Cultural Crown: David Adjaye’s Smithsonian Museum Combines Iconic Details with Timeless Humility

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

“In many ways, there are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history. Often America is celebrated as a place that forgets. This museum seeks to help all Americans remember, and by remembering, this institution will stimulate a dialogue about race and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.”

These powerful, provocative words encapsulate the vision for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., which opens today. Arguably the United States’ most significant cultural project so far this century, the museum was conceived by an architect well-placed to take on such a challenging design brief.

British architect David Adjaye has a personal affinity with people of African descent living in Western countries, having been born in Tanzania and living in Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon before moving to the U.K. at the age of 9. Adjaye’s brand of context-sensitive contemporary design — displaying qualities that frequently evoke Kenneth Frampton’s ideas on critical regionalism — was deemed a perfect fit for a museum overflowing with cultural complexity.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.; photo by Alan Karchmer, via Newsdesk

Adjaye’s design draws on vernacular Yoruban art and architecture, taking the form of a bronze-clad crown or corona that appears to reach toward the sky to express “faith, hope and resiliency.” According to the institution, the museum will be “a centerpiece venue for ceremonies and performances, as well as a primary exhibition space for African American history and culture.”

Before the building’s grand opening, Architizer sat down with David Adjaye to discuss the challenges of museum design, the potential for cultural buildings to change cities and the future of this key architectural typology.

Paul Keskeys: A simple question to start: What is a museum to you?

David Adjaye: As a civic building, the role of the museum is increasingly not only to exhibit the collection, but to provide access to a collective consciousness while offering the chance for dialogue between different generations and social groupings. There is a sense that the museum of the past is full of conventions. But the museum of the future doesn’t have to be. There are of course finite parameters. You may need linear meters or kilometers of wall. There are certain climatic issues. These establish a clear mandate.

“The ‘archive’ or even simply the ‘temple to beauty’ are somewhat faded ideas.”

But that mandate is also an opportunity for invention. Thinking about what an institution should look like, and how a museum should work with its audience, is something that is still playing out and has never been absolutely resolved. It’s something that’s an ongoing experiment and, thankfully, will never be unravelled, because it keeps shifting. We live in a time where the “archive” or even simply the “temple to beauty” are somewhat faded ideas. What is needed instead are museums which are about an engagement with people, an engagement with a dialogue, with a discussion of art and an engagement with different ways of collecting and different ways of seeing the world.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver by Adjaye Associates

How are programmatic requirements of museums changing with the advent of new technologies and globalization?

Scale and light is ever more important. The diversity of media and variety of scale requires an enfilade of experiences, tailored to the work, rather than a standardized white cube. With the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, for example, the intention behind the design was for the architecture to ‘support rather than define the museum’s mission.’

“A museum’s presence is not confined to the physical building – there is a fourth dimension – a global dialogue.”

With no permanent collection, the MCA is host to a program of visiting exhibitions and for this reason the brief specified internal flexibility. Rather than a single, large, flexible space, the client was interested in developing an alternative museum typology, taking the dimensions of an artist’s studio as a starting point for the galleries. The idea was to reference brick factories, townhouses and the in‐between spaces as a guide to scale the volumes.

These three urban typologies come together to create the different scales of spaces in the museum. Also, like everything, a museum’s presence is not confined to the physical building — there is a fourth dimension — a global and an urban dialogue. In this sense, the architecture needs to distill this discourse — not contain it.

Detail of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.; photo by Alan Karchmer, via Newsdesk

How do you design a museum that contains the past but must also be ready to accommodate artifacts of an unknown future?

All of my work deals with this tension; it is not something specific to the museum typology. The interpretation of identity, history and memory is rooted in research. The starting point is always to gain an understanding of exactly these qualities and to use them as the essential drivers for the form and the materiality of the building.

We then work very closely with the curators to envision a means to provide the flexibility for an organization to contain its historic as well as future collection, which may grow in sometimes unexpected ways. A useful parallel is the work I have done on library buildings — which have become community hubs for learning, interaction and engagement, rather than repositories for books — and the architecture has facilitated and responded to this.

“I believe it is better to try to achieve change by getting involved rather than by standing on the sidelines.”

Is it possible for a museum to be harmful? For example, if it is created by a state and contains what some may perceive to be artifacts of propaganda, should architects take on such commissions?

I believe it is better to try to achieve momentum and change by getting involved rather than by standing on the sidelines. If the museum provides a space for civic exchange, then it can be worthwhile.

How can architecture lend itself to the promotion of true cultural identity and balanced education?

The simple act of building forces engagement. You can’t ignore it. Things always happen from that, and the question is how we celebrate it or deny it. It is important not to be hampered or intimidated by the idea of difference — but rather to seek to be open and even speculative about the possibilities it offers.

Façade detail of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.; photo by Alan Karchmer, via Newsdesk

What was the greatest challenge in bringing the National Museum of African American History and Culture to fruition in D.C.?

It is a building with many narratives — relating to the context, the history and the program. It is certainly a marriage of form with content. This narrative is articulated immediately by the silhouette — borrowing from the form of a Yoruba sculpture — while also resonating with the angle of the Washington Monument. Several other things absolutely came to mind in thinking through what this building should be and how it should work with the program that we were given.

“This [building] can be understood as a metaphor for the less tangible bridge between cultures … ”

How do you add to such a fantastic master plan, one of the most significant master plans in the world — this incredible monumental core to the capital city of the most powerful country in the world? How do you understand its intrinsic nature, which is the idea of the pastoral and the ordered landscape? How do you make an end to the ordered landscape and begin the pastoral, which is the National Mall proper, and then open onto the Washington Monument grounds?

In a way, I always conceived of this building as a kind of turning point, a knuckle, a joint, which articulates the two things, neither one nor the other, but bridging between the two things. This can be understood as a metaphor for the less-tangible bridge between cultures — ensuring that the African American story becomes a universal story. So, from the sensitivity of the master plan to the cultural discourse, I wanted to ensure that the building ends the mall properly and begins the monument.

Last year, an animated light show was displayed on the façade of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, entitled “Commemorate and Celebrate Freedom.”

Which other architects do you most admire when it comes to designing museums and why?

There are many, for example, Charles Correa, Mies Van der Rohe, Oscar Niemeyer … These are buildings which successfully conceptualize the relationship between inside and outside and offer highly symbolic spaces.

Which of your upcoming cultural projects are you most excited about and why?

“These projects offer new typologies and new urban models. This is what makes them exciting to me.”

I am excited about all of our cultural projects: the Studio Museum in Harlem, a Linda Pace Foundation building in Texas, an Arts Campus in Tel Aviv, a pavilion in Johannesburg, a new library in Orlando, the Aishti Foundation in Beirut … All of these projects offer new typologies and new urban models. This is what makes them exciting to me. For the Studio Museum in Harlem, for example, there is a strong urban dimension.

The museum’s design has been driven by the need to service the public art experience at various engagements: from the street, lobby, reverse stoop, vertical gallery, galleries and circulation corridors. The spaces are carefully crafted to respond to contemporary artists’ needs for exhibiting a mix of two- and three-dimensional pieces at sometimes vastly differing scales. The façade reveals the activity inside the building so that the relationship to the street and the community is celebrated. Equally, this visual relationship enables education groups to benefit from a strong connection between viewing art and creating art.

Top image: detail of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.; photo by Alan Karchmer, via Newsdesk

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