Capitol Move

Capitol Move

At times bold, at times safe, the six finalist designs for the National Museum for African-American History and Culture went on public display March 27 at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C. The museum, which will sit in the shadow of the Washington Monument and is due to open in 2015, will be the final institution located on the National Mall.

The designs were submitted as “vision statements” by a heady mix of both avant-garde and establishment firms, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Moody•Nolan and Antoine Predock; Moshe Safdie and Associates; Foster and Partners; Devrouax + Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed; and Freelon Adjaye Bond. The teams have all held preliminary meetings with the 11-member selection committee and will make official presentations in the week before the final decision, scheduled for April 10.

“They all demonstrated a commitment to the challenge of building on the Mall and to the commitment that the subject needs to be framed as everyone’s story, not just an African-American’s story,” said Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the NMAAHC’s director.


The building, which comes with an expected budget of $500 million and will cover between 300,000 and 350,000 square feet, will have several elements, regardless of the winning design: significant outdoor public spaces and natural components, including water features and trees; areas committed to different elements of African-American history and culture, including the Civil Rights movement and “1968 and Beyond”; and thematic references to slave ships—a charge some firms took literally by inserting full-size models of slave ships inside their designs.

Commonalities aside, the proposals can be superficially grouped into two categories: those that aim toward replicating the Mall’s built context and those that push against it. The first category includes the projects by Safdie, Devrouax + Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed, and Freelon Adjaye Bond, a joint venture by the Freelon Group, David Adjaye, and Davis Brody Bond Aedas.

All three groups employ generous amounts of right angles, plinths, and stone, echoing the material and lines of Mall stalwarts like the American History Museum, which sits directly opposite the site at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue.

At the same time, each has a signature element that cuts against tradition: Safdie’s building, designed with Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates, is roughly a triangle (echoing I.M. Pei’s National Gallery East Wing, at the other end of the Mall), shot through with a floor-to-ceiling glass atrium that would provide a striking view of the Washington Monument. Devrouax + Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed’s design is a granite and limestone box that almost, but not quite, encloses wavy wood-and-glass walls on two sides. Freelon Adjaye Bond and SmithGroup’s proposal, a staid plinth topped by three basket-like tiers, is meant to echo both a classical column and a common motif in Yoruban art.

The Foster, Predock, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro teams take the opposite approach. Foster’s design, with URS, is a sensuous, snail-shell spiral that rises from a collection of gardens to a final, dramatic picture window facing the Washington Monument. Moody•Nolan and Predock’s design is a shard-like array of forms topped by a massive crystal skylight, meant to evoke the area’s origins as marshy wetlands. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with KlingStubbins, present perhaps a too demanding design, a table-like glass form encasing a limestone facade.

Setting aside the strength of their designs, each team brings significant advantages. Diller Scofidio + Renfro are riding a wave of good press for their edgy but successful redesign of Lincoln Center. Freelon Adjaye Bond bring together three marquee names among black architects—Phil Freelon, David Adjaye, and the late Max Bond.

Devrouax + Purnell is likewise a well-known black-run firm, and, with Pei Cobb Freed, has the added advantage of having built multiple big-ticket projects in Washington, a place famous for its architectural red tape. And Safdie, Predock, and Foster are steady old hands who can nevertheless turn out surprisingly new designs.