After more than a century in the making, and 170 years since the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture finally opens its doors in Washington, D.C. this week, inaugurated by President Barack Obama—a milestone for the first national museum dedicated to the African-American experience. The museum, which stands on the lawn closest to the Washington Monument, completes Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s grand plan for the National Mall. Bunch, the museum’s founding director, worked with the architectural team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup to design the building. Leading the design, the Ghanaian-British architect Adjaye envisioned the museum as an upside-down ziggurat—the corona’s shape inspired by Yoruban columns from West Africa—with bronze-hued lattice ironwork hanging off the structure. Since establishing his office in the early 90s, Adjaye has become a favorite of the creative world, building homes for Juergen Teller, Glenn Ligon, and Lorna Simpson, but has also worked in the public space, notably designing the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. This year, his firm, Adjaye Associates, was named Architects of the Year at the Iconic Awards with the museum pegged as one of the most highly anticipated buildings of this generation. In advance of the occasion, fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, who in the past has used the runway as a platform to tackle race issues facing the black community, too offered questions to Adjaye and Bunch.
Blake Abbie—What does it mean to work on such a significant project? Speaking with Kerby, he wonders whether you felt a certain weight of responsibility?
Lonnie G. Bunch III—This has been 100 years in the making, so it was really important to think about how all aspects of the museum—its collections, its exhibitions, its buildings—speak to the American public, to the global public, and how, in some ways, they symbolize the spirit of black America.
David Adjaye—This was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create, for the first time, a building about the African-American community on the nation’s capital that was publicly supported by the federal government.
Blake—How did you begin?
Lonnie—Before thinking about architects, we thought: “How does a building speak or make manifest resiliency, optimism, spirituality? How does it demonstrate there’s been a significant dark presence in America that was often overlooked or undervalued? How does it sing with the rest of Washington, D.C.?” As we began to look at how to move forward, it was David’s—as part of the team with Max Bond and Phil Freelon—passion and understanding of what this could mean both domestically and internationally that was part of the appeal to work with him.
David—We formed this triad. I reached out to Max as I was interested in collaborating and had heard from the Smithsonian about this competition to solicit [designs] from architects to see who could do the work. Max is the auteur—the Miles Davis of the group—and was the design guarantor who could wrestle with any complexities to come; Phil was the architect of record to ensure that we delivered; and I was the design lead. Later, the SmithGroup helped us with their experience as they had [previously built the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian] on the Mall.
Lonnie—The Smithsonian doesn’t ordinarily do design competitions, but, because the site was so important, I wanted to see how architects from around the world would wrestle with it. David’s vision had a good sense of how the site itself could be used. They also listened to the words I wrote: This museum has to be a “lens to understand what it means to be an American.” I was not interested in crafting an institution by black people for black people, rather, [I wanted] something that would give sense of a two-sided coin: One side saying, “This is a building that speaks of a culture,” with the other saying, “This is a building, a museum that speaks of a country.” It may have been a people’s journey, but it’s also a nation’s; I looked at the design from that viewpoint. It was less about what it looked like and more: “Were they listening to what we needed to say?” This was going to be a building that could help America illuminate the dark corners of its existence.
Blake—David, can you describe how the African-American journey informed the museum’s design?
David—We wanted it to have a voice to tell the entire narrative; we wanted to talk about understanding the African-American community through the lens of understanding their African roots, but also to understand how the African-American community is a way to understand the American identity. We felt inspired by the museum’s brief, which Lonnie just referred to; “resilience” and “optimism” were key words that made us think of new ways to make architecture. The traditional way is to create forms and hope those forms speak to ideas, or to create a container and then just put things in. Here was an opportunity to make a building where just a glimpse of its silhouette would pose questions and speak to the narrative. It’s a new kind of building—it’s not just the fantasy of an architect—but one that speaks specifically to the culture, community, and mission.
“This building had to be part of an education for America, to help America understand that it’s not being negative by exploring all the dark corners.”
Lonnie—This was going to be one of the most visible projects, not of one generation, but of many. And because this was so visible, because we had to speak with one voice and because we had to figure out how to handle the politics, we felt it was really important to grow together as a team. There was going to have to be an evolution to satisfy both my vision and to figure out how to protect it going through regulatory agencies.
David—It was very challenging. But Max’s philosophy of needing a multi-headed team that could focus on issues and deliver their parts the best they could was correct in the end. When projects have a certain magnitude, the idea of a team of experts is a really good one.
Blake—Lonnie, you mentioned you wanted the building to “sing with the rest of…D.C.” How does one shape a building’s narrative to include the dark history of the African-American community?
Lonnie—The notion I use is remembering: the difficult moment, the moment of resiliency, the moments of optimism. This building had to be part of an education for America, to help America understand that it’s not being negative by exploring all the dark corners. In some ways, part of the greatness of the African-American experience—and ultimately the American experience—is being a work-in-progress. What one does is look at these moments of difficulty and at the kind of struggles, resiliency, and optimism that came out of that. That was imbedded in what the museum is. Working on the National Mall is not easy, but in my mind anything that happened paled in comparison to the story of black America, so I felt we could figure out a way to get there. We knew there were going to be a lot of surprises on that site. This building takes on the best of African-American culture when it comes to improvisation. There is a phrase in African-American culture: “Making a way out of no way.” While I didn’t know everywhere we’d go with this building, I knew we’d make a way out of no way and be nimble.
David—I’ve seen projects that have looked at the African-American or African communities, and whenever architecture was discussed, it was always, for me, through a sort of traumatic moment. A lot of the discourse seems to be about not understanding the incredible resilience of this community and how it had been nimble, grown, and become so structurally critical to the evolution of America. It’s a powerful human story that needed to be a kind of model [of a building], which does not harken to slavery or any other part of the story, but really looked at the entire journey to this moment.
Blake—So how is the design of the museum inspired by this journey?
David—I became excited about the way one talked about expression, the way [the museum] created relationships to the obelisk of the Washington Monument and created a dialogue about the craft and beginnings of the community in Western/Central Africa. It made an opportunity to create hybridity and translation through looking at labor practices of African Americans during slavery and at the beginning of the emancipation of slavery—to create an architectural journey. It was about concretizing stories, and the tripartite form of the building comes from [the Nigerian] Yoruban Caryatids—columns which embody in their form a whole narrative, a story. [The crown of the Caryatid] has an upward aspiration rather than a downward form. This upward motif is very much part of spirituality, too. This community is incredibly resilient and the upwardness is the ability to overcome incredible weight, which they still deal with. Almost all downtrodden communities use the upward motif as a way to talk about liberation and the release from oppression. Those images and their relationship to the form were very powerful.
Lonnie—Yes, the corona [of the museum] sings on several levels. Your eye is drawn upward to almost being able to believe in a day that you shouldn’t. We used beautiful screens inspired by the [lattice] ironwork created by enslaved craftspeople in Charleston and New Orleans. The building was no longer separate from a community, but embodied one. These screens remind [us] that so much of America’s history—America’s African-American history—is hidden in plain site. [Look to the] enslaved people who built the White House and Capital. Once we came to that notion, the corona spoke to me as more than just something about a building here; it was a beacon to every person in the United States to realize how much of the story is right in front of them and has been unacknowledged and unexplored.
Blake—As the museum draws attention to history, you also said that the museum acts as a lens through which to have a new perspective of what it is to be American.
“A lot of the discourse seems to be about not understanding the incredible resilience of this community and how it had been nimble, grown, and become so structurally critical to the evolution of America. ”
Lonnie—While this is a national museum of international importance, it’s also a place in Washington. Instead of what’s traditionally been done—you go into a building on the National Mall and you’re in the building—I wanted you to go inside and realize you’re on the Mall. Creating vistas and views would allow people to see the fact that this is sacred space for African Americans. There have been amazing moments here, like the March on Washington or when Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. I wanted people to look around and realize that not far from here, along Pennsylvania Avenue, were slave pens, or that, towards the [Smithsonian] Castle, a mixed-raced community lived in the 1840s and 1850s. The goal was to say: “This museum is not separate from its site but that the site has a rich history and these vistas remind us of where we are.” Being able to look out allowed us to have African Americans claim the African-American-ness of the National Mall.
Blake—So how do you then take the journey on the inside, thinking about the curatorial mission? Kerby also questions how you plan to teach future generations about black America’s dark past?
David—The building sets up a new notion of making the journey of a museum. The way you go around it interconnects with the views to create punctured moments. The idea is to go down into the lower level, to the history galleries, where there are the most important objects in terms of telling the story of the history from Africa to the present. Then you rise up into the corona to two gallery spaces, which are about the way in which the culture disseminates [in America, in] the South and into the urban North: how it professionalizes and how it starts to contribute. On the upper level, you have how the culture goes into music and art. People have asked me why the building has three tiers in its elevation. It’s not just formal, but also speaks symbolically about the way this building represents these three ways of curating the story.
Lonnie—We were building and didn’t have the collection. I’ve always said it was like going on a cruise while at the same time building the ship. [Laughing.] You couldn’t say, “We’ll build this room this way so we can do or show that.”
David—But by creating the largest column-free form we could, there was the ultimate flexibility to change the space in the upper two [sections]. Unlike other museums, where you move through small rooms, this large expansive space pushes the circulation to its perimeter. There you’re able to use the building and its location at the junction between the Mall and the Washington Monument to generate the views—what we call the “Nine Views”—looking at Washington as part of the story, allowing for the museum to have an inside/outside relationship. It wasn’t just internal content, but a constant looped dialogue to understand exactly where you were and what that does with the landscape and the museum curation. That is an important [architectural] part of the entire project.
Blake—Let’s speak about the contents of the building, what you were concerned with, Lonnie. How did you build a collection?
Lonnie—What’s so special about this museum is that it’s the first national museum ever that had to start from scratch everywhere. It didn’t have a site or building. It had a staff of two. It had no collections, and there was a worry about how to build one: Should the museum be a place of objects or a place driven by technology? By creating a structure for saving a lot of African-American treasures, it allowed us to go to communities and build partnerships with local museums. The goal was never to collect anything but to help preserve grandma’s old shawl or the old Ford sitting in the garage. Because of that, people realized, “Oh, I want to give.” We encouraged people to give to local museums first. From there we built support around the country to help find funds from the federal government. But, most importantly, it allowed us to find unexpected things like Nat Turner’s bible, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, or a man’s free papers from just before the Civil War, which he had kept in a handmade tin wallet, a little safe—his family had kept it for generations. We found small things that told intimate stories as well as big things like a nearly 80-ton railroad car made during segregation in the 1920s; walking through that will explain segregation in ways no label I could write nor photo I could show: here’s where the white community sat, and through a swinging door, here is where the black community sat.
Blake—Looking forward from these difficult moments, how will the contemporary issues facing the black community be incorporated into the curation? Kerby asks specifically of the Black Lives Matter movement—his Spring/Summer 2016 show was a call-to-action to fight against police brutality on the black community.
“You want spaces that allow people to not just reflect and question, but to reflect surrounded by beauty.”
Lonnie—The Smithsonian is the great convener, where people who wouldn’t necessarily wrestle with questions of race, identity, or science will when they visit. This museum had to be as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday. Having a building that marries a sense of modernity with a sense of the past; one that allows us to have changing spaces so that new stories and materials can be added and new controversies can be explored; and one with the kind of space to have conversations, debates, book signings, and performances that allow us to wrestle with what Black Lives Matter means, with the challenge of violence in the community, and with the challenge of creativity at the heart of this community. The museum has to be a place that says, “We will not just look back when we collect, we will look ahead.” Unlike when I began my career—when I wanted to do exhibitions and there was no material—I want to make sure that scholars 20 or 30 years from now who want to wrestle with Black Lives Matter will have the kind of material to do so.
Blake—And you’ve created spaces in the museum to contemplate all these issues.
Lonnie—The museum is not all about these difficult issues, but they are there. It was important to recognize that you want the building to do three things: You want spaces that allow people to not just reflect and question, but to reflect surrounded by beauty. In the contemplative space there are quotations to help you think. The second piece was surprises: You want people to turn corners and see different juxtapositions. One of the most brilliant things David did was down at concourse level: you look up and see amazing light. You then look ahead and see the Contemplative Court. The third thing was that—despite the surprises, despite the moments of wonder—the building had to work as a museum, not just as a monument.
David—What Lonnie outlined is central to my practice and belief in what architecture does: Architecture is not an autonomous thing, and is at its best when it is supporting, enhancing, and elevating the mission it is brought into being to serve. This idea that the building is really made better by the way in which it supports a mission is very important to the way I think and work. This is the most extraordinary journey to have done over eight years: to have been a part of creating this institution and finishing the monumental core of the National Mall.
Lonnie—There are only two permanent things: the building and the collection. As long as there is America, the building and collection are there, and millions of people will be able to understand how we’ve been shaped in profound ways by the African-American experience. The building is a living, evolving presence. It’s the uplift, it’s the way the sun changes its look at different parts of the day. And in some ways, the building is as alive as the history and culture we’re exploring.