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Architectural Firms Compete to Design African American History Museum

The Smithsonian unveiled models from the six architecture firms competing to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

The future National Museum of African American History and Culture -- as envisioned by competing teams of architects -- will most likely include water features and music halls, evocations of slave ships and the African past, and vistas acknowledging its important, monumental neighbors.

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Yesterday, the Smithsonian Institution unveiled conceptual designs from six prominent architecture teams for what could be the last important building on the Mall. It was the first opportunity to see what the physical structure, scheduled to open in 2015, might look like. The models are on display at the Castle Building for public comment until April 6. The teams, which include "starchitects" such as I.M. Pei and Sir Norman Foster, were not present for yesterday's briefing.

A number of the proposals, presented as 3-D models and drawings, echoed aspects of other, familiar museums: the circular paths of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the wetlands and water movement of the National Museum of the American Indian, the open floor of the National Museum of American History and light that cascades into interior and underground spaces, as at the Pyramid at the Louvre. Materials included copper, wood, limestone and glass -- lots of glass, which would potentially reflect the historic and natural core around the new facility.

The museum will occupy a five-acre plot near the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History. It is one of the last open spaces on the Mall, and the museum's founders have specified that the building must respect the history and visage of the monument. As part of their proposals, the architects were asked to acknowledge their own understanding of the importance of the African American experience.

Lonnie G. Bunch, the founding director of the museum and the chairman of the jury that will select the architect, walked among the displays for the first time yesterday. Along with physical dimensions and environmental and energy considerations, Bunch had instructed the competitors to keep in mind the planned content and the physical placement of the museum. He said he asked for optimism, spirituality and joy, as well as "the dark corners" of the African American experience. "We want a building that is worthy of a rich cultural heritage," Bunch said, "and we want it to work as a museum."

The conceptual designs, he said, were requested to "give us enough so I know you are the team I want to dance with."

Don Stastny, an architect and the design competition adviser, stressed that the building has to function as a night-and-day destination and that how the teams handled natural and electric lighting would be a key consideration. "What it looks like at night is important," he said. "It will have the prominence of the other icons."

Officials with the Smithsonian, which will oversee the details of construction and exhibition content, said they didn't expect the building to be very tall, but it would cover 300,000 to 350,000 square feet. The submissions are:

-- Devrouax & Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners envision a seven-story structure (with two of the floors below ground) that features a circular interior within a box shape. It would have a roof garden with landscaping inspired by a pattern on one of the architects' grandmother's quilt. Pei, a recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, designed the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Devrouax & Purnell did Nationals Park.

-- Diller Scofidio and Renfro, in association with KlingStubbins, submitted a table-shaped building wrapped in glass. The renderings show a place featuring billboard-size photographs of famous black figures and moments, and where jazz musicians might perform. One image depicts slaves in a ship in a huge Middle Passage Gallery. The plans feature an amphitheater facing the Lincoln Memorial.

-- The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates and Davis Brody Bond designed a museum with two of the above-ground stories shaped like wide baskets. The exterior is covered with copper screens that change color during the day. At various points inside the museum, there are stopping places that look to the Capitol and other landmarks.

-- Foster and Partners/URS foresee a circular building. Visitors enter a ramp and descend to a lower level to start the museum experience, which begins with slavery and winds through the stories of freedom, sports and the arts. At the top of the four stories, visitors enter an area of "celebration" and face a huge window, looking out at the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. As with the other architecture collaborations, this one includes African American partners. In this case it's Blackburn Architects and Harry Robinson, former dean of the Howard University architecture school. Foster designed the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian's Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

-- Moody Nolan, in association with Antoine Predock Architect, envisions a building made of natural materials, rising as of out of bedrock and muck. Along one side runs a wetlands scene, a nod to historic Tiber Creek that ran through part of Washington. Its glass roof features etchings echoing Yoruba ancestral arts, and it also has an outdoor amphitheater facing Constitution Avenue.

-- Moshe Safdie and Associates in association with Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates submitted a four-story concept that features a lot of natural light. A towering ship's hull marks the entrance. In a section labeled "The Door of No Return," the museum would have exhibition and contemplative areas dealing with slavery and segregation stories; a section called "Freedom Bridge," on the top level, would include exhibits on music and sports. The proposal features a web-like facade, behind which is a series of pedestrian walkways.

An 11-member jury will make its selection next month, but Bunch stressed this would be an independent decision arrived at without public comment. Final approval would come from the Smithsonian Board of Regents.

The design process will continue for several years, with reviews by the Commission on Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission before the plan is finalized.

The museum is in the private phase of a fundraising campaign. The project is expected to cost $500 million, with half funded by Congress.


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