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? It’s interesting how they’re predominantly situated beneath the grounds of the National Mall, presented chronologically from the bottom up.

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 museum’s design is about honoring African Americans’ contributions to culture and a struggle that has given America so much. The idea was to guide visitors through a historical and emotional 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. The movement upwards is symbolic—this is meant to be a story of struggle, but also of triumph.

The museum’s three-tiered shape takes after the Yoruban Caryatid. Why is that?

The form derived from Yoruban art was intentional in its localizing effect; it is meant to make a very specific point about how the migration of a group of people fundamentally changed a nation. America was quite literally built on the back of Africans; its culture is fundamentally imbued with an African sensibility. America cannot be fully understood without this conceptual lens.

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?

Sometimes it takes an outsider to look effectively at things that are incredibly emotional to a community. I think that’s what I brought: a very wide-angled gaze. I had a clear sense of wanting to present the information in an open way. At the same time, it is also partially the story of my heritage: African-American history is black modern history, in terms of its impact on black culture and emancipation around the world. In terms of post-colonialism, the African-American trajectory is the beginning of Modernism. So it is part of my history, but it is not my specific history. So I felt I was able both empathize but also to be objective.

What have you found most challenging about this project?

Every square foot of it 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 project of my career. It’s very rare that architecture has a symbolic role that is not trite. I think we are lucky enough to have one of those moments here.

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