Los Angeles Times: The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will open on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24. (Alan Karchmer / National Museum of African American History and Culture)
The panels wrapping the exterior of the museum are inspired by ironwork created by American slaves. (Alan Karchmer / NMAAHC)
By Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic
September 13, 2016 Reporting from Washington, D. C.
In full shadow it's a workmanlike brown, the color of shoe leather. In direct sunlight the shade is closer to bronze. Late in the day its western edge, turned toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, begins to reflect the setting sun and turns a surprisingly bright gold.
The shifting personality of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by a consortium of architecture firms calling itself Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup and set to open Sept. 24 near the center of the Mall, is no fluke or simple trick of light.
The most impressive and ambitious public building to go up in Washington in a generation — if also the owner of a truly awkward acronym — the NMAAHC draws its considerable power from a willingness to embrace the nearly bottomless complexity of both its mission and its site.
As a new branch of the Smithsonian located three blocks south of the White House, charged with marking the origins and history of the slave trade and giving some measure of the modern African American experience, the museum could hardly be more fraught as a cultural institution or work of architecture.
Despite some flaws and unfortunate signs of cost-cutting, the design succeeds almost precisely to the degree that it is enigmatic and even fickle, spanning huge gulfs in the national character without being naive enough to try to close them. The building embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.
Its attitude toward architectural battle lines is similarly catholic. It is an essentially modern building cloaked in a decorative pattern, aloof and standoffish in certain ways and carefully contextual in others.
As it rises from the northern edge of the Mall along Constitution Avenue — with the Washington Monument directly to the west, the Smithsonian’s 1964 National Museum of American History to the east, the massive 1932 Commerce Department to the north and open grass to the south — the NMAAHC is undeniably an imposing architectural object, monumental and temple-like.
Yet it also suggests something that has been unearthed, a box pulled from the ground and dusted off; much of its 420,000 square feet of interior space is buried below street level.
The $540-million museum is wrapped in three levels of bronze-coated aluminum panels atop an all-glass ground floor. The panels (which the architects originally hoped would be entirely bronze) are decorated with a lattice pattern inspired by ironwork made by slaves. They tilt outward at an angle designed to match the capstone on the Washington Monument.
According to architect David Adjaye, the museum’s Ghana-born, London-based lead designer, the inspiration for the building’s unusual silhouette is in part a carved wooden sculpture by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. On display inside the museum, it shows a figure of a king wearing a headdress with the same three-level, inverted-pyramid silhouette.
The building has two entrances. An expected 70% of visitors will come in from the Mall side, where they’ll walk under a giant long-span shade structure, inspired by the front porches of Southern houses, that is almost entirely detached from the rest of the building. The rest will come in from Constitution Avenue.
This double-sidedness is fundamental to the museum’s civic role and architectural personality. The NMAAHC occupies what Adjaye (whose best-known work until now has been Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art) calls a “knuckle” or “joint,” with a dense collection of neo-classical federal office buildings on one side and the open space of the Mall on the other.