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Natural Wonder

The main public space, called the Potomac, is a vast domed chamber almost immediately behind the front doors. You enter it after passing by a large, semicircular fence woven from strands of copper. It's a wow space, 120 feet high from circular hardwood floor to the tension-ring skylight at the apex of the dome.

Conceptually, this space is a cross between the triangulated atrium of I.M. Pei's National Gallery East Building directly to the north across the Mall's greensward, and Thomas U. Walter's Capitol rotunda. Like the Pei atrium, it's an exciting center of movement, of going from here to there. Like the Capitol rotunda, it is a symbolic and ceremonial centerpiece.


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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But even though it impressively combines elements of both, the Potomac is not quite as dynamic as the Pei atrium, nor as convincing a symbolic focal point as the Capitol rotunda. These two civic interior spaces are the best of the best in Washington, and the Potomac isn't quite on par.

Perhaps the room is just too big and empty. The scale is somehow off. All that wallboard doesn't help -- when you look up, the concentric rings of the dome look a bit flimsy. Strangely, the center point of the tension ring in the dome skylight doesn't align precisely with the center of the ceremonial floor. That woven copper fence just seems a bit fussy, a bit off. It all adds up to a disappointment.

Still, the space definitely has a distinctive allure. Crowds will pep it up a lot, as they do in Pei's space. The best place to watch it all happen will be the balconies at the third and fourth floors. Behind you are the exhibition spaces, and all around is a fascinating play of curves. There's an interesting, yin-yang contrast between the flowing, irregular curves of the lower floors and the dome's concentric rings.

Native American ceremonies and performances will take place in the Potomac, and also outside the building, on that circular entry platform and in an intimate amphitheater snuggled next to the north facade. These will sanctify the spaces for the building's primary users, and make things a lot more interesting and meaningful for the rest of us.

Throughout, there are wonderful inside-outside exchanges. The views of the Capitol from the double-height third-floor reading room. The windowed alcoves at the end of wavy hallways. The window tables in the ground-floor cafe, with gently falling water outside. I'm no fan of the cafe decor -- it's sort of Class A food court design -- but these are the best seats in the house.

Decor is what happened to several of the interiors. The ground-floor auditorium, for instance, is a nice, rounded, intimate performance space with 340 seats, but the design narrative -- a clearing in the woods under a night sky -- is as thin as the wooden battens stuck on the walls.

No question, though, that this is a welcoming building. Cardinal once spoke of it as a sheltering cave, and it's a terrific cave. There's plenty of openness but also a lot of warmth. Woods are skillfully deployed. You want to reach out and touch the hand-adzed wooden walls of the Roanoke, the museum store on the second floor.

Nor is there any doubt that this strange, magnificent artifact is a welcome addition to Washington, and to the Mall.

The scale of the Mall, after all, is grand enough to embrace a bit of difference. Actually, a lot of difference. The symbolic greensward establishes an indelible order. But behind those stately elms the Mall is a parade of architectural individuality.

To build on the Mall, you just have to follow a few simple rules about height and setbacks, which Cardinal did, and then do your best, which he also did until the spring of 1998. Thanks largely to those efforts, the new museum adds a poignant, provocative, strangely elegant note to the national parade.


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