A Bloodied Crown: David Adjaye

The RIBA Journal

Aerial view of the new NMAAHC looking east past the other Smithsonian museums. Credit: Alan Karchmer

There are ticket touts lingering outside the museum, calling optimistically at the early morning queue for spares. The line of patient ticket holders bends around and down the Washington Mall as hundreds line up past a seemingly endless procession of pale, statuesque beaux art museum facades to the grand and vast new David Adjaye-designed National Museum of African American Culture in the near distance, its serrated ziggurat facade in the clearest contrast to all that surrounds it. There are whispers that there are no more tickets available until spring. These jostling queues are as much of a statement in this sedate and stoic scene as the building they are lining up to visit.

In the shadow of The Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol building and Maya Lin’s extraordinary Vietnam Veteran’s memorial, not to mention the White House where the country’s first African American president is completing his second term, it is hard to overstate how much this museum is asked to do both spatially and historically in this loaded city.

The inverted ziggurat of the NMAAHC from the National Mall Memorial Park, looking east. Credit: Alan Karchmer

Among the most famous monuments of this country, this new building must try and tell a history of a people that is often so devastating that the architecture’s efforts to hold one’s gaze is fundamentally tested by the shame and sorrow that this story must be told. In that context, and despite some frustrating moments, there is no doubt that this is a monument that, like those others, should be visited by every American citizen. Indeed, as time passes, it will.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the last building that will be built on The Mall. It contains 36,000 items that trace the journey of African Americans from slavery in the 1800s to the civil rights movement in the 20th century, and is the first significant building of the 21st century in this city. It is the last to complete the Mall’s 200-year-old masterplan and after a sequence of prim and tidy monuments, it is an extraordinarily vivid and powerful sight.

Spatially, one must first address the impact of the volume, colour and form of the building. It was designed by a consortium of firms led by David Adjaye, working with Philip Freelon and the engineer Guy Nordenson. Adjaye has made much of the fact that the final finish is not his first choice of material, that he would have preferred true bronze to this more muted umber – aluminium coated with a bronze alloy finish – which is in some lights redolent of Herzog and de Meuron’s Basel signal box; in other, late afternoon light, an illuminated orange-gold. From a distance the burnished metallic wrap around the building seems to appear to form the structure, but it is a screen whose repeating metal patterns pay homage to a strong tradition in metalsmithing among African American freed slaves and their impact on the architecture of their time.

The building’s three-tiered silhouette is a direct reference to a sculptural west African crown that is part of the museum’s collection, made by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. It’s an interesting conceit that the museum’s outwardly invisible physical depth – it has deep basement levels containing some galleries, an auditorium and a lot of plant – is what makes the volume above ground readable as a metaphorical crown.

Firmly part of the UK ‘starchitect’ circuit, David Adjaye can see his experience and reputation in America burnishing too. He is building private homes here, and public buildings including the Denver Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and an ambitious affordable housing project in the Bronx, Sugar Hill, which while receiving mixed views will form a critical part of the community in a difficult part of the city and has earned him respect.

The African Crown from above the canopy of the National Memorial Park. Credit: Alan Karchmer

In the Washington Museum, Adjaye cedes exhibition design to the other partners, yet there are many times where the visitor is frustrated by a lack of communication. The grand gleaming entrance – lined with stylish rose-gold elevators, an opera-like hall space with a small shop, and distant escalators to the upper floors – offers little in the way of direction or orientation. The museum experience is divided into three layers – deep, dark window-less beginnings akin to the underground experience of the World Trade Centre museum, a middle tier dedicated to poignant and human stories of migration, loss and identity, and a top-floor contemporary tier devoted to arts and culture.

Despite this seeming clarity, I certainly found it hard to prepare spatially or emotionally for the depth of suffering evocatively displayed in the lower ground level as part of the historical galleries. This part had its own very long queue system and inside, visitors clapped their hands to their mouths as they saw artifacts from slave auctions and watched film footage of a civil rights march where the protesters wear signs on their chests reading ‘I am a Man’. The images are unnervingly familiar in an age and a country where many chunks of the population take issue with the statement and movement ‘Black Lives Matter’.

The density of exhibition themes again confounds expectations. Moving back up into the main space – another whole circulation – to the top floor, culture – one meets an overwhelming cacophony of sound and senses celebrating African American achievement. The most beautiful is Obama’s iconic Correspondent’s Dinner mic-drop in a surround-sound space where culture means fashion, books, poetry and music, all combined in a dense and affecting environment carefully calibrated for both humour and heartache. It pulls out cultural icons in the American consciousness in an effective manner – though one that will surely feel dated in a short time. Adjacent to this popular culture room is a more sedate and serious art gallery with wooden floors and environmental conditioning, containing densely hung paintings by leaders of the Harlem Renaissance including Aaron Douglas and others, which will also benefit with collections as the museum’s reputation and pockets grow.

Sports achievements are similarly peppered with poignant imagery and moments of African American mistreatment and achievement; children rushed to pose next to a bronze cast of the famous black power salute at the 1968 Olympics by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

The architectural effects are clean and clear. Adjaye’s voice and ability to implement all change is doubtless compromised in some places, yet the result is a successful museum and it will continue to be so. It is a fiercely contemporary space that one hopes will age with grace, and will continue to build its collection and voice on a national and international stage.

As one travels through the building, heavy cut-outs in the facade frame certain views and angles – the Capitol building, surrounded by tree tops, for example. There is no doubt that these postcard views are made to highlight the achievements of the classically foregrounded image of American culture, and perhaps to suggest that those views and achievements are indeed frames that can and should be looked at anew.