A Fitting Symbol

Outside and in, the striking Lewis Museum captures the strength, resolve and soaring spirit of African-Americans in Maryland

Architecture Review

June 25, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

They said from the start that they didn't want a hand-me-down museum, another group's castoff.

Instead of constructing Maryland's African-American museum inside the vacant City Life exhibition center on Front Street - a suggestion of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke - museum leaders held out for land where they could build from scratch to reflect their own vision, not someone else's.

That refusal to make do, to settle for "leftover seconds," underscored the importance of a strong and meaningful design to the success of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, the $34 million attraction that opens today at Pratt and President streets. And it clearly resonated with the lead architects, African-Americans Gary Bowden of RTKL Associates in Baltimore and Philip Freelon of the Freelon Group in Durham, N.C.

As a race, "we've often had to settle for less than the best," said Bowden, now retired from RTKL. "People would say to us, `You don't need a new set of clothes. Here's something you can try on and see if it fits.'

"When you have new clothes ... it becomes a reflection of yourself," Bowden continued. "That's what they were asking for here - a new set of clothes for this museum."

Starting with today's grand opening, visitors will finally get to "try on" that new set of clothes, tailored for this museum. They'll find a building that's colorful, upbeat, playful, instantly identifiable. But more than anything else, it's a building that fits - both the institution and its mission.

With 82,000 square feet of space on five levels, the Lewis museum is the second-largest African-American heritage museum in the United States, after Detroit's. At its heart are permanent and temporary exhibits that tell stories about African-Americans in Maryland - the obstacles they've overcome and the contributions they've made. There are also gathering spaces for conferences and receptions, an auditorium, cafe, interactive learning center, oral history recording center, staff offices, classrooms and a store.

The land finally chosen for the museum is a corner parcel within easy walking distance of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the state's most-visited tourist district. The architects' challenge was to create a building that fits into the urban context but stands out enough to convey how unusual it is.

They responded with a boldly modern building that makes the most of its tight but prominent site. Then they imbued the building with layers of meaning that help tell what's inside. The design doesn't make literal references to African architecture. Its strength lies in the use of architectural symbolism - through colors, forms and materials - to create a building that avoids cliches but is undeniably African-American in spirit.

The building was designed as a 50-50 venture of RTKL and the Freelon Group. It's the first major building in downtown Baltimore whose lead designers are African-Americans. Gallagher and Associates of Washington was the exhibit designer.

As part of their planning, the architects drafted a design statement that spelled out the approach they took to create a museum that represents the "character, pride, struggle and accomplishments" of Maryland's African-Americans.

"How can the spirit of the African-American be expressed in the architecture?" they asked. "It must begin with a strong commitment to an emotional architectural response. ... The spirit of a people is complex and diverse - not singular, not simplistic. The spirit is contradictory - not resolved."

The African-American experience includes "both celebration and disappointment, flight and perseverance, joy and pain," the architects stated. "It's about overcoming odds, prevailing against hatred and bigotry, and about making something out of near nothing."

Color is one of the most powerful ways the designers used architectural symbolism to suggest what's inside.

The exterior features the four colors of the Maryland flag - red, yellow, black and white. And the prominent wall along President Street is clad almost entirely in black granite, as are much of the north and south sides.

"If someone described our museum as `the black museum on the corner,' it wouldn't be bad," Bowden said. "We wanted our building to be able to communicate what it's all about in terms that mean something."

Building forms and materials also help visitors relate to the museum. The architects suggest that the rectangular shell, for example, represents the status quo - stability, order, the starting point for the visitor's journey.

The entrance on Pratt Street is defined by a red wall that runs the height of the building and is set at an angle to draw visitors in. This "Red Wall of Freedom," slashing through space, represents a sudden intervention in the world order, an interruption of the status quo. It symbolizes the act of taking Africans from their homeland and bringing them to North America.

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