National Museum of African American History & Culture
Photography: Alan Karchmer The museum’s parti describes a “corona” and a “porch”—gestures that are both monumental and inclusive.

On a prominent corner in downtown Washington, D.C., workers are putting the finishing touches on the Smithsonian’s highly anticipated National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), opening this month. The museum, notable for its three-tiered inverted ziggurat design, sits in a conspicuous spot on the National Mall, with the Washington Monument and the White House just beyond and the National Museum of American History directly adjacent. The placement is indicative of the story the museum is telling, through its design and its collections: The African American experience of the past 200-plus years is something all Americans should know about and worthy of a place beside monuments to the Founding Fathers.

As the placement is significant, so is the timing. The year 2016 is likely to be remembered as one of extreme conflict, in which Americans were buffeted by a contentious presidential election, brutal episodes of violence, and ongoing clashes between Black Lives Matter activists and others who don’t acknowledge or agree with that message. Opening this particular museum in this particular context underscores what its designers and curators understood from the beginning: This museum is not just about the past or progress but the ongoing struggles facing African Americans every day. And, furthermore, that acknowledging the struggles of the past, present, and future could be a means of uniting the nation rather than dividing it.

“It’s a signal that our nation’s capital is really paying attention,” said one of the design principals, Philip Freelon, FAIA, during a recent construction tour. “It’s an incredible honor to be associated with this project.”

A Historic Collaboration for a Historic Project

An honor, certainly, and a major responsibility: A project with this level of political and historical complexity engendered a partnership that was equally complex. In 2009, after an international competition, the Smithsonian Institution chose a conceptual design submitted by four collaborating architecture firms: the Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond, and SmithGroupJJR. Their proposal beat out entries from such internationally known architects as Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, Antoine Predock, FAIA, and Moshe Safdie, FAIA. Three of the winning group’s notable architects stood out: Freelon; J. Max Bond Jr. (who died in 2009, just as the project was being awarded); and David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA. Prior to the design competition, Bond and Freelon had partnered as Freelon/Bond on a two-year planning and programming phase, and together produced the design framework in the form of a six-volume, 1,200-page report for the Smithsonian.

Roles and responsibilities were discussed and agreed upon early [in the process], says Zena Howard, AIA, a principal with Perkins+Will (which acquired the Freelon Group in 2014) who has worked with Freelon on the museum since the initial programming and planning.

“We recognized from the beginning that the team included people who could rightfully say, ‘I can do what that person can do,’ ” Howard says. “So we talked at length about people’s roles. Everyone brought their unique perspective. You had Max, who was this visionary, able to distill complex ideas and notions and get things done. You had Phil, accomplished renowned architect who knew the design program and our client’s aspirations. And you had David Adjaye, who provided an international design perspective. What we were missing was a local firm, which we knew we would need, so we brought in SmithGroup. They had done work with the Smithsonian and brought in that beneficial history with the client.”

In addition to written documents, such as a memorandum of understanding, the firms created graphic materials to communicate visually the project’s major elements. These helped define which team members would take the lead in which areas, consistent with individual strengths, Howard says. Throughout the project, from design to development to construction, the team held weekly meetings in person, on-site, or virtually. “Every single Monday at noon, except for holidays,” says Howard. “That was critical. If you let too much time go by with such a complex team, that whittles away at the team synergy. You can imagine the flow of information. … We had a compatible design vision, and that was key.”

Translating an Idea

In terms of the exterior, the vision consisted of two major features: the “corona,” the three-tiered crown shape; and the “porch,” an outdoor welcome area that serves as the main museum entrance. As lead designer, Adjaye (a British national who was born in Tanzania) was the driving force behind the corona design, which was inspired by the Yoruban Caryatid, a totemic African column with a crown or corona at its top. Some 3,600 bronze cast-aluminum panels create the corona. Additionally, the porch, or stoop, is an essential aspect of the African American community experience (and life in the South in general). Metal latticework on the exterior recalls the intricate ironwork created by slaves in the South, according to the architects.

“As a relative outsider, I was not emotionally invested, so I was able to bring a spectral understanding of the whole project,” Adjaye says. “I understood that it was not about a singular moment, but rather an exploration and an overview. … So it takes its cues from that incredible history, but it is also a space for discovery. I can only hope that it has the broadest relevance, and it becomes something that contributes to the discourse of American architecture, museum design, and the cultural exchange between human beings.”

As lead architect, Freelon led the coordination among various consultants and brought his extensive experience designing institutions related to African American experience, including the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Davis Brody Bond also contributed its museum design experience and focused on designing the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theater and its history galleries, which are all below grade. SmithGroupJJR coordinated the design and construction of the exterior envelope and helped facilitate contributions from the many consulting parties, including Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the landscape architect, and Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the exhibit designer. The NMAAHC is expected to be the most sustainable national museum ever constructed, drawing on geothermal heat pumps, rainwater harvesting, daylighting, and more to achieve LEED Gold.

Like the National Museum of the American Indian before it, the museum is a significant departure from the Neoclassical design of most Smithsonian museums and many other buildings in the city’s federal core. In addition to signaling the building’s intent to create a distinct experience for visitors, the striking design emphasizes the expressiveness of its architects, each with an eclectic portfolio.

“I’ve enjoyed watching the museum take shape on the Mall, not just for what its collection represents, but because it looks very different from the typical Neoclassical building,” says Mary Fitch, Hon. AIA, executive director of AIA|DC and the District Architecture Center. “The view of the NMAAHC with the Washington Monument in the background makes such a powerful statement about the architecture of modern Washington and the kind of world capital we are becoming.”

An Important View of America

At the same time, the museum nods to its surroundings in both obvious and subtle ways. Along with its African influences, the building follows a classical Greco-Roman form in that it has a base and a shaft topped by a capital (or in this case, a corona). In addition, Howard points out, the angle of the corona tiers is exactly the same as that of the capstone of the Washington Monument. That level of architectural detail may fly over the heads of most visitors, but it’s the kind of thing that creates a subconscious sense of connection.

Inside the museum are galleries on several levels that will hold some 33,000 artifacts related to African American history, community, and culture, covering slavery, civil rights, sports, historic black communities, music, visual arts, and more. Cut into these spaces are several windows—or “lenses,” as the team calls them—that frame iconic views of the surrounding city, including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, the Capitol, the White House, and so on. “Museums can be immersive experiences, but we took a different design approach,” Howard says. “We thought it was important to provide moments throughout the experience that remind visitors of their location on the National Mall.” The idea is to offer a view of America beyond the Mall through the African American lens.

As an African American and a woman, Howard feels a deep and highly personal connection to the narratives that the museum represents. “I feel great about this project, but I know I will feel best when I see the people inside the building, people who never thought the story would be told in a true, honorable, and highly public manner,” she says. “My parents are from the Deep South and worked in civil rights. I think that now, as a country, we’ve made a statement that there’s a national museum recognizing the importance of this history, it’s going to help settle their spirit and that of many others in our country.”