Q&A: David Adjaye on the New National Museum of African American History and Culture

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The architect behind the capstone of D.C.’s National Mall opens up about why his latest project, debuting this week, is so much more than a building.

This Saturday, 13 years after it got the green light and a century in the making, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) finally opens its doors in Washington, D.C.—right next to the Washington Monument, likely as the last museum constructed on the National Mall. President Obama himself will cut the ribbon on the 400,000-square-foot behemoth, whose 34,000 artifacts—an early-19th-century slave cabin; a Jim Crow railway car; the neon Soul Train sign—not to mention the Oprah-backed theater, help tell the story of America through the lens of the black experience. Meanwhile, with its three-tiered exteriors clad in a sustainable, bronze-coated lattice screen inspired by the work of formerly enslaved craftsmen down South, the building is already an icon itself. Enter the Ghanaian-British architect and OBE David Adjaye, also behind Norway’s Nobel Peace Center, who was tapped as the NMAAHC’s lead designer. Here, he tells us about the symbolism of the space, and why it’s such a "defining moment."

How have the weightiness of the collection and its wide range of artifacts affected the design of the space?
The collection really developed in tandem with the progress of the building. Many of the amazing artifacts had not yet been donated when we began design work. So for us, it was very much about the narrative. The building takes you on a journey, through the depths of slavery to the highs of the culture contributions of black Americans ranging from sports and food to music and art. The history galleries are weighty, somber, and reflective. The culture galleries are celebratory and lively.      

It’s interesting how the collection is predominantly situated beneath the grounds of the National Mall, presented chronologically from the bottom up.
This was a very conscious decision. The museum has the responsibility to tackle very difficult and painful realities about America’s past. At the same time, this project is not simply about tragedy. It is also a celebration of black contributions and hopefully a presence that can inspire hope. So, telling the story from the lowest level up was part of that symbolism—it is an intentional movement upwards, from the depths of the building into the light. 

The museum’s three-tiered shape takes after the Yoruban Caryatid. Why is that?
The form for me was a way of introducing the narrative of the project, which was very much about exploring the meaning of “African American.” The form is West African, and it was important for me that this influence be present on the mall to make a very purposeful statement about how Africa has contributed to the development and shaping of America—the nation was quite literally built on the back of Africans. To have this form sit among the other classical forms on the mall felt incredibly important. The corona’s tripartite nature also reveals the structure of the museum, which is divided into three galleries: one addressing history, one addressing community, and one addressing culture. So it is an entry point to the narrative and content of the museum itself.

Courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture

You were born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, have lived everywhere from Egypt to Lebanon to Yemen, and are now based in the U.K. How has your nationality and peripatetic upbringing influenced your perspective as an architect, and your work on the NMAAHC in particular?
I think I brought a wide-angled lens to something that is incredibly emotional. I was very conscious that while this is not my specific story—I am not American—it has a global resonance and thus a personal resonance. African-American history is a touchstone of black modern history, and had a profound influence on black culture and emancipation movements around the world. Because of this, I felt I was able to be both empathetic as well as objective.

What have you found most challenging about this project?
Every square foot of this project has been a massive investment of blood, sweat, and tears. This is eight years of intensive work finally coming to fruition. There is an immense responsibility inherent in this building, to do justice to a complex and significant history of a people whose stories are still too rarely told. This project means so much to so many people, it is the culmination of a 100-year fight and is truly so much bigger than a building. That was weighty and challenging, but also invigorating. To be afforded the chance to contribute something with so much resonance is what architects dream about. This is a monumental project and arguably the defining moment of my career. It’s very rare that the symbolic role of architecture is recognized, discussed and palpably felt. I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of a project that holds such weight.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens September 24, 2016, on the National Mall; 844-750-3012; nmaahc.si.edu.

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