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A Missing Architect's Lasting Footprint

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

The Smithsonian Institution is "forever indebted to Douglas Cardinal for his work of genius."

So said National Museum of the American Indian Director W. Richard "Rick" West in response to a question at a news conference last summer.

That single sentence ought to become the definitive, closing statement in the unhappy, convoluted tale of Cardinal, the Smithsonian and the design of the striking new museum on the Mall.

Selected as the lead design architect in 1993, the prestigious Canadian architect was fired in 1998 along with GBQC, the Philadelphia firm he was working with. Another team of architects, including several of the Native American participants in the Cardinal group, took over.

It was an extraordinary turn of events. Cardinal is an architect of extraordinary originality, perhaps the best-known Native American architect in North America. In the early 1990s his design for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, just across the river from Canada's Parliament Hill, opened to acclaim.

The Washington job was to have been the crowning commission of Cardinal's professional life. Instead, it became a bitter disappointment.

The firing was the result of a legal dispute. Though he was acknowledged as the creative chief of the design team, Cardinal technically was a subcontractor to GBQC, the Philadelphia firm. The contract was unfair, he said. He was doing the bulk of the work and losing money fast. He pointed out to Smithsonian officials that his Ottawa firm was on the verge of bankruptcy.

But the Canadian architect and the U.S. firm could not settle their differences. The Smithsonian tried to resolve the matter, officials said at the time, but when it couldn't, GBQC and Cardinal were dismissed. In a bizarre twist, Cardinal actually remained to work on the design after the dismissal -- a private patron supported this work for a few months to the tune of $100,000 per month.

GBQC and the Smithsonian dealt with some financial and technical points in an out-of-court settlement in 1999, but this didn't alter the basic fact: Cardinal remained out.

None of this would matter much to anybody but the principals had the dispute not involved such an important building with such an unusual design in such a prominent spot.

Cardinal doesn't design boxes. To the contrary, his buildings hardly ever contain right angles in any critical places. Their complex curves require complex computer calculations to be built. For better or worse -- mostly better, in Cardinal's case -- they are autograph buildings in every sense.

At the time, the Smithsonian apparently didn't understand how difficult and time-consuming it would be to construct a Cardinal building without Cardinal at the helm. The date of the opening, long scheduled for 2002, was pushed to 2004.

Nor, initially, did the institution appear to respect the artistic integrity of Cardinal's design. In April 1999, the Smithsonian submitted a revised design to the federal Commission of Fine Arts, and the commission rejected the more onerous changes. These included adding a pillar in the front of the museum to hold up those cantilevered bands that are a major part of the museum's aesthetic impact today. Memorably, then-commission chairman J. Carter Brown called the pillar "ugly."

The commission's action was crucial. Big changes were made where they made sense, such as relocating the elevators to a more central position, but fiddling with the design in major ways appears to have stopped.

Cardinal today remains intransigent and inconsolable. He had to dismiss many loyal employees. He has often said he felt he had been exploited as a "Tonto." He hasn't gotten much credit for his work, which was crucial in every way to the building's aesthetic success. His central role is hidden in a mountain of the museum's opening press materials.

This could have contributed to Cardinal's decision to turn down West's invitation to attend the opening ceremonies next week as an honored guest. In his reply, however, Cardinal stresses money. His design, he wrote, "was not a gift but professional work for which I should be reimbursed." (Cardinal put both letters on his Web site, www.djcarchitect.com.)

West's words are worth quoting, too.

"I perfectly understand that what happened in your relationship with the National Museum of the American Indian," West wrote, "was a source of great pain and acute difficulty, personal and financial, for you, as it also was challenging from a number of standpoints for us."

But, he continued, "your [Cardinal's] design for the National Museum of the American Indian's National Mall building will be a principal physical and, indeed, spiritual marker for the Native peoples of this hemisphere long beyond the lives of either of us."

That would be the proper ending to this all-too-human saga: Giving Cardinal the recognition he deserves.


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