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Design Chosen for New Smithsonian Museum

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Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 1:00 PM

Love it? Hate it? Somewhere in between? Washington Post Culture Critic Philip Kennicott was online Tuesday, April 14 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the winning design for the Smithsonian's next big addition to the Mall -- the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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Philip Kennicott: Welcome everyone, and good afternoon. Today the Smithsonian announced its choice to design the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. The winner? Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group, a team that includes Philip Freelon and David Adjaye. It's an exciting idea, a large stone base with terraces, a dramatic entry way with hanging wood slats that forms a kind of canopy, and a "corona" of two, inverted pyramids around the top.

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London, U.K.: This design seems to be the safest choice out of all the entries. Is this reflective of United State's current economic crisis?

Philip Kennicott: I disagree about the safety of this choice. The new building will be a remarakble conrast with nearby federal buildings, and the museums already built on Constitution Avenue. If you want to see a safe choice, check out the Safdie design. As for the economy, I think everyone has fingers crossed that we can proceed without too many delays despite the negative economic climate.

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London, U.K.: How is this design, inspired by an African Crown, with a British Starchitect, reflective of the African AMERICAN experience?

Philip Kennicott: A few thoughts. First, I asked Adjaye at today's conference how he, as a man of African descent living in the U.K., researched and prepared to design a specifically African American museum. He said, "African-American experience is really the global experience of people of color That's how powerful it is." And then he listed some personal experiences, of Pentecostal religion, W.E.B. Dubois, and other writers, that suggest the depth of his exposure and experience. I think he's right about the universality of experience: If you insist that only an African-American architect is qualified to design an African-American museum, you diminish the universality and importance of the very subject you're supposedly celebrating.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Having favored the Diller Scofidio and Renfro/KlingStubbins submission, the selection of Freelon Adjaye Bond forces some further reflection on the promise of modernism's 'project.' The cultural iconography and metaphors embedded in the winning team's imagery -- while sometimes disjointed and incoherent -- speak volumes to the continued importance of the 'local' over the 'universal.' I wish the team great success in providing the public a meaningful and compelling story to add to our collective histories along the Mall.

Philip Kennicott: I favored the Diller Scofidio and Renfro/KlingStubbins design, and wrote about that last Tuesday. But the winning design was my second favorite, and by no means a bad choice--though a very different one in terms of the modernist project. I think you're right about the dialectic between local and modern. In some ways, unless you're wandering our domestic neigbhorhoods, Washington is a city with a very impoverished sense of the local. I don't think the Museum of the American Indian changed that much, but I do wonder if this museum will be different, more specifically rooted in an imagined locality of African American experience.

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Washington, D.C.: It looks like two Godiva chocolate boxes on top of a waffle.

Philip Kennicott: Distinctive shapes in architecture are always subject to reductionist readings. The shape is supposedly taken from an elaborate African head dress, with inverted pyramid shapes. It also reminds me a bit a of those geometric plinths on which Brancusi set his sculptures. As for a Godiva box? Mmmmmm. I'll take some truffles please.

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Washington, D.C.: This site is a part of the Washington Monument grounds and begged for a landscape solution like the Foster or Moody concepts. This Freelon concept is a 1960s boxes on a platform solution. I can't imagine that CFA and NCPC will approve this garish building.

Philip Kennicott: The Foster concept certainly tried to integrate more directly with the site, though after watching how under used the garden of the National Museum of American History is, I don't know whether the Foster plan would have been any better. The winning proposal uses the trendy idea of multiple "lens" windows looking out through the bronze screen at the monuments on the mall, and it has large terraces that will connect to the mall as well. But there's a challenge: The terraces at the NMAH aren't used, as far as I can tell, so what will invite people up and out at the new NMAAHC? One possibility: They have an internal staircase to lead visitors out of the museum, rather than a wrap around terrace without much connection to the interior.

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Eh: I agree that it is the safest. It is bland, without drama. I would have picked the Diller one. This just looks like a museum. The other, like a soaring, hopeful work of art.

Philip Kennicott: I hope we can entice Diller Scofidio and Renfro to DC sometime soon. The work they're doing on Lincoln Center in New York is wonderful, and their insight into remaking the Kennedy Center would be very valuable.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't get why we (taxpayers) are building a new museum, while there is a prime vacant space (the old Arts & Industries building) that could be recycled/refurbished and put to good use... or lots of unused ground-level space near and around the Mall. Is this location a done deal? Could the museum still be located at A&I or in an already constructed building?

Philip Kennicott: First, only half of the $500 million is coming from taxpayer funds, though that's obviously still substantial. I agree with you that we desperately need to reuse the Arts and Industries building, but most new museums come with such an elaborate program that it's probably not easy to simply adapt a much earlier building and one that needs substantial maintenance. As for underground? Please, no more underground buildings--and especially no Vietnam Veterans Visitor's Center, which really is unnecessary clutter on the Mall. If we need a building, put it up in the light and let's build one we're proud to look at. I'm not a mole. Mitigating their impact is all well and good, especially when the landscape invites you to do just that. But I think an underground museum for African American culture would have sent the wrong messages.

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ugh: My husband asked if it was supposed to be a Church Lady hat! It is not a building that inspires. It is both boring and cartoonish.

Philip Kennicott: One thing worth considering is the minamalist purity of much of what Adjaye has already done. His buildings have a simplicity that may not always read in photographs or models. But they've been very well received once executed.

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Silver Spring, Md.: This is definitely one of the safer choices -- and not a particularly attractive one at that. Most people I spoke with preferred the Foster and Partners design. Why didn't the Smithsonian allow public input toward the design choice?

Philip Kennicott: I'd direct your question about public input to the Smithsonian. It was amusing to me that they had viewer response cards in the little exhibition of models, but that these were pointedly not being used in the deliberations of the committee. I've asked to see them and would love to write about the public's reaction. Let's see if that ever happens. There is, however, a larger question about public response. It's not always clear that design decisions should be made democratically. I'll toss that out there and let people nibble on it...

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Raleigh, N.C.: Where on the Mall will this be located? How will it relate to what's already in existence nearby?

Philip Kennicott: The site for the building is on the north side of the Mall, along Constitution Avenue, between 14th and 15th Streets. I went down there again recently after a little Cherry Blossom stroll and it's an interesting challenge. You have a wall of imposing federal buildings on the north side of the street, the American History building next door, and then a gentle sloping entrance to the part of the mall that rings the Washington Monument. It is definitely the most powerful encroachment on the Monument grounds to date, so sensitivity to the site was a major issue for all the design teams. Lighting, at night, will be an issue as well. Wouldn't want the lovely glowing obelisk overshadowed.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was pleasantly surprised to see the project of Freelon Adjaye Bond being chosen for the newest addition on the Mall. However, the project proposed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro would have been a definite step forward in the D.C. architecture. And you wrote a wonderfully compelling story on this subject earlier this month! Is there resistance to progressive and innovative architecture in D.C. or just lack of imagination from city planners?

washingtonpost.com: The Brightest Idea for Illuminating the Past (The Washington Post, April 7, 2009)

Philip Kennicott: Thanks. As I've said, I really hope we can get Diller Scofidio and Renfro here soon, and engaged with a major project. The reader has linked to my original piece, which explains a little better my over all views.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Your answer to the quite powerful and targeted second question seems to belie the importance of having an African American museum. If this experience is indeed universal, as you suggest, then how does it merit its own building? If on the other hand, it is a more specific set of experiences within a larger context, then the choice of architect becomes much shakier.

Philip Kennicott: Universal doesn't have to mean exclusive to one group. I spent some time, a few months ago, reading the autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, and it had a powerful effect on me. I suddenly realized that I embraced his voice, his mind, as if it were a part of my own experience, as if he were sitting the same, private pantheon of great writers I've been building since I started to read. And yet he came from a world, and lived experiences, so utterly different from mine that I can't even imagine where I'd start a conversation with him. The universality I felt in his writing is an invitation, a connection, not a denial of difference of a homogenization of meaning.

Another way to answer your question, more specifically, is to say that the subject of the building is universal, but it is not universally known to the world. I'd like to continue this... but I don't want to write faster than I'm thinking.

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Bethesda, Md.: How much of the Mall landscape will change with this new museum getting so close to the Washington Monument? Will the Mall area become over-built?

Philip Kennicott: The mall is rapidly being overbuilt, despite concerted efforts to stop it. I think that in terms of honoring specific groups of Americans, we have done what needs to be done with the Museum of the Native American and the forthcoming NMAAHC. Future museums, and future memorials belong off the Mall, which is no slight to their subject matter of cause, just an acknowledgement of the importance of maintaining the nation's front yard.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Is there any symbolism in the architectural design relative to the African American experience in the United States and the diaspora? What is the ceiling in the court made of and what is its function other than lighting?

Philip Kennicott: The ceiling in the court is made of hanging wood slats, which may give the space a lot of warmth. There are also symbolic or program elements built into the original design request, including a ship. Several of the designs interpreted the basic trajectory of African American experience as a progress from darkness to light and hope, and I think, in a more subtle way, the winning proposal, with its roof-top garden, will do the same.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm disappointed with the Smithsonian's choice. Admittedly, I haven't seen models of the design, just photos in the Post. But those photos aren't making me hopeful. The interior ceiling looks like it was lifted from an old fashioned ballroom in the Kennedy Center, and the exterior is a bland box-on-plaza design. No, it's not as bad as the I.M. Pei or Safdie designs. But I do wish the Smithsonian was bold enough to select a design along the lines of the Diller and Foster proposals.

Philip Kennicott: The real proof of the building (at least as a sculptural form) will be in the bronze corona feature. I think renderings of the main lobby space make the wood look a little bit like dangling metal things, which would indeed be a throwback to the kitschy fancy stuff of the Kennedy Center. Again, I'm with you in being disappointed by the failure to pick Diller Scofidio and Renfro, which would have marked a radical step forward for architecture in DC. But given how easily the decision could have foisted a really disastrous building on the mall, we should be thankful that something of this quality is winner.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you explain in a little more detail how this building will offer a contrast to its neighbors on the Mall? And, how will this design "respect" the Washington Monument, as opposed to the structure which you spoke highly of last week?

Thank you.

Philip Kennicott: Again, the bronze element on top, which many people are dubious about (based on questions I have yet to answer), should be a quite striking departure from the materials and basic shapes already familiar in federal and museum architecture in DC. I'm also hopeful that the finish of the building will be much more precise and clean than much of what passes as minimalist in the city. As for respecting the monument, it's hard to solve that problem. Some designs, such as Foster's, basically pointed a huge window at the monument, which is a good way to suggest respect from the INTERIOR of the building. But it also looked, perhaps, a bit like a snake coiled and about to nip the ankle of the poor old obelisk. One very good way to respect context is to set context aside and think about basic elements. I hope that's where we're headed with this design.

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Washington, D.C.: All of the teams on the shortlist for this competition comprised two or more firms. Was this part of the Smithsonian's RFC? If not, would you say it reflects firms' increasing awareness of their own limitations? And is it another nail in the coffin of the notion of the architect as sole visionary?

Philip Kennicott: That's a great question. This is a huge project, with a lot of complicated elements, not least of which is the review process that the design will now confront. I don't think a large team necessarily diminishes the power of the individual vision. I also think the Smithsonian may have been a little bit burned during the construction of the Museum of the Native American. During this process, they explicitly emphasized that they were looking for teams, flexible, capable, teams that demonstrated the ability to work well together.

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Washington, D.C.: There were aspects of all three designs that I very much liked, which is the always the case with architectural design. It's also true that good design does not always show through renderings and models, and the final design will be much different than the concept. I much prefer the rendered version of the Adjaye/Freelon/SmithGroup design over the model, which doesn't, I think, do it justice. I also love the interior renderings. That ceiling design is absolutely stunning, especially once you understand the symbolism of it. I think of the top three designs, the winner most closely reflected that symbolism, and was more of a tribute to the culture versus a tribute to the architect.

Philip Kennicott: Thanks for the comment...

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Richmond, Va.: Do you believe that this team was selected because of the fact that Freelon/Bond wrote the program for the Smithsonian for this building a year or so ago, and the fact that the Smithgroup was involved with the Native American Museum?

Philip Kennicott: I don't know, and at this point won't speculate. But I'm hoping that when all of this is finished, we think back on it as a new era for trasparency at the Smithsonian.

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Bethesda, Md.: Something that doesn't transpire from the renderings in the print is the roof garden that you mentioned. How will it look and what purpose will it serve?

Philip Kennicott: You've identified a feature that needs more thought. Based on what I've seen so far, the gardens look pretty bland, a lot more stone than green. And as I've said before, there has to be a good reason to search out an elevated or roof top garden. Let's hope they give us some.

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Washington, D.C.: To your response to consider Adjaye's minimalism, it shows the disconnect of having a British starchitect as the lead designer of this building. While he does wonderful work, African American culture is not one of minimalism. That was more than obvious when seeing how static and rigid the floor plans and sections where for this team's proposal. The building has no life, drama, or story from the inside to the outside. It has no reflection of the culture.

Philip Kennicott: I take your point, but one thing I like about this design (as opposed to the Foster plan) is that it DOESN'T force a rigid narrative on the museum experience. "African American culture isn't one of minimalism..." you said. Okay, but we're talking about the shell inside of which the museum experience takes place. The power of a minimalist approach (which is already doing an injustice to what Freelon Adjaye Bond etc. has proposed) is that it doesn't insist on a particular narrative. We've got so much of that in our museums today, we may well be thankful for a breath of new air.

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Portland, Ore.: Do you think the museum's board will be able to work with the design team to try and make the building good? Or are we stuck with the bronze birthday cake?

Philip Kennicott: I think the bronze element is probably so fundamental to what appeals to them in the design that we won't see it come off. But stay tuned.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kennicott,

When it comes down to the real "nuts and bolts" of what this building is supposed to mean and represent, do you really believe that it does justice to African American History and Culutre? Or did any of the submissions actually do that? I would say no.

Philip Kennicott: I hope it does justice to the importance of its subject. I had hoped for something more definitively a break with previous Washington architecture. It's also worth pointing out that buildings are not, in themselves, capable of standing for the whole of the lives of tens or hundreds of millions of people. My real hope is that what's inside this museum does justice to its subject, and that the building that houses it at least advance the project of architecture in Washington (without necessarily shouting anything in particular about it's purpose).

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Alexandria, Va.: Just for clarification: I didn't say underground, I said "ground level" -- as in the first floor of an existing building.

Philip Kennicott: Thanks for pointing that out.

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Alexandria, Va.: I must admit that I was not overwhelmed by any of the finalists, several of them downright bizarre. Perhaps this is because I was a supporter of placing the African American Museum in a renovated Arts and Industry's Building. It would have given the museum a more prominent place on the Mall and, in my view, announced that the history of African Americans belonged in one of the original Smithsonian buildings. And it would not have required another building to an already overbuilt Mall that will eventually become some kind of historical arcade if this doesn't stop soon.

Philip Kennicott: Let's put this on the record too, yet more voices calling for reusing the Arts and Industries Buildin, and keeping the mall free of further encroachment.

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Philip Kennicott: We've come to the end of the chat. Thank you everyone for your questions, my apologies to participants whose questions I couldn't get to in time. It's great to see so much public engagement with this project, which I hope continues and helps steer its course between now and the anticipated 2015 opening date.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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