Alex Fradkin

In his book The Seduction of Place (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000), Joseph Rykwert wrote that contemporary museums are “cult buildings of a global religion that offers the advantage and the disadvantage of imposing neither doctrine nor any rule of life.” The morally improving Beaux-Arts museum has gone the way of the horse and buggy. Instead, museums today serve up a buffet of culture, and people can gorge or graze on it as they wish. At the same time, the architecture of museums has become increasingly assertive, with the goal of becoming an instant icon. The Broad in Los Angeles and the Tate Modern in London, to take two high-profile examples, have been accused of letting their architecture overshadow their collections.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened in late September on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., breaks this mold. Its very existence reminds us of a stark fact many would sooner forget: that black Americans, who make up just over 13 percent of the country’s population, were enslaved and oppressed for hundreds of years, and that it was white Americans who did the enslaving and oppressing. This invests the museum with a collective weight unrivaled by any other national cultural institution. The origins of the NMAAHC go back a century, to black Civil War veterans who first proposed a national memorial to “Negro achievement.” The completed project inspires a sense of destiny fulfilled.

Alex Fradkin

Nor is the building, by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, a stylish but neutral container. There is rhetoric in its profile: dark, modernist, and African amid the stalwart Neoclassical temples of the Mall. The story told in the underground part of the museum, in claustrophobic galleries, is heavy on human suffering and state-sanctioned injustice, with items like a slave auction block and an early photograph of an escaped slave’s lacerated back. In the era of Black Lives Matter and near-daily reports of black men killed by police, the NMAAHC vibrates with uneasy relevance. The significance of the architecture only shrinks in proportion to the power of the exhibits inside and the currents of history and identity that pulse through it.

A preserved Reconstruction-era house from a freedman’s settlement
Alex Fradkin A preserved Reconstruction-era house from a freedman’s settlement

Political Posturing
The story the museum tells about its own making is more circumspect. After all, it had to get built—and that required political strategy in rule-bound Washington. In the years and months before the opening, Lonnie Bunch, the NMAAHC’s founding director, stressed inclusivity, describing the project in interviews not as a black museum but as a “lens” for all audiences to understand the American experience. David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, and Philip Freelon, FAIA, the architects, stressed its contextuality, calling it a “knuckle” or “joint” between Washington’s urban core and the pastoral landscape of the Mall. In truth, they designed an icon: a building that can be recognized from a few pen strokes. But downplaying its otherness was prudent, at least initially.

Early on, Adjaye dubbed the metal carapace of the building the “Corona” (crown), and this stuck, becoming official nomenclature. The metaphor is elegant, politically neutral, and aspirational, and possibly fended off negative characterizations that might have ensnared the design as it worked its way through a maze of approvals.

Writing about the museum was more of a tightrope than usual for architecture critics. How much should you separate the physical museum from the history that led up to it and the charged politics around it? How far can you step outside the official story, which has been shaped and honed since 2009? Can you criticize the architecture without impugning the museum’s larger mission?

Near Universal Acclaim
As it turns out, the reviews have been almost uniformly positive. Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian played up the building’s alienness, finding “joyous glee” in how it rejects the somber traditionalism of the Mall and catching in the pattern of the Corona “a slightly sci-fi air.” Other critics identified a push and pull between standing out and fitting in. Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times called the museum enigmatic, “aloof and standoffish in certain ways and carefully contextual in others.”

The Corona inspired praise for its darkness and mutability, and critics anointed it with no shortage of metaphors: a lampshade (The Wall Street Journal), a pagoda or spaceship (The Guardian), “a box pulled from the ground” (Los Angeles Times). There are a few quibbles: that the Corona was fabricated from coated aluminum rather than real bronze, which “feels assembled … more than crafted” (The Observer); and that the support structure of panels is “ponderous” (The Washington Post).

Alex Fradkin

Alexandra Lange of Curbed discerns political calculation behind the omission of Modernism from the official story of the design. “While the architects acknowledge a whole range of 20th century influences, starting with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum, one intuits that’s not how you get a museum built in the nation’s capital,” she writes. “Better to start by connecting the dots between contemporary architecture, 19th-century Washington, and older, vernacular traditions from the Southeast and from Africa.”

Lange starts with the architecture, then zooms in on the exhibits. But some critics felt the architecture was secondary, given the historic mission of the museum (“fraught” appears in at least two reviews). Rowan Moore of The Observer in London is explicit on this point: “It is indeed the content that should come before the architecture of the building that serves it.” Moore doesn’t directly discuss the building’s design until the 11th paragraph of his review, and you can sense his fatigue with the much-trotted-out official story. (“[It] is already much told and doubtless will be repeated to the museum’s visitors for as long as it stands.”)

The oculus-lit Contemplative Court
Erik Cox The oculus-lit Contemplative Court

What did the critics miss? The oculus-lit Contemplative Court, one of the museum’s most dramatic spaces, is skimmed over—probably because it wasn’t open on the press preview day. Only some stories note the missing set piece Adjaye originally planned for the atrium, a “shower of timber” suspended like stalactites from the ceiling, which got value-engineered away. Nor are there many mentions of the museum’s anticipated LEED Gold certification. One can imagine a different museum, one with a less compelling back story, making this its calling card (“the greenest museum on the Mall”).

A “shower of timber” that Adjaye designed for the atrium but that was value-engineered
A “shower of timber” that Adjaye designed for the atrium but that was value-engineered

I’m also not aware of any reviews that relate the museum to Adjaye’s two much-praised local libraries in D.C.—one of which has a similar jewel-box exterior—or the four prior museums that Freelon designed with African-American themes (the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, N.C., the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco). The elision of Freelon and Adjaye’s past work from the coverage has the effect of making the NMAAHC seem even more singular, sui generis.

Alex Fradkin

Perspectives Beyond Architecture
The vast majority of the writers who have covered the museum as a work of architecture are white (myself included), a sad echo of the homogenous nature of the architectural profession and its critics. Fortunately, because of its historic importance, the project was widely covered across the national media, including by black writers outside the niche of arts journalism. Greg Carr, a professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, reviewed the museum for Ebony. He notes that Jefferson Davis, later the president of the Confederacy, was a founder of the Smithsonian, and he conjectures that this museum opening, “complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by a U.S. president of African descent, would undoubtedly have stupefied the Confederacy.” Carr is one of only a few writers to observe a neat trick of Adjaye’s—by setting the sides of the Corona at the same 17-degree rake as the tapered Washington Monument, the architect underscores the African origins of both buildings (the obelisk is Egyptian after all), and subtly Africanizes this part of the National Mall.

Alex Fradkin

The gesture is even more powerful when we learn, from Ayana Byrd in Fast Company, that, “For its first 72 years as the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., was a slave territory, and the 5-acre tract on which the new National Museum of African American History and Culture sits once contained a slave market.” Byrd jolted me to attention with this lede to her story, the image of slave pens coexisting with the U.S. Capitol and the White House a reminder of how thoroughly parts of American history have been scrubbed not just from textbooks, but from the landscape.

Race, not as an abstract concept but a lived experience, is front and center in much of the writing on the museum by black writers, and often shapes their understanding of the architecture. In his review of the NMAAHC (“How a Museum Reckons With Black Pain”), Vann Newkirk II of The Atlantic takes issue with a complaint made by Philip Kennicott, of the The Washington Post, that the history exhibit has been “relegated” to cramped subterranean galleries. Newkirk counters: “The underground placement of the history exhibit is probably better described as a purposefully subversive use of space,” because “viewers are essentially deposited into the bowels of the slave ships that stole so many souls from the African coasts.”

A PT-13D Stearman Kaydet used at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to train African-American pilots for the Army Air Corps
Alex Fradkin A PT-13D Stearman Kaydet used at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to train African-American pilots for the Army Air Corps

Whereas Kennicott finds the density of information accompanying the exhibits a flaw, Newkirk says it’s necessary because black history is so woefully neglected. If visitors feel overwhelmed, well, good, Newkirk writes: “The mission of the exhibits seems not to always be to ‘clarify and teach,’ as Kennicott hopes, but to impress upon viewers just how much they don’t know, and how deeply the grand conspiracy of white supremacy runs.”

Sonya Ross, in an Associated Press story, offers a first-person account of a journey through the museum. She starts out numb, even when confronted by the most chilling artifacts of slavery: “The [police] killings have drained my emotions to the point where I hardly have any feelings left.” As she moves through the galleries, she has hushed conversations with other women of color, some of them friends, some strangers. Her experience is collective as well as personal, and the injustices of the past mingle with those of the present.

In National Geographic, Michele Norris, the former NPR host, describes the Corona as part of a particular, “flamboyant” African-American tradition: “Church hats. Zoot suits. Cornrows. Bling. Situated at the gateway to the rows of stately Smithsonian buildings on either side of the National Mall, it’s as if Beyoncé, in one of her bejeweled costumes, strutted into a Wall Street meeting filled with gray suits.”

Comparing the NMAAHC’s arrival to Beyoncé crashing a meeting of bankers is a vivid and unexpected analogy, with a political undercurrent when you think about it (in the film accompanying Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade, the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown appear holding pictures of their dead sons). This is not Lonnie Bunch practicing the art of diplomacy.

Respectability Politics
The only really negative assessment of the museum (at least that I’ve seen) comes from a black writer named Steven Thrasher. In The Guardian, Thrasher says blackness should not need validation with a pretty building on the National Mall. He regards the museum’s architecture as part of the problem: “I worry that the museum is playing into a central trap of respectability politics: that if we just present ourselves in right way—on the National Mall! with a modernist building!—black lives will be seen as worthy.” By this reading, the Corona is not a celebration of black culture but a cop-out.

I’m not persuaded by Thrasher’s argument. But I also wouldn’t have grappled with his stance and experience of the space if not for his review (as Adjaye told The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman, “The experience of being black is not a fiction”). This is why the lack of people of color who write regularly about architecture is a problem. The unusual breadth of takes on the NMAAHC—including an intimate use of the first-person voice not often found in architectural writing—reveals new possibilities for a field where the cool-eyed appraisal of a building as an aesthetic object remains an ideal.

Roma G via flickr
A statue of U.S. speedskater and Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis
Alex Fradkin A statue of U.S. speedskater and Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis

Across media outlets, most articles about the museum had one depressing thing in common, whatever their style or take. Their comments sections overflowed with ugly rhetoric about racial favoritism (“Where’s the WHITE museum?”), accusations that African-Americans are playing victim, and even defenses of the institution of slavery. As moving as it is, the museum is only the beginning of the work America has left to do to reckon with its original sin.