A Marvel of a Museum and Newsworthy, Too

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 1, 2008

When the Newseum opens April 11, visitors will see an extraordinary work of architecture housing extraordinary exhibits.

Two New York firms, Polshek Partnership Architects and exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum Associates, have crafted a magical place. Their efforts, while disparate, were not separate. Rarely will you see a museum where exhibit design and building design are so intimately interwoven.

Credit for this beautiful, costly edifice also goes to clients and patrons: Newseum officials, the financially well-endowed Freedom Foundation and "founding partners" who helped pay for the $450 million project.

The high-tech, multifunctional Newseum encompasses 643,000 square feet of floor area, of which 250,000 square feet are dedicated to exhibits now being installed. Ten residential floors, occupying 146,000 square feet, overlook C Street on the Newseum's north side.

The site, at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street NW, presented designers with four dissimilar conditions: Pennsylvania Avenue NW to the south, with views to and from the Capitol Building, the National Gallery of Art's East and West buildings, the Federal Triangle, and the Mall and Smithsonian museums beyond; narrower and less monumental Sixth Street to the west; unremarkable, alleylike C Street to the north; and, at the site's eastern edge, the Canadian Embassy.

The designers responded with an architectural strategy that not only is aesthetically compelling but also represents thoughtful urban design.

Rather than fashioning a singular, monolithic volume or employing historic motifs, they composed an abstract, three-dimensional collage of overlapping planes and volumes. The complex but systematically layered exterior is an artful assemblage of rectangular elements varying in size, scale and depth.

Diverse cladding materials -- glass, modular metal panels, marble -- amplify the visual reading and expression of the collaged composition, enabling planes and volumes to be transparent, translucent or opaque.

The architects also varied facade surface patterns formed by panel joints, curtain wall mullions and projecting fins. Some patterns are two-directional grids, while others emphasize horizontality or verticality.

Designers surely noticed that building facades nearby have large, recessive voids, as if parts of their original mass had been removed. The center of the Canadian Embassy volume was carved away to make a public courtyard. Deep incisions and recessed expanses of glass in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art expose its geometry and link it visually to the Mall landscape.

Polshek Partners followed suit. Looking at the Newseum's south facade, you may initially notice the building's playful composition or the 74-foot-high, Tennessee marble tablet inscribed with the First Amendment. But it's the huge, dark, recessive void in the middle of the facade that will most forcefully draw your eye. Set back within that void is a multistory, sheer glass wall, a monumental "window on the world" providing views into and out of the Newseum's 90-foot-high, sunlit atrium.

The south facade of the Newseum, its most public face, warranted bold, stylistically contrasting gestures, given the iconic buildings nearby. Yet those gestures are neighborly. Step back, and you see that the Newseum attractively complements the Canadian Embassy.

Visitors will enter the Newseum atrium, the gee-whiz space around which the galleries are deployed. At the atrium's east end, three glass elevators, each the size of a small bus, will take visitors to exhibits at the top level. From there they "will be transported through time from the dawn of the age of the printed word to the cutting edge of the digital age," said Joe Urschel, the museum's executive director. Winding their way down through the levels, visitors will determine their own pace and path of travel.

And what a travel experience! The Newseum's interior, like the exterior, is a visually dynamic collage of vertically and horizontally interlocking spaces varying in shape, area and height. Volumes nest within volumes. Surfaces are clad in metal, glass, terrazzo and carpet. Wood veneers add warm accents. Custom-designed illumination is artfully done and sometimes includes the use of daylight. Periodically there are breathtaking views of the Capitol and the Mall.

Inside, there will be 15 theaters with more than 100 video productions; 14 major galleries displaying 3,800 images and 6,214 artifacts, including portions of the Berlin Wall and a 40-foot guard tower; news "crawls" and immense video screens; two state-of-the-art broadcast studios; 130 interactive stations throughout the building; and, of course, a cafeteria and a gift shop.

The Newseum will be a hit, thanks in part to the marriage of architectural form and journalistic exhibits. Normally, adult admission will be $20. The April 11 grand opening, when admission is free, is likely to attract thousands who will spend hours exploring and interacting.

During the first year of operation, the Newseum and The Washington Post will sponsor free admission for groups of schoolchildren from the District, Maryland and Virginia. I wouldn't be surprised if those visits inspire some of the students to become journalists or architects.

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

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