Building resilience, optimism into a museum

architecture review

April 05, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

The history of the American Negro, the educator W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903, is the history of strife between opposing forces.

"One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body," DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk.

DuBois' thoughts are worth bearing in mind as one contemplates the designs proposed for Washington's next major museum, the Smithsonian's $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture. Six star-studded teams submitted the proposals as part of a competition to select the architect for the project, planned for a 5-acre parcel on Constitution Avenue next to the Washington Monument. The designs are on display through Monday in the Smithsonian's "Castle" building. A winner will be named April 14.

Museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III said he wants a building that will convey "the resiliency, the optimism, the spirituality and the joy that emanates from the black community" while enabling visitors to see into the "dark corners" of African-American history.

That's where DuBois' observations come in. The proposals all had to address requirements pertaining to structural stability, cost efficiency and sustainability. But which best captures the African-American spirit, the quality of "twoness"? How much should this museum "fit in" on the Mall, or stand out?

The designs run along a spectrum that ranges from restrained and boxy to highly sculptural, even bloblike.

A team led by Devrouax & Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed proposed a building with a rectilinear frame enveloping a curvaceous lower section containing exhibits. Though respectful of the urban context, this sort of eroded box has been done before - at the nearby Canadian Embassy for starters. Moshe Safdie and Associates, with Sultan Campbell Britt & Associates, proposed a compact building with much of the exhibit space underground.

On the other end of the spectrum, Albuquerque-based Antoine Predock, with Moody Nolan Inc., proposed a building that looks like a giant rock outcropping. Predock would use natural materials to create a powerful sense of place, but his building seems alien to the East Coast and the Mall, in the same way the National Museum of the American Indian does. Another sculptural form, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with KlingStubbins, looks like a cloud floating above the earth, or the front of a Studebaker Avanti. The interior would offer one of the most poignant, immersive experiences since the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993. But the futuristic shape might be better suited to a museum for autos than African-American history.

That leaves designs by two teams that took more of a middle-of-the-road approach.

The Foster + Partners/URS joint venture proposed an elliptical building that would lead visitors up a spiraling path, from underground exhibits about slavery toward the light and exhibits about life after slavery. Moving from darkness to light and from slavery to freedom are poetic, easy-to-grasp themes. But the curving form hardly seems original with the Hirshhorn Museum several blocks away. It also comes across as less assertive than some of the other designs.

A proposal from the team of Freelon Adjaye Bond with SmithGroup looks like a shimmering bronze lantern, rising above a stone-clad base. This is a rectilinear building that conforms to Washington's street grid, with terraces that celebrate city views and vistas. But it's also boldly sculptural, with the shape of the upper portion meant to suggest the corona of an African king's headdress. The form is less eccentric than the cloud or mountain shapes, but still recognizable from afar. It would give this museum the timeless, iconic, celebratory quality it should have, and its profile would be an effective foil to the Washington Monument. The bronze corona is a mesmerizing touch, offering a veil that people can see into and out of, plus a not-so-subtle reference to skin color.

Lifting the veil on the African-American experience is a chief goal of this museum, and this design competition. The Smithsonian's exhibit shows there are many ways to do so, from Pei Cobb's uber-rationality to Diller Scofidio's mysticism. Of the six, one could make a strong case that the Freelon Adjaye Bond solution comes closest to addressing the museum's own "strivings" to capture the project's spirit and fit onto its prime Washington site.

if you go

The six designs will be on view through Monday at the Smithsonian's "Castle," 1000 Jefferson Drive S.W. in Washington. Free.

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