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The Unlikely Trick of the Smithsonian's New African American Museum

The Smithsonian's newest museum—and the last on the National Mall—is deceptively large.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors to visitors on Saturday, it will fulfill a promise made in December, 2003. That’s when Congress passed the act establishing the national museum.

The dream goes back much further. In 1915, black veterans from the Union Army assembled in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. They formed a committee to found a museum devoted to African-American history and culture, but those efforts never saw fruition.

Realizing their dream more than a century later represents a civic milestone. But building the museum involved deliberation, compromise, and other less-than-ideal forms of labor. Occupying a space so close to the Washington Monument, on the last available parcel of the National Mall, meant working with stakeholders at every turn. Building the dream was a labor of love—and also the work of email threads, calendar-sharing, and bureaucratic hearings.

Bjarke Ingels calls the National Mall the “most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth.” Ingels should know: His firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group, is planning a $2 billion campus overhaul for the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall. Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smithgroup, the consortium of architects and engineers that built the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, circumnavigated the most difficult potential debates with a single design strategy.

Most of the museum is underground.

“It’s not good practice to put museums underground,” says David Adjaye, the building’s design lead. But “when you have such a sensitive, charged site, there’s no choice.”From the outside, the African American Museum looks small for a national museum, scaled responsibly with regard to its neighbor, the Washington Monument. But its small stature is an illusion: If the designers had built the entire museum above ground, the building’s three-tiered crown would have stretched out to a jumbo eight-tiered mitre.

“The corona, how it sits on the Washington Monument grounds—it’s dainty in comparison to the [National Museum of American History],” says Robert Anderson, the director of Davis Brody Bond’s D.C. office. “But when people come downstairs and see how much is physically down here, it’s a real eye-opener.”

Davis Brody Bond, the same firm that designed the underground parts of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, designed the “bathtub” that contains more than 60 percent of the African American museum. As Anderson explained to CityLab, building so deep underground on the National Mall—the walls of the main history hall are 75 feet tall—meant designing a container for the building to keep the water table out. (The Mall is in-fill land that was built over a series of natural creeks.)

That sensitivity of the site cannot be understated. The final agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and all the various stakeholders on the National Mall establishing the design guidelines for the building runs almost 75 pages. Among its stipulations: The grounds must be in keeping with the “Olmstedian” character of the Washington Monument park. The building must not rise taller than the tallest building on the Mall (that’s the National Gallery of Art’s East Building) or the U.S. Department of Commerce building directly across the street from the new museum.

A slew of attachments to the document showcase views and sightlines to and from the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Capitol Building, and other sites—all of which the designers had to heed. One concern was the view of the museum from Arlington National Cemetery, sited across the Potomac River in Virginia. Another privileged view for the architects to consider was that from the Old Post Office Pavilion, which is now the new Trump International Hotel.   

For a strict comparison’s sake, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, whose donut-shaped building looks from afar to fall in the same weight class as the African American Museum, has a total building project area of 176,000 square feet (yielding 60,000 square feet of exhibition space). That total area is less than half the size of the African American Museum. If anything, though, Gordon Bunshaft’s Brutalist bunker looks far heavier than Adjaye’s cool corona.

The Smithsonian’s nearby Quadrangle Complex, which is located on the south side of the Mall and includes the Freer and Sackler Galleries as well as the National Museum of African Art, comprises 360,000 square feet—putting it on par with the African American Museum. The Quad is another illusion: Almost 96 percent of the entire complex is located below grade.

The African American Museum’s designers appear to have learned some lessons from the Quad, which was designed by Junzo Yoshimura, with building features by Jean Paul Carlhian of the firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbot. The complex is the original Mistake on the Mall—one that the Smithsonian is now working to correct. In addition to earthquake-proofing the Smithsonian Castle, Ingels’s design brief for the Smithsonian involves bringing some light into the subterranean Quad galleries.

Visitors to the African American Museum will start at the building’s lowest basement concourse, in history galleries devoted to America’s original sin. There is a narrative reason to ask viewers to begin in darkness and ascend to light. So the building is not a cheat, a museum hidden from sight. In order to make it work, Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup had to build a sophisticated, even unprecedented container for the building.

“We’ve built a super-basement,” Adjaye says. “It’s a double structure, a building within a building, underground as well as overground, and that allows us to control any water mitigation by being able to pump it away from the main enclosure.”

Meeting the needs of the many stakeholders on the National Mall, from the National Capital Planning Commission to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to the National Park Service, required Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smithgroup to assemble an enormous team. More than 30 consultants and firms worked with the group to build the building.

The result: an elegant new structure, a realization of a long-held dream, and a building that that visitors mostly cannot see.

“It took a small city to design, build, and engineer this thing,” Anderson says.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.