How in the world do you design a museum that says “Bible”?
Such epic conceptual challenges are daily fare for SmithGroupJJr, the architectural firm doing the eight-story Bible museum being built near the National Mall. The firm’s many other clients include the International Spy Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture (all in D.C) and the American Cemetery Visitors Center at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. We spoke with David Greenbaum, SmithGroup’s lead architect on the Bible project, about the project:
Q: What did you think when you first got the call to design a huge Bible museum near the Mall?
A: We were intrigued by it. It’s a tricky thing to put in the nation’s capital. Politics come to mind, especially in a charged environment like this. It was a chance to elevate the stature of the museum and its holdings to be as serious a museum as we could make it. It was incumbent that everyone take this museum very seriously.
Q: Why wouldn’t people take it seriously?
A: There’s such a wide demographic in this country of believers and non-believers, that our thought was: If we were scholarly and genuine and put this forth as a serious institution that could stand up to the scholarly intent of the Smithsonian, then [people] would recognize this as an authority on the Bible and could look to this institution as a way to learn what’s there and to be a place for an exchange of ideas. That’s what architecture has to do.
Q: But it’s controversial. Did you debate whether to take the client?
A: It was our challenge to make sure it was seen in the most equal and prominent light. We’d do this for any client.
Q: What were the different ideas for the Bible museum?
A: We started with a series of abstracted icons…They wanted to draw people from the Mall and thought iconography could do that. We talked about how the historic building was part of the brand. (The museum is being built inside a massive red building created in 1919 as a refrigerated warehouse).
We had three primary ideas, three ways to look at it. Two were linear and one was curved.
A scroll or a Torah was part of [the curved theme]. We looked at aspects of the Sea of Galilee and the Arc. We weren’t trying to be literal. The [U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which gives guidance on design related to official Washington aesthetic] roundly rejected this
The National Museum of the American Indian and the African-American museum [had some abstractions] but all of a sudden with this it’s not okay to be abstract.
One was an open Bible, another was to look at a Bible closed. We also tested the idea of a crown, with a vertical fin. Others were composites of looking at a dialogue between the Old and New Testaments.
Q: You are adding handmade clay bricks made in Denmark to the existing exterior brick, for design.
A: Yes, the masonry skin has the aspect of overwriting, like scriptural artifacts. Skins they used for writing were so valuable they would rewrite on
them, in layers. And I think that aspect of history and the recording of history seemed like something we could draw on in the museum.
Q: Is doing a Bible museum more sensitive than other topics?
A: With each one we try to seek what is unique about the interpretive message..I don’t know. This is just me speaking. I think to some degree most of the folks here in this area tend to be more liberal so there’s a natural disconnect potentially between them and what would be perceived as the Christian right.
Q: You looked at dozens of images for inspiration. Did they include anything in popular culture?
A: Honestly, no. I think the client is traditional and conservative in their own right. So we’re trying to stretch and see the potential as far as we can.