Indian Museum's Uneasy Presence Bespeaks Troubled Past

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Whenever someone asks me what I think of the National Museum of the American Indian, I always give the same answer: It is one of the few museums I was eager to leave after a relatively short visit.

I find the museum's design flawed in many ways. Some of its flaws reflect in part the contentious process by which it was designed, in part the complexity of its challenging mission and in part the unique aesthetic credo of Native American architect Douglas Cardinal, the man responsible for the museum's design concept.

Best known for his design of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Cardinal's compositional ethos is predicated on expressing in architecture the organic patterns of nature. Using circular and curving forms, he persistently eschews the angular and the rectilinear.

At first glance, the museum is a visually arresting, an unconventional work of architecture sitting on a prominent Mall site. It grabs attention with its fluid, curvilinear geometry, dramatic cantilevers, horizontally undulating surfaces of amber, rough-hewn Kasota limestone and ribbons of undulating dark glass that separate stone-faced tiers, making them seem to float. It looks natural, yet at the same time, structurally unnatural with its wavy, weighty bands of suspended stone.

The museum's symbolic form, color and texture clearly recall the extraordinary geological formations -- undercut canyon walls and cliffs -- found in the plateau regions of the Southwest, places once inhabited by Native Americans, in particular the Anasazi tribes. Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon come to mind.

Evidently the Smithsonian and Native American stakeholders from all parts of the Americas, plus the Commission of Fine Arts, were convinced that this southwestern imagery, representing a particular regional landscape and thus a particular Native American culture, would be appropriate for this museum at this site.

But why employ this highly specific metaphor and exclude others? Why were landscapes and architectural traditions of tribal groups in the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and center of the continent not made manifest? In fact, not every Native American traditional structure is curved or circular.

There may be several rationales, but for Cardinal, embracing southwestern geology and cliff-dwelling imagery undoubtedly enabled him to more easily continue imposing his beloved curvilinear geometry.

Given the extraordinary diversity of Native American cultures, of natural environments and building traditions, it seems profoundly wrong-headed to make a Native American museum in Washington that embodies or expresses architecturally only one of those cultures.

A better strategy would have been to create a compelling urban edifice befitting its special place on the Mall. Without sacrificing the potential for dynamic curb appeal, the building could have been more transparent, both symbolically and literally. Instead of saying "Southwest" so assertively, it could have made an architectural statement about being comprehensive and inclusive, about being home to all of the Indian cultures of the Americas.

The museum's interior is equally problematic. The soaring, 120-foot-high rotunda -- the "Potomac" -- adjacent to the east-facing entrance exudes an emptiness that makes it seem too vast, purposeless and misplaced. Intended as an event space, most of the time it serves as a gargantuan entry foyer.

The Potomac could have been more central to the building, with galleries orbiting around it. And it didn't need to be a pure circle capped by yet another D.C. dome. Flooded with light from above, it could have been a grand, animated domain connected to exhibits, a space of recurring orientation for visitors as they traverse from one gallery to another.

The galleries themselves, mostly windowless with ceilings darkened, are spatially disorienting, hard to navigate, cluttered and organized in ways that defy comprehension. Like many who have questioned the exhibition strategy, I was uncomfortable with the didactically incoherent collection. "Science yields to stories" was the Post's characterization in September when the museum opened, but stories have narrative structure, and I could never discover or decode the structure.

Because many of the artifacts on display are not as light-sensitive as paintings or drawings, galleries could have been greatly enriched by introducing filtered natural light and providing more views to and from the outside world.

Perhaps this museum was destined to be aesthetically compromised, considering its troubled history.

In 1993 the Smithsonian Institution selected Cardinal as lead designer, but as a subcontractor to the Philadelphia firm GBQC, the executive architect. Not surprisingly, disputes arose between the two architectural firms as well as between the architects and client. The project bogged down, and the Smithsonian subsequently fired GBQC and Cardinal for missing deadlines and failing to fulfill other contract obligations. Disagreements about money also spoiled relationships. (At one point Cardinal retained me to help settle one of the disputes.)

Nevertheless, Cardinal's initial concept had been approved by both the client and the Commission of Fine Arts, although the Smithsonian wanted the design edited. A new team of architects and landscape architects -- James Stewart Polshek & Partners, the Smith Group, Jones & Jones, EDAW -- took over the design process and the scheme, made revisions (some of which were rejected by the commission), and finally got the project built.

During all of this, design implementation was further complicated by the nature of the client, officially the Smithsonian. But there were really hundreds of clients. The programming, conceptual content, internal arrangement and exhibition strategy of the museum were substantially determined by a sizable group of Native American tribal representatives. Thus, it was not just design by a committee, but design by a very, very large committee.

In the end, having been unceremoniously discharged and claiming to have done work for which he was not compensated, an embittered Cardinal has disclaimed design authorship. Last September, he refused to attend the museum's opening and dedication and has condemned all those responsible for bastardizing his design.

Yet the resulting edifice, while departing somewhat from the original concept, is still very much a Douglas Cardinal building. Whether a Douglas Cardinal building was the right building to house this extraordinary collection at this unique site remains in question.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company