When the $26 million Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture opens in downtown Baltimore in the next several years, people won't have any trouble finding it.
It will be the only predominantly black building near the Inner Harbor - a sharp contrast to others all around.
Actually, the museum's exterior will feature all four colors of the Maryland flag - red, yellow, black and white. But the largest and most prominent wall will be almost entirely clad in black granite, and so will most of two other walls.
Compared to all the peanut butter-colored buildings that now frame the Inner Harbor tourism and business district, it will be hard to miss. And so will the symbolism: If downtown's beige-toned office buildings are close to the color of caucasian flesh, this museum's colors will provide a vivid reminder that people of many other races live in multi-cultural Maryland - and they are making their mark as well.
"If someone described our museum as `the black museum on the corner,' it wouldn't be bad," said Gary Bowden, one of the project architects. "We wanted our building to be able to communicate what it's all about in terms that mean something."
Color is just one of the ways that the designers of the African-American museum are using architecture to express what's happening inside. Its forms, textures and materials are rich with symbolism. The result is a building with multiple meanings and multiple voices that help tell the story of African-Americans in Maryland.
Designed by a joint venture of RTKL Associates of Baltimore and the Freelon Group of Durham, N.C., it's also more compact and efficient than earlier plans, and that will make it less expensive to operate and maintain.
"The building can be as beautiful and spiritual as you want it to be, but if it's over budget, it's not going to be a success," said architect Philip Freelon.
Planned for the northeast corner of Pratt and President streets, Maryland's African-American museum will be the second largest in the United States, after one in Detroit. The nonprofit group that is building it, the Maryland African American Museum Corp., has already raised more than $25 million. Gallagher and Associates of Washington is the exhibit designer.
The latest building design was presented last month to a combined session of Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel and Maryland's Architectural Review Board. Members of both panels had high praise for the design and the architects, hired to replace an earlier group.
The positive reception of the latest design means the project is back on track after nearly a year of delay, while the designs were revised. Construction is now tentatively set to begin by the summer of 2002, with completion by late 2003 or early 2004.
Spaces in the 72,000-square-foot building will include galleries for permanent and temporary exhibits, an interactive learning center, 200-seat auditorium, oral history recording and listening studio, classrooms, gift shop, cafe, administrative offices and storage areas.
One issue that has come up during the design process is the extent to which there is such thing as African-American architecture, and if so, whether it would be an appropriate expression for the project.
Maryland has several examples of attempts by architects to give buildings an "Afro-centric" character - from the Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue, with its African flags and colors, to the African-American student union on the University of Maryland's College Park campus, a building whose brick patterns contain designs taken from African culture.
RTKL and Freelon proposed a boldly modern building that makes no overt references to Africa or Afro-centric themes. At the same time, the building's design has a strength and energy that could be seen as symbolizing the power and resilience of African-American leaders associated with Maryland, from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Benjamin Banneker and Thurgood Marshall.
Bowden, a senior vice president of RTKL, said the designers did not attempt to try to work in an African-American idiom because they're not convinced there is any such language. "There may be symbolism," he said. "But there is not an African-American architecture, and you shouldn't expect to see it in this building."
Bowden and Freelon, who are both African-American, said they were not trying to sidestep the issue. They said they were more concerned with expressing "the spirit of the African-American" in the museum's architecture.
As part of the planning process, the architects drafted a design philosophy statement that spells out the challenges they faced and the approach they took to create a building that represents the "character, pride, struggle and accomplishments" of Maryland's African-Americans.