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African American Museum's revised design gets favorable reviews by NCPC

By Jacqueline Trescott
Friday, September 3, 2010; C02

A revised design concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture shifts the building to the southern boundary of its location across from the Washington Monument grounds, giving an unobstructed view of the landmark.

The new design, which was favorably reviewed by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) on Thursday, keeps the museum as a single building, though one that is 17 percent smaller than in the original architectural plan. Most of the shrinkage occurred through the elimination of space between the distinctive bronze coronas that wrapped the main museum structure. The new concept lowers the coronas, now three instead of two, to almost ground level, delivering a slenderizing visual modification.

"Now we feel it is stronger and purer," David Adjaye, the lead architect, said after the federal panel's meeting.

The entrance off Constitution Avenue leads to a bridge, pond and garden, and access to the main hall. Crossing the water is meant to symbolize the Middle Passage of slaves across the Atlantic. Two floors will house the exhibits, covering 400 years of history.

The museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, will sit on five acres at Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets NW and is expected to be complete in 2015.

The location is a coveted spot because of its symbolism on the Mall and its convenience for the millions of visitors to that area each year. In April 2009, the architecture team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup won the contract to build what many expect to be the last building on the Mall.

The planning commission's Thursday session followed months of behind-the-scenes meetings between museum planners and the NCPC staff to answer questions about the building's sightlines, relationship to other structures in the federal and museum corridor, and accordance with the many federal and local laws that regulate height and setback. The plans will be reviewed again by the NCPC before final approval, as well as reviewed and voted on by the Commission on Fine Arts. The city's State Historic Preservation Office also has to review the plan. The Smithsonian hopes the final design will be approved by 2012.

Though the NCPC commissioners approved many features of the design, they did question the perimeter security, the proximity of the water features to the sidewalk, the night lighting, the service access routes and the impact of the excavation of the compact site on the Monument grounds.

Peter May, the associate regional director of the National Park Service, National Capital Region, said the project "was far more successful" then interim plans, but he questioned whether the planned building had been moved too far south. "We are not comfortable with the way it is now," May said.

Harriet Tregoning, the director of the D.C. Office of Planning, praised the architectural team "for a design that is of its time," but said she was concerned about traffic congestion along 14th Street NW.

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