box next to the monument, a dotted square against the green lawn and the blue sky. Into that square you could fit a concrete donut like SOM’s Hirshhorn Museum, or a stone prism like I.M. Pei’s East Wing, or another box with columns like most of the other museums.
But you decide you didn’t have to fill that square or make a solid. Instead, you’ll make a gem. Your museum will be smaller, lacier, more mutable. Gold in the morning and glowing at night. The NMAAHC works like a power player who only speaks in a whisper. You have to lean in.
The $540 million museum, which officially opens on Saturday, September 24, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. The twin missions embodied in its clunky name seem to speak directly to the events of this year. #Blacklivesmatter has foregrounded African-Americans’ continuous struggle for equality, making the museum’s history section painfully current, while African-American excellence in popular culture has never been more obvious—even as the push for representation on screen continues.
"We were all cursing when it didn’t open last year, but I think it has special power now," says architect David Adjaye, the project’s lead designer. "Every generation thinks we know the story, we’ve grown past it, we’re integrated, we’re done, and then a decade later there is memory loss. We go back to stigmatizing and dividing. In the 18th and 19th century, museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other."
The museum, designed by a team of firms under the collaborative name Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, bifurcates the history (downstairs) and the culture (upstairs). As all of the exhibits approach the mid-20th century, the difference between the two becomes muddled, symbolic of unfinished business. The placement of the NMAAHC, whose exhibits describe pain as well as uplift, puts struggle at the center of American identity. It made me think of that party invitation phrase, Your presence is our present. This museum, on that spot, would be important even if it were an empty shell. Luckily, it is far more than that.
The most striking element of the NMAAHC is the "Corona," three stepped levels, and 3,600 bronze-colored cast aluminum panels, cast in a spiky filigree. These wrap the aboveground portion of the five-story building on all sides, interrupted periodically by angled cuts that allow select views of the monuments and the Mall from inside the galleries. The panels are suspended from a steel framework, allowing the museum’s column-free first floor to be sheathed in transparent glass with minimal mullions. A glass curtain wall set behind the panels seals out the weather.
Seventy percent of visitors are likely to approach from the south side of the building, crossing 14th Street from the National Museum of American History. On that side, a 175-foot "porch" made of angled steel and concrete (and indebted to Saarinen and Breuer) provides the necessary indication of how to get into a geometric solid. Sixty percent of the museum’s 400,000 square feet are underground, beneath the Corona and stretching under the lawn to the north and south. The galleries above can be reached by escalators snaking along the museum’s north and west sides.
"It is distinctive, and rightfully so," says Phil Freelon, the project’s lead architect, who started as an unofficial consultant to the museum in the early 2000s, before it even had a collection. "I don’t think it is disrespectful or overly aggressive in how it diverges from the norm. Because the materiality and color are so dynamic, it could be almost ablaze at times, and at other times it is brownish and quiet. I love that about the facade. White marble is going to look pretty much the same every day."
The design team worked hard to convince Congress that their choices were the right ones. While the architects acknowledge a whole range of 20th century influences, starting with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum, one intuits that’s not how you get a museum built in the nation’s capital. Better to start by connecting the dots between contemporary architecture, 19th-century Washington, and older, vernacular traditions from the Southeast and from Africa.
"This building was a building where everything would mean something. Without the symbolism, it would leave a vacuum," says Adjaye. "If congressmen are asking you questions, you can’t just say, It’s a building and it technically works. The arguments created resistance to tampering."
The NMAAHC works like a power player who only speaks in a whisper. You have to lean in.
I can’t look at the stepped corona without a ghostly overlay of the former Whitney. Others have seen Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column. But that vision does not negate the influence of the Yoruban carved wood caryatids Adjaye encountered in photographs during his research on African architecture. They bear crowns in the same distinctive shape.
One of these, by Nigerian sculptor Olowe of Ise, is displayed on the museum’s fourth floor. She too has made the journey from Africa to America. Literal references play for better politics: the crown’s shape comes from Nigeria, the screen pattern refers to New Orleans ironwork made by African-American craftsmen, the broad porch embodies the hospitality offered at even the humblest Southern residence. And, in the subtlest gesture of all, the angled sides of the Corona are at the same 17.5 degrees as the top of the Washington Monument. I’ve struggled with the one-to-one nature of this kind of symbolism, which pushes discussions of architectural history, not to mention that of the other museums on the mall, to the side.
The museum’s story is enriched, not enervated or made academic, by including the detour through another aspect of American culture, modernism, and the search for the not-neoclassical monument. Monumental Washington has fought off the twentieth century so many times that the architecture of the NMAAHC—No columns! No stone! Color!—is a breakthrough on multiple fronts. Looking back at the entries in the 2009 museum competition, the winning scheme is the only one darker than beige, with a silhouette made for trademarking.
The new museum is also not shy of improving on those references. The heroic span of the 175-foot-long Porch (Guy Nordenson and Associates were the engineers for the superstructure) transforms Breuer’s rather foreboding bridge at the Whitney into a covered town square, one that will be up to eight degrees cooler than the Mall, thanks to breezes from a long, shallow fountain designed with landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.
It is the combination of apposite historical reference, an understanding of modernism, and judicious structural derring-do that place the building firmly in the 21st century. "The Mall is a relentless space, with southern exposure, you just see people sweating as they go up and down. It’s almost comic," Adjaye says. "The porch is a welcome gesture, even if you don’t go into the museum."
Rising up via escalator past the filigree screen, watching the light flicker and the views fragment, is the prime interior architectural experience. It’s too bad there isn’t something else to do in those dizzying gaps after you gaze. Once you enter the exhibits, you are cut off from the exterior except at specific moments where the architects, acting as puppet-masters, let you look out. Adjaye says he was trying to avoid the trap where narrative museums become closed boxes on fantastic sites. He wanted museum and content to become one, but even he wasn’t able to achieve that elusive convergence.
My major criticism of NMAAHC lies in the gap between the beauty of the screen, and the blandness of the interior. There’s nothing interesting about large expanses of gray wall, found on the faces of the interior box housing the above-ground exhibits. Even if something simple was required, in order not to compete with the dappling sunlight, it could have had pattern, texture, and a feeling of quality.
Adjaye says he still regrets the loss of his wood ceiling, a hanging forest of logs, that would have made the large flat lobby feel like the underside of a landscape. He’s right: More wood would go a long way toward relieving the disconnect. I dream of a large patterned carpet-slash-installation that might activate the floor as an extension of the lush lawn outside. The contemporary art installed for the opening is swallowed up by the beige.
The atrium downstairs leading to the auditorium has a similar overscaled banality, unmitigated by a vertiginous, curving steel staircase. The steel is handsome, but the curve doesn’t go with anything else since the museum is essentially a gallery box, inside a glass box, within the corona’s sharp-cornered box. Size constraints forced the architects to bury half the museum underground, and it feels like they let themselves get a little sloppy with the square footage.
I also felt, in the History Gallery, that the architects leaned too heavily on a sepulchral gray, and quotations set in giant gold serif letters, to make sure we bowed our heads. Davis Brody Bond, responsible for the theater and History Gallery, also did the National September 11 Museum, and the resemblance to a film-set crypt is uncanny.
By coincidence, the night before the NMAAHC preview, I had the opportunity to tour Marcel Breuer’s 1977 Hubert H. Humphrey Building, headquarters of the Health and Human Services Department, with a few of Washington’s dedicated Brutalists. It is far from Breuer’s best building, but you can still catch glimpses of the way Breuer balanced the architectural budget without sacrificing texture and care. The stairwells at each corner have walls made of board-formed concrete, square-section aluminum handrails, and treads and landings made of dark gray terrazzo. The palette is institutional, but it is all handled with care and, as a result, they continue to connect floors in an unfussy, distinctly architect-driven style.
Watching the ecstatic, sorrowful, emotional reactions of the heavily African-American crowd inside the NMAAHC for the preview, it was clear that, indeed, this museum is not simply history. I saw visitors tweeting strings of photographs, in minute-by-minute excitement, of all kinds of objects that provoked an immediate, personal response: identification, laughter, prayer hands. I love the idea that so many Americans gave gifts of their own history to this place, so that others could share.
After I had the architecture sorted, other elements began to stand out from the storehouse-like galleries. I thought about what it would be like to bring my children there. I thought about what the narrative had to say about women. I thought about the clothes. As Freelon says, "It is a museum for all of us, not just African-Americans. There is a lot to be learned about ourselves as Americans."
"In the 18th and 19th century, museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other." – David Adjaye
Why do people bring their families to Washington? To feel a part of a larger whole, and to learn about the history of the nation through monuments and collections. At the NMAAHC you are supposed to start at the bottom, with history, and rise toward the light, music, and George Clinton’s Mothership. The history lesson downstairs starts with a dark, detailed look at the conditions under which Africans came to America—slavery—one that every parent needs to discuss with their children. Children aren’t going to read everything, and most adults won’t either, but they will find a way from object to object and, one hopes, ask for them to be explained.
Large, charismatic objects punctuate the journey. I felt a visceral chill from a triangular glass case filled with a mountain of sparkly sugar. Piling it up like pirate treasure was a very effective way to underline the economic rationale behind the slave trade. Much has already been written about the Pullman Palace car, showing just one space of segregation, which had to be craned into the museum midway through construction. But in the layered context of the curators’ underground installation (with exhibit design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates), you could see the car as part of a chain of punitive spaces, starting with plans and sections of slave ships demonstrating the best way to pack human cargo and continuing through the Angola watchtower.
In the context of this latent spatial narrative, cities were given short shrift: one dead-end room on the topic of "Shifting Landscapes: Cities & Suburbs," not that much larger than the display of donor Oprah Winfrey’s studio couch. Elsewhere, there were snapshots that mentioned the Rosenwald schools, the middle-class black community of Greenville, Mississippi, and a drawer labeled "redlining," but these weren't stitched together curatorially, or even placed on the same map.
The exhibits in the upstairs Culture and Community galleries layer quotes, objects, artifacts, photography, and video in displays that are simultaneously generous and at times cacophonous. (The only one that doesn’t, the galleries devoted to art, may require too great a mental shift for many to enjoy, unless the bright modern canvases become a retreat from all that media.) Many of those objects are clothes, including gymnast Gabby Douglas’s tiny turquoise leotard from the 2012 London Olympic games, and Whitney Houston’s red fringed Diane von Furstenberg dress. A video of Philadelphia milliner Mae Reeves played next to a case filled with her fabulous hats. From displays on music to displays on sport, on the military, on African-Americans in professional life, clothes mattered, and the story of culture was being told through personal style without segregating fashion as a merely decorative art.
The clothes personalized the exhibitions far more successfully than the uncanny, glutinous figurative sculpture which appeared in several different areas. A colleague suggested they were selfie-bait, but this explanation only works upstairs, for the Williams sisters or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, shown raising their fists on the 1968 Olympic medal podium. For a selfie to work, don’t you need there to be a good likeness? I don’t think anyone would want to pose with this museum’s Thomas Jefferson, raised up next to a stack of bricks bearing the names of his slaves.
Even in exhibits on sports and politics, where historically men have taken up most of the oxygen, women were present. It is Florence Griffith-Joyner behind the speedy wall graphic for the Sports section, not Carl Lewis, even though he generously donated his nine Olympic medals to the museum. The medals are around the corner, in a case by themselves. If this museum had been built even ten years ago, I doubt women would have had as strong a presence across the exhibitions.
The use of clothing also seemed like a subtle callback to the themes of the history exhibition downstairs: Here, black bodies are at long last in the foreground, recognized for achievements across the spectrum of American life. Both Adjaye and Freelon underlined the importance of the professionals represented in the Community galleries.
"There are also the unsung heroes," Freelon says. "Everybody knows ... Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but there are lots of other people who contributed who are not known. Contributors to science, to literature, to many other fields people wouldn’t ordinarily think about. Architecture. I hope this museum would enlighten folks about the broader contribution beyond entertainers and athletes."
One of the most powerful moments came as I rounded the corner into the cafeteria. The menu is smartly curated (use of that term is, for once, correct) by Carla Hall, with stations specific to the different foodways of the African-American diaspora, from gumbo on the "Creole Coast" to pepper pot in the "North States." The curators could have foregrounded the small fourth-floor display of greens pots, cookbooks, and other selections from culinary history down here, where you can also smell and taste the results. I ate the biscuits and buttermilk-fried chicken of my own "Agricultural South." D.C. friends say this café immediately leaps to the top of the Mall’s culinary offerings, narrowly beating the popular Mitsitam Native Foods Café at National Museum of the American Indian (from which NHAAMC poached its executive chef).
The eye is drawn across the low underground space by a series of harvest-toned sound baffles, angled like the frames of a Breuer window, and a welcome infusion of interior color and pattern. The back wall is covered by a mural-size reproduction of the famous photograph of the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-in. For people of all races to be able to break biscuits made by an African-American chef, in a museum designed by African-British and African-American architects, on the National Mall, under the wary eyes of those four heroic teenagers—it’s a sign of how far America has come, even as the need for wariness is ongoing.