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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.
The Brightest Idea for Illuminating the Past

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The choice of design for the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture may well be the highest-profile architectural decision that will be made in Washington for years to come. The five-acre plot, near the Washington Monument, is on the Mall, a civic landscape that should be considered absolutely closed to future development but can accommodate this one last, essential project -- not because it is important to African Americans but because U.S. history cannot be told without it.

Located on the Constitution Avenue side of the Mall, the new museum will enjoy spectacular views of the Washington Monument and complete a line of first-rank cultural institutions that run from the successful I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Building to the desultory box of the National Museum of American History -- a study in architectural highs and lows that underscores the critical importance of making the right choice.

But the six proposals under consideration also reveal the city at an architectural crossroads: to go forward and break with the punishing conventions that have stymied our architectural creativity, or to build yet another blandly institutional building, a fading echo of something that was never very good to begin with. We have faced this decision before -- the arguments for context and respect and conformity to the old, monumental styles, and the cries for a break with the past, an architecture of adventure rather than slavish imitation.

This time, for once, we face the choice with some real options, and one proposal, by an energetic and innovative New York-based firm -- Diller Scofidio and Renfro -- rises above the rest.

Designs and models are on display through April 16 at the Smithsonian Castle. Never mind that box and those cards soliciting public reaction. Museum leaders have announced that public response to the models is pointedly not being considered by the 11-member jury, according to its leader and the museum's founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch.

Based on these initial designs, it's clear that two teams should be eliminated.

Given his importance to 20th-century architecture, and the beauty of his earlier work in Washington, it is sad to see I.M. Pei's name and his firm's prestige associated with something so lackluster as the project submitted by Devrouax & Purnell and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. They have proposed a simple fusion of two ideas, a curving space filled with windows placed within the void of a rectilinear box. This is office park architecture, and even the renderings on display show little real engagement with serious thinking, little regard for the importance of the structure, little creative enthusiasm.

Moshe Safdie's proposal for the new museum is typical of his firm's recent work: the ugly, bunkerlike fortress he created for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at New York and Florida avenues NE, and the mishmash of a building that is currently being constructed for the United States Institute of Peace near the I-66 entry ramp at Constitution Avenue. And it has none of the radical vigor of his most famous building: the grand mountain of modular apartments called Habitat 67, in Montreal.

His Smithsonian proposal is yet another effort to square the circle between rigid, formal, enervating bureaucratic forms and light, open, curvilinear ones. The attempt at resolution is almost mindless: Safdie and Associates suggest cutting through the museum's box with a great sweep of flowing glass. This has been compared to a ship's hull, but when seen from the side it resembles great glass and concrete buttocks. The silliness of this feature shows how easily thoughtless architecture can take on unwanted meanings.

The other four designs meet the design challenge with different degrees of success. The proposal from Foster and Partners/URS is exciting and deserves an A-plus for its clever integration of a bold, sculptural object with the landscape. Norman Foster, who designed the happily received glass cover for the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian's Old Patent Office Building, has proposed a spiraling building that culminates in a huge window on the Mall. A sunken garden helps the whole project nestle into the ground as comfortably as a nautilus shell on the beach, but given how underused and desolate the sunken garden next door at the National Museum of American History is, it's not clear that this would be a real amenity.

The building's sculptural form is also its primary weakness: Like several of the other architects, Foster seems to interpret the museum's exhibition master plan as a call for yet another narrative-based facility, the sort of museum that forces visitors to march through its space in a rigid order, like scenes in a play or panels in a cartoon strip. This is a fashionable but pernicious idea among museum planners. But what becomes of Foster's best feature, this spiral of spaces, when this narrative ideology eventually ceases? People will think: It's just like Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling Guggenheim in New York, a beautiful shape but a frustrating museum.

Antoine Predock, who has teamed up with Moody Nolan, is a wildly innovative architect with a Southwestern flair who should have had a major building in Washington by now. His team has submitted a daringly angular and complex building with enticing outdoor features -- wetlands along 15th Street NW and an amphitheater facing Constitution Avenue -- and seems to be trying to build on the strengths of the unsuccessful National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004. Like Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal's designs for the NMAI (somewhat muddled in execution), the Predock team wants to blur the lines between man-made and natural space, but without putting such a dreary and overscale object on the Mall. The team has proposed a kind of stone mound, gently cleaving the ground and covered in natural materials.

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).

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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