Dream Team

Dream Team

The Smithsonian has selected a team led by London-based David Adjaye to build the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the last major institution planned for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The team, known as Freelon Adjaye Bond, is a joint venture between the Freelon Group, Adjaye/Associates, and Davis Brody Bond Aedas. The venture in turn is paired with SmithGroup.

“Their vision and spirit of collaboration moved all members of the design competition jury,” said NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch III in a press release issued this morning. The museum, due for completion in 2015, will cost $500 million and be located on the southwest corner of the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution, across from the National Museum of American History and about 800 feet northeast of the Washington Monument.

“It is kind of like being in the Sweet Sixteen,” Bunch said of the selection. “We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m going to enjoy it for a while.”

Freelon Adjaye Bond has deep roots with both the museum and Washington. Before the competition began, Phil Freelon, president of the Freelon Group, and from a mix of avant-garde and establishment firms, ranging from Diller Scofidio + Renfro to Norman Foster to the duo of Devrouax & Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed.

The winning design—which Freelon stressed is more an expression of concepts, and likely to change significantly—comprises a multistory stone plinth open on the north and south ends, with a pair of inverted, bronze-paneled trapezoids stacked on top of it. The team has cited both a crown and Yoruban columns as inspiration.

The interior of the museum will soar 100 feet, with exhibit spaces radiating from a center spiral ramp, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The procession will culminate in a rooftop garden.

“It had to be a project about celebrating a journey and looking toward the future,” said Adjaye.

All four firms on the winning team have extensive museum and institutional experience: Freelon designed the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore, and the firm was selected last month to design the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Adjaye recently completed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, while Davis Brody Bond Aedas is involved in planning the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. SmithGroup has perhaps the most extensive experience with federal cultural projects, most recently completing the National Audio Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia.

Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, was born in Tanzania but raised in London. Based in London and with a New York satellite office, he will be the design lead, while Freelon is the architect of record.

The competition was not without controversy, not surprising given the political sensitivity of its program. Several minority architects—though none involved in the competition—demanded the museum select an African-American-led firm and complained that too many of the finalist firms were predominantly white. These calls, in turn, raised opposition from both white and black architects, who worried that such calls could put pressure on the selection committee to choose based on race rather than design excellence.