Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Architect: The Freelon Group (part of Perkins+Will), Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond, and SmithGroup
Owner: Smithsonian Institution
Location: Washington, D.C.
The culmination of a decades-long journey toward commemorating black history and culture, the new museum establishes strong connections to its site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the nation’s long-overlooked African American heritage. Occupying the Mall’s last buildable parcel, the museum is a compelling home for the important and emotional journey that awaits visitors.
The team sought inspiration from the Yoruban Caryatid, a traditional post or column topped with a corona, for the museum’s three-tiered exterior form. With angled walls that reach upward and match the angle of the Washington Monument’s capstone, the museum cuts an iconic profile that both complements the surrounding structures and sets it apart from them. The patterns cast by the 3,600 bronze-colored panels wrapping the museum allude to the ornate ironwork found in cities such as New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., where such work is typically designed and fabricated by Americans of African descent.
A sweeping porch with a reflecting pool welcomes all visitors approaching the main entrance from the National Mall. Engaging the idea of a front porch as a meeting and gathering space, the entry is an outdoor room that eases the transition between building and landscape.
Inside, an open and unrestricted central hall reveals the 400,000-square-foot museum’s internal arrangement with 130-foot views to the upper levels and down to the underground concourse. Escalators aid in circulation and provide a visual expression of vertical movement throughout the museum. Below ground, the location of 60 percent of the museum, the ambiance is both monumental and meditative in a triple-height gallery and the museum’s Contemplative Court. An oculus above the court draws natural light into the space, where it is filtered through a cascade of water.
Realization of the project involved engaging a number of critical stakeholders, including the Smithsonian and interested parties in the community and at the state level. In response to the criteria established by the Smithsonian, the design was driven by themes of resilience, memory, and movement. Careful consideration resulted in a building that speaks about the identity of a marginalized group of people who have played—and will continue to play—an important role in the United States.