African American life, history and culture explored here in Washington D.C.
The NMAAHC building is African American history and culture writ large on the National Mall of the United States. Its location and its design represent the past, present, and future of the African American experience in ways that are both tangible and symbolic.
Looking north from the building, visitors can see the White House, which made history in 2008 with the election of President Barack Obama. Rising to the east beyond the National Mall and other Smithsonian museums is the U.S. Capitol, seat of the nation’s legislature. And to the south and west are monuments and memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, whose contributions to African American history and culture are told in the museum.
The NMAAHC’s highly symbolic presence on the National Mall is matched by the symbolism of the building itself. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, together with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, won the international competition in April 2009 to design and deliver the museum to the people of the United States. Groundbreaking on the five-acre site took place in February 2012, with the museum’s opening day scheduled for September 24, 2016.
The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Adjaye grew up as a citizen of the world; he has lived in Egypt, England, Lebanon, and Tanzania; and has visited all 54 independent nations of Africa. Freelon is the leading designer for African American museums today. And before his death in February 2009, J. Max Bond Jr. designed African American historic sites, museum, and archives around the world. As a result, the architects have synthesized a variety of distinctive elements from Africa and the Americas into the building’s design and structure.
From one perspective, the building’s architecture follows classical Greco-Roman form in its use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital or corona. In this case, the corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. Moreover, the building’s main entrance is a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, especially the American South and Caribbean. Finally, by wrapping the entire building in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, Adjaye the architects pays homage to the intricate ironwork that was crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere.
Significantly, the enveloping lattice also opens the building to exterior daylight, which can be modulated according to the season. In one sense, this is architecturally practical and sustainable—and will help the building become the first Smithsonian museum to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification. But the openness to light is also symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing. From the topmost corona, the view reaches ever upward, helping to remind visitors that the museum is an inspirational open to all as a place of meaning, memory, reflection, laughter, and hope.
Many of the world’s great buildings have integrated their architectural form with their function or purpose. The NMAAHC follows this principle in the sense that the building (as a “container”) embraces its content—which is the American story told through the lens of African American history and culture. Fulfilling a decades-long dream, the NMAAHC building is a community resource that helps visitors learn about themselves, their histories, and their common cultures. The light reflected from the bronze-colored lattice will serve as a beacon that reminds us of what we were, what challenges we still face, and what we may hope to become. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the NMAAHC, has described it, “This building will sing for all of us.”
This building will sing for all of us.Lonnie G. Bunch Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture