Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Layers of bureaucracy can frustrate even the most politically savvy architects. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who’s renovating the Smithsonian’s south campus, has called the Mall “the most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth.” He’s not wrong. The years-long give-and-take with authorities shaped the final design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in significant ways, changing plans and adding and subtracting features as the process progressed. Even details as minor as a security guard booth were carefully reviewed.

In the contest to design the NMAAHC seven years ago, Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup made it past a long list of 22 and eventually beat out five other finalists to win the commission of a lifetime. The international team of architects—led by London-based David Adjaye, Philip Freelon of North Carolina, and New York’s J. Max Bond Jr., who passed away soon after—prevailed not on the basis of a full building design but on an initial concept, as is typical in architectural competitions.

What made their concept so distinctive was the form of the museum’s upper section. It was simple, yet vivid: identical tiers with their sides angled in and down, the top corners pointing to the sky. It looked like an upside-down pyramid or ziggurat. 

Adjaye called it the corona, and explained that it was inspired by the shape of crowns found in the Yoruban art of Nigeria. This was the irreducible element in the concept they presented. Over the months that followed, the architects fleshed out the rest of the design while navigating a ropes course of agency reviews and meetings. 

Two independent agencies, with members appointed by the president and the mayor, had final say over whether the design passed muster: the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). Per law, an exhaustive environmental impact study was conducted, and the museum’s design team also had to consult with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, the National Park Service, and other bodies to avoid “adverse effects” on the older buildings and landscape around the building. Into this mix add the Smithsonian, the architects’ client, with its own priorities and budgetary concerns. 

The artist’s renderings that were published around the world in 2009 showed only one of a few concepts that the Smithsonian seriously considered. Looking at those news stories now, it’s easy to spot the difference between the building shown in them and the one on the Mall today. In the pictures, the corona rises from a large rectangular plinth, or podium. 

That scheme, dubbed Plinth, was one of three options. The others were Plaza, which separated the museum into two buildings joined by a plaza; and Pavilion, which distilled the museum into the corona form and set it directly on the ground of the Mall. After outside consultation, the Smithsonian eventually opted for a version of the last—“Refined Pavilion.” 

With no plinth, the corona had room for a third tier. This adds to the museum’s sculptural quality, and the tripartite composition relates well to the classical buildings that define Washington. 

Lots of other things changed, too. From the beginning, members of NCPC and CFA and preservationists worried about the effect the museum would have on views up and down the Mall, and from the Mall to the Ellipse and vice versa. (Even so, a full 60 percent of the museum is underground.) The building was moved slightly southward, and the main entrance was moved a bit to the east. The height was lowered, and each side of the cube was shortened by four feet. A marshy rain garden planned for the north side of the site was replaced by a mock creek that visitors would symbolically cross. That was value-engineered away and replaced by a low black granite wall. 

The porch at the main entrance is a key feature, embodying the tradition of the porch in African-American culture. A pool faces it, and Adjaye and Freelon hope the combination of shade and water will produce a cooling microclimate effect. The porch got shorter and shallower during review, in deference to a setback line in the 1902 McMillan Plan. This reduces its visual impact—and also the amount of shade it can provide on hot days. 

More than any other element, though, reviewers scrutinized the corona. It is formed from metal panels with patterns based on decorative ironwork by black 19th century artisans. The initial idea had been to make the panels from bronze, but the technology was unproven, so the designers switched to aluminum coated with a bronze-colored finish.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Early mock-ups set off alarm bells at the CFA. “[P]utty-like, muddy, and dull” is how a CFA letter described the appearance of one coating tested in 2013. The commission urged the designers to use a coating with real bronze in it. (Ironically, Freelon himself is a CFA member and had to recuse himself during the discussions.) 

After testing six options, the architects settled on a non-bronze finish, polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). CFA approved the choice with a reminder that “all aspects of this exceptionally prominent building and its detailing must be of the highest possible quality.” The panels that cover the museum give off different hues depending on the light. But we’ll likely never know what effect real bronze would have added. 

Design by committee is a pain, and it often produces timid architecture. Fortunately, that’s not what happened here. “The building had to go through that entire baptism,” Adjaye says. “What’s interesting is that it forced you to articulate ideas the whole way through. Every part of this building had to be explained. It forces the essentials to come to the fore.”

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