The first really fine major public building of the century to rise in the nation’s capital, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening on Saturday, fills the last prime plot of land along the National Mall in Washington and, with it, a gaping hole in the American story. Its three-tier bronzed aluminum skin, burnished and intricate, rising as if from out of the earth, contrasts with the white marble, concrete and glass palaces telling other chapters in that story.
The building was designed by the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, a consortium of firms, led by David Adjaye, the London-based, Ghanaian-British architect, working with Philip Freelon and the engineer Guy Nordenson. Mr. Adjaye, whose American commissions include an art museum in Denver and a subsidized housing project in Manhattan, sat down recently to talk about the project, its structure, setbacks and symbolism.
You’re talking about the three-tier facade of bronzed, canted panels, which become a sort of inverted triple pyramid. It draws on the shape of a Yoruban caryatid, a traditional West African column with a corona at the top.
I was completely moved by the corona motif. It seemed like a way to start to tell a story that moves from one continent, where people were taken, along with their cultures, and used as labor, then contributed towards making another country and new cultures. That history then continues in the decorative patterning of those panels.
The patterns riff on the ironwork of a former African-American slave from Charleston, South Carolina. Am I right?
People keep thinking that the slave trade was about cotton picking. It was also about bridge building, canals, house making. Labor in all its forms. So, I suddenly went, ‘Oh my God, well, let’s really talk about architecture and African-American history, let’s go back and look at Georgia and Charleston, you know, all these places, through a different lens. There, the history is right in front of you — this incredible tradition of metalsmithing by freed slaves. There were no molds. They learned all this by hand. It is part of the history of American architecture.
When you said “modernity” I thought you were talking about contemporary African-American culture.
Absolutely. That too. I think many people don’t realize how much the popularity of Obama is not just simply because he’s black, but also because he’s part of this modernity.
So how did this notion of modernity enter into the design of the building?
The building is classical in its inspiration, with a base and capital, but it’s also not a classical building. It’s a very modern building in how contemporary thinking has been applied to material science and circulation. We wanted a building that wasn’t just about itself, but about its context and about the experience of consuming information in the museum.
You’re talking about the layout of the building, the ways you move through it?
I think about the building in three parts. There are the historical galleries, which make a kind of crypt, in an underground space. Then a second part deals with migration from the South to urban centers and the beginning of the professional classes. I wanted the journey from that crypt up into the corona to be analogous to history, as a kind of migratory process, toward the light. Then you go up to the uppermost level; I call it “Now.” It’s about the arts. So this tripartite structure relates to the corona’s three tiers. It’s meant to suggest the link between symbolic form and the museum’s content.
You also orchestrate views, through the facade, with cutouts, and through windows in the galleries, onto the National Mall.
You’re looking at the Jefferson Memorial, you’re looking at the Washington Monument, you’re looking at the Lincoln Memorial. You’re looking at Congress. You’re looking at the National Archives and the White House. History is played out in front of your eyes.
And you wanted all this to be visible from within, as you move through the museum.
From within, yeah, through what can sometimes look like strange apertures on the outside. People say to me, “Is that your idea of stylish architecture?” This is not a project about intuitive whimsy. Everything here is driven by research, which creates its own kind of poetry, I hope. Most museums on the Mall are closed to the outside in the sense that they take you to another world. They function a bit like cinema: You go into a different world and then you come back out. I didn’t want that. The experience of being black is not a fiction. There’s something important about always coming back to the light of day.