Durham architect's team to design D.C. museum

A home on Mall for black history

Washington CorrespondentApril 15, 2009 

— Durham architect Philip Freelon thought that a museum chosen to embody 400 years of the African-American experience should convey both the weight of oppression and the soaring optimism of blacks in America.

In the coming years, Freelon will get to see his vision grow in stone and bronze on one of the nation's most prominent sites. Freelon is the leader of a team of architects named Tuesday as the winners of a competition to design the Smithsonian's new Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. David Adjaye, an up-and-coming young architect from London, will serve as lead designer.

Once opened, the museum could be an important resource and destination for generations of North Carolinians -- and Americans -- of all races who continue to feel the lingering impacts of slavery and segregation. It is scheduled to open in 2015.

Already, museum curators are collecting artifacts and oral histories for inclusion among the exhibits. The Smithsonian's design competition, announced last month with six finalists, attracted national attention from architecture critics. The museum could be one of the most significant national projects recently built for cultural institutions.

Fewer than a dozen museums call the National Mall home.

"Oh, to put a building on the National Mall? Wow," said Marvin Malecha, president of the American Institute of Architects and dean of the N.C. State University College of Design. "You can't ask for a better opportunity."

Tuesday's announcement also caps years of strife and debate about the museum's concept and location.

Former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms once blocked the museum's founding legislation in Congress, while Washington historic preservationists opposed building any new museums on the National Mall.

Historian John Hope Franklin, a Duke University professor emeritus who died last month, was on the museum's board of directors and served as its spiritual guide. Museum Director Lonnie G. Bunch said he believes Franklin's spirit will infuse the final project.

"He said to me, this is his last project," Bunch said Tuesday. "I think he'd say that the shimmering bronze presence really symbolizes the experience of African-Americans."

The winning design was something of a departure from the other five finalists in the Smithsonian's competition, all of which included more fluid, curving elements visible from the outside.

The design by the Freelon team is more geometric, a rectangular structure topped by a double-layered corona sheathed in bronze.

"This great simple base and these wonderful simple forms that come out of it have a feeling of, like, a tribal palace," Malecha said. "One form grows out of the next, and out of the next, which is very much part of the African village culture, which is that everything is connected."

It was inspired by Yoruban art of west Africa, and the designers hope it will shimmer with reflected light as the sun rises and sets each day.

"We feel the building should be an exuberant and uplifting building, but not unnecessarily flamboyant," Freelon said Tuesday in Washington. "We wanted it to be dignified. We feel our design is both majestic and celebratory."

The museum will be on five acres close to the Washington Monument and will, once complete, cost an estimated $500 million - half of it from taxpayers, half raised privately.

The museum is slated to begin construction in 2012 and open three years later.

"We didn't just want to make a building," Adjaye said. "We wanted to make an experience for all the visitors that would be remembered."

Inside, the museum will include a grand room hung with light-colored wooden slats suspended from the ceiling. The slats grow longer, plunging toward visitors, in the room's center, almost following the curvature of the bottom of a ship.

Adjaye said Tuesday that the timber is supposed to convey dappling rainfall suspended in mid-air, reflecting the weight of the African American story.

But, Adjaye said, the building design really is more about joy.

"The iconography - you'll see it's really about this crown that sits elevated. It's a porch, a canopy, a respite for people to come and learn," Adjaye said. "The iconography of praise cannot be emphasized enough."

The announcement is a coup for The Freelon Group, which has developed a niche in designing African-American cultural institutions. It recently won the competition for a museum in Atlanta and has designed African-American cultural museums in Charlotte, Baltimore and San Francisco.

The company also has designed university buildings and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Contract negotiations for the Smithsonian museum's design are expected to continue through the summer, and both officials and architects expect the design could evolve.

"While we think it is an incredible design and concept, it's not a building yet," Freelon said. "It's an idea."

bbarrettt@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0012

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