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Correction to This Article
-- An April 7 Style article gave the incorrect day for the announcement of a designer for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The announcement will be made on Tuesday, April 14.
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One Design Stands Out in African American History and Culture Museum Competition

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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Renderings of the interior suggest a cross between the Newseum's jazzy ramps and walkways, and a vast terrarium of glass and water. Would it work? There are two concerns. This design breaks up the gallery spaces with deconstructivist glee, which may make them hard for exhibition designers to use efficiently. And the sheer mass of stone presents some very opaque and not enticing faces to the city, especially along the 14th Street NW side of the building (which most of the architects have treated as a busy thoroughfare to be hidden or ignored).

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That leaves two contenders, the Freelon Group (with David Adjaye, a fast-rising architectural star who is designing two branch libraries for the District) and Diller Scofidio and Renfro, a New York-based firm that is redesigning Lincoln Center and has already produced spectacular results with the new look of Alice Tully Hall.

Adjaye's influence can, perhaps, be detected in the elegant, clean lines of the Freelon proposal. The building is the most sedately horizontal of all the schemes, capped by two distinctive, inverted pyramid shapes supposedly derived from African forms and covered with bronze screens. If the perforated metal covering catches the light the way the architects hope it will, the results could be both dappled and dazzling.

Or is it too serene? An excellent building, but perhaps too understated a presence?

The same definitely cannot be said of the proposal from Diller Scofidio and Renfro with KlingStubbins, which is the design that should receive the committee's blessing.

Where Safdie struggles to find room for curves within the boxiness of a boring federal building, Diller Scofidio and Renfro really does manage to square the circle. Its design flows downward, from a bold, linear cornice line through a nonlinear, saddle-shaped belly, into the ground on curvaceous supports. It is a daring fusion of forms, seemingly a box on top, but with a skin of glass that warps and turns and seems to touch the earth like a giant tent tethered by a mesh of cables.

One of the most attractive aspects of this design is a wide, flowing passage that invites pedestrians to move underneath and through the building as they walk to the Washington Monument. It also features a lovely performance space.

The design also refuses to be trapped in the either/or dilemma of stone vs. glass, with a glass skin hung off a limestone interior, which can (if desired) be opened up to light with a "vortex" through its core.

Plenty of cities have been burned by picking a building just because of its bold, sexy exterior shape. We should have doubts about this proposal on that score alone. And there may be an issue with light pollution at night near the Washington Monument through the design's voluptuous glass shell, which Diller Scofidio and Renfro will have to address sensitively.

But with all that said, the shape is seductive, and would inspire a welcome dialectic with Washington's existing architectural styles. Most important, it cuts the Gordian knot of buttoned-down, overly contextualized, bland 1980s modernism that has hamstrung architecture in Washington for a generation. It is the best choice, not just for the Smithsonian, but for the city, the country and the dignity of African American history and culture.


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