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Natural Wonder

Douglas Cardinal's Rough-Hewn Mountain Of a Building Channels The Spirit of the Earth

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page C01

Okay, the time at last has come to ask the big architectural questions about the National Museum of the American Indian, opening on Tuesday.

Basically, they are three: Is the architecture any good? Does the building fit the Mall? And who did the design?

In form, the museum evokes not its Eastern setting but the Southwest. Its architect saw it as "an abstraction of the rock that formed this continent." (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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If this last question strikes you as odd, you can rest assured -- it is odd. However, let's take the questions in order.

It is pleasing to report that the architecture is very good, and quite strange. The building rises above the elm trees of the Mall like a monumental apparition. Its curving walls shout, "Look at me!" And the more you do, the more there is to see and think about.

Even more satisfying is the conclusion that, physically and philosophically, the new building creates a strong, tension-filled dialogue with its setting, and carries it off with amazing grace.

But whom to credit for this good work? That's another question entirely. Uncertainty as to authorship of the whole and its parts -- especially the parts -- is one of the haunting curiosities of this building.

We know that Douglas Cardinal, the Indian architect from Canada well respected for his signature "organic" works, is the creative intellect behind the building.

Yet Cardinal and his U.S. collaborators were fired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1998, about halfway through the design process. It is thus hard to tell exactly who is responsible for what, especially on the inside. The reasons for this make a sad, messy story.

Fortunately, back in 1999 the Commission of Fine Arts stepped in to block ruinous design changes proposed by the Smithsonian after Cardinal's dismissal, so it is possible to say with certainty that in the big, bold moves -- the shape, the character, the basic floor plan -- this building is a Cardinal.

You can tell this by scanning the architect's history. Masonry curves are what Cardinal does. They have been the keys to his artistic identity since 1968, the completion date of his first major building, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer, Alberta. It's a small building with astounding curved brick walls.

Cardinal's vocabulary of curves may have something to do with the landscapes he absorbed during his boyhood in western Canada. Likewise, his connection to his Native American roots -- Cardinal is Blackfoot and Metis -- played its part.

Mainly, though, this signature style evolved from Cardinal's almost mystical identification with nature. He speaks of the architect's role as a revealer of forms that are inherent in a particular site. He refers to the Washington building as a "spirit mountain," a stone building that is "an abstraction of the rock that formed this continent."

Sometimes, in organic architecture, this kind of thinking produces buildings that really do seem to grow from the site, or to complement it in compelling ways. Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in the Pennsylvania forest is a paramount example.

But Cardinal likely would consider Wright's lyricism too literal. For him, organic architecture is more a matter of metaphysical principle -- architecture harnessing and expressing a life force.

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