Architecture Review: Renovated Smithsonian National Museum of American History

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Heroic efforts to make the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History a more lovable building have been made, and the building has just as determinedly resisted them.

The renovated space that opened on Nov. 21 after an $85 million overhaul is an improvement in many obvious ways. Light flows in. The wings of the building connect with each other and a central core more logically. There will soon be a cafe with windows facing onto Constitution Avenue NW, linking the building to the city, and there are new restrooms, information centers, and an elegant stairway that ties the whole space together. On a purely architectural level: Mission accomplished.

But this building's Will to Ugliness is profound. It will not give up the fight easily.

When it opened in 1964, it was dubbed the Museum of History and Technology, and it is more the spirit of machines and science than of history that defines the space. From its hard edges and boxy shape to its institutional cleanliness of materials, it wants to tell you about the rational side of life, how man has tried methodically to improve his world. It has little patience with the irrational enthusiasms and sentimentality of history.

The architectural firm that designed the original space was the successor firm to McKim, Mead & White, the late-19th-century giant that helped define classical elegance in American civic architecture. Jaws drop when people new to Washington architecture learn this odd fact. McKim, Mead & White was all about coffered ceilings, Corinthian columns, gold leaf, sumptuous colors, dark wood and dizzying but comforting allusions to the grandeur of old empires. When the firm unveiled the Museum of History and Technology, it was clearly the last gasp of a venerable but vitiated giant.

The original architects were trying to solve what has proved an intractable problem. How do you be modern and classical at the same time? Their solution was a perfect Washington non-answer. Be a little of both, say nothing too definite, hem and haw and split the difference. So the museum has classical proportions, but the blank, sleek face of modern style. It is punctuated by long, vertical lines that may define wide "columns," or may just be long vertical window openings.

Inside, it was meant to be immensely flexible, a big box for exhibitions that could be reconfigured with ease. As you enter from the Mall side, the new configuration, which includes a soaring atrium topped by a skylight and new glass "artifact" walls that display an eclectic representation from the "nation's attic," you encounter a curious object. Made sometime around 1670, it is a chair. And a table. A very practical but roughly made tool -- fold down the chair's overlarge and ungainly backrest and it becomes an undersize tabletop -- and a good metaphor for buildings that assert flexibility over certainty of mission. Like this chair/table, the building was always more useful than beautiful.

The changes to the space focus on emphasizing use value, while leaving the question of beauty to the side. A dimly lit chapel for the Star-Spangled Banner has been created on the second floor, a quickie shrine for people who want to taste rather than quaff history. There are new bathrooms and gift stores on both the Mall and Constitution Avenue levels. The confusion that many visitors felt when encountering the museum's dark warren of galleries has been alleviated, or rather postponed, until they pass out of the renovated core into the wings, which are still dark and confusing and filled with closed-off galleries yet to be reworked.

The renovation architects, led by Gary Haney of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, have been faithful to the building's old materials, keeping the white and black marble paneling that defines, respectively, the museum's East and West wings. Greenish terrazzo flooring recalls the very 1960s palette and textures of the old space. The lighting, though preternaturally brighter in the central core, echoes the hospital-style lighting of the old wings.

These acts of fidelity are both admirable and troubling, especially when you encounter one of the museum's most treasured objects: the Greensboro Lunch Counter, where a historic 1960 sit-in became one of the central acts of the civil rights movement. The opening of the atrium and the side halls has given this battered piece of an old Woolworth's new prominence.

But it feels terribly lonely, and ill at ease. And that is the effect of the building in a larger sense. Anyone who grew up in the era when 1960s institutional architecture was new or considered fresh will feel a dreary sense of emptiness, even with the architecture's newer, brighter, more open form. The bareness of the finish and the materials -- the gray speckled flooring, the "dirty" marble panels, the airport seating in the wings -- which have been faithfully preserved or echoed, were the look of the future when they were new. It was a look in argument of the battered old feel of Main Street, but it made banks feel like department stores and junior high schools feel like hospitals. Look at the lunch counter again, and you notice that the footrest is made of very similar material to the museum's flooring. Even Woolworth's was modern.

It was almost as if architects of that period imagined that the future was itself a place, a home, that would replace our old, rooted, particular sense of home. But that future turned out to be merely a style, and its worst exemplars -- bland and uninspired buildings like this one -- feel awfully bleak today. No wonder so many of the historic objects feel homeless in this museum, while the machines -- the true icons of the ideology behind this building's look -- seem to be at ease no matter where they are placed.

Visitors will probably also feel more at ease and move about more freely and happily in this more user-friendly building. And it's obvious that it is a work in progress and will remain so as renovations continue until 2014. But it still confronts us as do most ugly buildings: It is waiting to outlive the ideas and associations that make it unloved. It's not certain it will ever get there, but only time, not renovation, can really do the job.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company