Project’s architecture and design | National Museum of African American History and Culture
Located on Constitution Avenue, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was conceived with the primary function of housing exhibition galleries, administrative spaces, and theatre spaces. The approach was to establish a meaningful relationship with the site within which the project was born and to have a solid conceptual connection with America’s deep and ancient African heritage. The design is centred on three pillars: the “crown” shape of the building, the extension of the building into the landscape-the portico-and the bronze filigree shell. The museum maintains a subtle profile perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape, and more than half of the building is underground. The entire building is covered with a decorative bronze surface, a historical reference to African American craftsmanship. The density of the pattern perfectly modulates the amount of light penetrating the building’s interior. The inspiration for the exterior structure came from one of the sculptures in the museum’s collection, a 10-foot-tall representation of a crowned figure carved by African artist Olowe of Ise. “It is a building with many narratives relating to context, history, and program,” said David Adjaye, founder of Adjaye Associates. “This narrative is articulated immediately by the silhouette, which borrows the form of a Yoruba sculpture while also resonating with the Washington Monument angle.” The porch, which connects the building to the surrounding landscape, creates an outdoor space that bridges the gap between inside and outside.
A road to sustainability
The opening to the light symbolically represents a museum that attempts to establish a strong relationship and open dialogue on issues such as race and reconciliation. The view extends ever upward, reminding us that a museum is a place with a clear ideology and inspiration charged with meaning, memory, and reflection. Moreover, this project is also developed in harmony with practical and sustainable architectural principles. It is the Mall’s first museum designed according to sustainability standards and represents the Smithsonian’s “green flag.” Inside, visitors are guided step by step through a historical and emotional journey with a dramatic coexistence of natural light and different materials, including precast concrete, wood, and a glazed skin that sits within the bronze lattice. The environment becomes more contemplative and monumental on the underground floors through the triple-height historical gallery and the memorial space, the oculus. Inside, floors finished in bronze and African marble captures the historical and cultural references of the façade. These wide, column-free surfaces allow optimal reflection of the bronze filigree exterior surface, which renders the passage of time with an intricate play of light and shadow and, at the same time, frames the views of the Memorial Grounds.
The importance of passive design | National Museum of African American History and Culture
Central to the museum’s construction approach is the principle of “passive design,” or the goal of minimising environmental impact without resorting to expensive high-tech additions. Thanks to a more compact building form, energy consumption is extremely lower. In addition, the fact that most of the museum is underground plays a key role. The limitation that imposed a height restriction on the building was used to their advantage by the designers. Having 60 per cent of the building underground allows the insulating power of the ground to be used for the historic galleries below. Additional active sustainability features of the facility are the solar cells on the museum’s roof. Since it is a flat roof, it was possible to place a series of photovoltaic panels on its surface that collects sunlight and converts it directly into electricity. Incoming sunlight is also manipulated in other ways. In fact, north-facing light monitors are used, capturing sunlight from that direction and redirecting it to the parts of the museum that need it.
The architectural narrative of African American culture
Many of the world’s great buildings have developed a design that seamlessly integrates their architectural form with their function. The Museum faithfully follows this principle in that the building manages to fully embrace its content: the American story is told, thus, through the lens of African American history and culture. It becomes a resource for the community, helping visitors learn about themselves, their history, and their culture. The light reflected from the bronze-coloured lattice symbolises a beacon that reminds us and powerfully projects what we were, but with an eye wide open to what we hope to become. In the words of Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Museum, “this building will sing for us all.” The museum’s collection of artefacts is stunning, with about 35,000 items in the collection, of which there are 3,500 on display. Outstanding items include a shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, an invitation to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and a boombox owned by Chuck D of Public Enemy. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) prioritises the narrative of cultural identity through many stories to provide a deeper understanding of the past. For this main reason, it operates simultaneously as a museum, memorial, and cross-cultural community-building space.
Osman Bari (2017) The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture [Online] Accessible at: https://www.archdaily.com/805465/adjayes-national-museum-of-african-american-history-and-culture-photographed-by-brad-feinknopf [Accessed date: 2023/02/17]
Ryan P. Smith (2018) The African American History and Culture Museum Wins Gold for Going Green [Online] Accessible at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/african-american-history-and-culture-museum-wins-gold-going-green-180968862/ [Accessed date: 2023/02/17]
Smithsonian (2023) National Museum of African American History & Culture [Online] Accessible at: https://nmaahc.si.edu/about/building [Accessed date: 2023/02/17]
Perkins & Will (2017) National Museum of African American History & Culture [Online] Accessible at: https://perkinswill.com/project/national-museum-of-african-american-history-and-culture/ [Accessed date: 2023/02/18]