Native Spirit

The newest museum on the Mall creates a sense of place as it puts the culture of the American Indian into modern perspective.

September 21, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

WASHINGTON - They weren't supposed to last this long.

American Indians were expected by many to fade from the landscape long before the 21st century arrived, victims of prejudice and changing times.

But it didn't turn out that way. Millions live and thrive throughout North, Central and South America. And the biggest symbol of their survival is the $199 million National Museum of the American Indian that opens today on the National Mall.

The five-story building is bold, brash, contemporary. There's an inherent tension between its curving, rough-hewn forms and the right-angled, finely honed landmarks nearby. But the way this newcomer asserts itself on the Mall also makes it intriguingly representative of the American Indian's complicated relationship with mainstream America.

As the 18th museum of the Smithsonian Institution and last major museum on the Mall, the building stands out largely because of the principles that shaped it. One of the chief ironies of the design is that the museum was intended to be a place largely about nature and people who live off the land, and yet it rises from one of the country's most tightly controlled manmade environments.

"Initially, the site of the museum seemed to have few qualities that we could relate to, or that other Indian people could relate to," one of the architects, Johnpaul Jones, writes in a new book entitled Spirit of a Native Place, Building the National Museum of the American Indian. "Washington is not a very Native place. It's full of Greeks and Romans; even the trees along the Mall are planted in straight lines."

To tell the American Indians' story, museum designers had to work within federal strictures and create a building that complied with the rules that govern every structure on the Mall. At the same time, they wanted their building to have its own strong sense of identity.

Their solution was to create a building that evokes natural forms, even as it emerges from an artificial setting. The exterior alludes to a mountain or mesa that has been shaped by wind and rain. Its curving walls are clad in Kasota stone, with a rough finish suggesting cliffs or rock formations. On one side, upper levels are cantilevered dramatically above the levels below, as if they had eroded over time.

Given strict height and setback limitations, the design team calculated what space was available for construction and started from there, Jones explains in the book. "If we took that three-dimensional space, imagined it as a chunk of rock, and carved into it, as wind and water would do, we could create a design that had a very natural quality to it."

Sculpting the building's form is just one way the designers drew on nature and Native customs to create a memorable setting for exhibits and activities. They positioned the entrance to face east toward the rising sun, as doorways do in many Native structures. They filled the grounds with plants and artifacts related to Native cultures, from traditional crops such as corn and beans to large "grandfather rocks" and boulders quarried in Quebec. They based interior spaces on circles - forms that come up frequently in American Indian thought and lore.

References to Native customs and traditions abound in the architectural details as well. The first-level auditorium evokes a clearing in the woods at night, with vertical wood panels suggesting a dense forest, fiber-optic ceiling lights representing stars in the sky, and wall sconces bearing faces of the moon. Gift shops contain cabinets inlaid with bands of wampum shell. Door handles are shaped like ram's horns. Elevators feature bird motifs.

These and many other touches remind visitors that they are in a place apart, a building imbued with its own spirit and sensibility, even though it was forced to conform to Washington regulations. One can't help but make the connection between the designers' efforts and the American Indians' own struggle to maintain their identity in a culture set on wiping it out.

Besides Jones, who is Cherokee and Choctaw, the conceptual designers included Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot), GBQC Architects of Philadelphia; Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) and Donna House (Navajo and Oneida). A second team included SmithGroup of Washington, Polshek Partnership of New York and EDAW of Virginia.

The interior contains permanent and temporary exhibit spaces on levels three and four. Lower levels are devoted primarily to the entrance and visitor services, including a cafeteria and museum shops. If they choose, visitors can start their tours by watching a 13-minute orientation film.

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