In D.C., designs for African-American museum go on display

Raleigh News & ObserverMarch 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A Durham architect who could help design the next Smithsonian museum envisions a stone building crowned in shimmering copper, evoking the ancient art of West Africa, the American struggle for equality and the joy of the African-American communal experience.

Philip Freelon and his Freelon Group, along with a team of colleagues, are one of six finalists in a competition to design the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. Their work went on public display Friday.

The winning design will be announced April 14.

Once it opens, anticipated in 2015, the museum will include experiences central to the history and culture of North Carolina, a former slave state and the site of such historic Civil Rights events as the Greensboro sit-in. Today, the state is home to more historically black colleges than any nearly other state in the nation, to a strong African-American musical tradition and to powerful elected leaders at all levels of government.

If the Freelon Group and its team win the design competition, North Carolina would also be home to one of the architects of one of the dozen museums on the National Mall.

Freelon, whose firm formed a team with three other companies, said the group wanted a museum that was "both dignified and exhuberant."

"We tried to let the site tell us what it wants to be," said Freelon, in an interview this week with The News & Observer. "We know we want this building to be more than a vessel that holds exhibits, not just a beautiful building but one that is part of the themes of what the museum will be."

That theme, said museum director Lonnie Bunch, should evoke both historic struggles and community celebration.

"What I really want is a building that gives you a sense of the resiliency and optimism throughout the African-American community," Bunch said Friday at a Smithsonian news conference to unveil the designs.

The Freelon Group and its team based its design on a piece of Yoruban art from the west coast of Africa, a carved wooden figure topped with a three-tiered, trapezoidal crown. It is this corona, the architects said, that forms the soul of their design.

For the museum itself, they envisioned a geometric design in keeping with the other monolithic buildings on the Mall. A stone base is topped with a two-tiered, rectangular copper corona that shrouds the perimeter of the building. The copper shroud will change throughout the day as sunlight hits the metal.

Inside the museum's entrance and lobby, copper cylinders hang from the ceiling of the grand Central Hall like stalagmites.

"They really embraced this idea of how to create a building that works with natural light, both light as a function and light as an expression of what the museum is," said Don Stastny, an Oregon architect who served as a competition adviser to the finalists.

"There is a very strong simplicity and elegance," he said.

Others in the team include London-based architect David Adjaye and Davis Brody Bond of New York City. The group will be judged for the competition in part on its teamwork.

The Museum of African American History and Culture has been years in the making. Supporters fought hard for a site on the National Mall despite a congressional moratorium banning new buildings. The location finally chosen sits on the Mall, between the Washington monument and the Museum of American History.

It was critical, museum officials said, that the new museum respect the towering obelisk and the surrounding landscape.

To that end, many of the designs unveiled Friday point toward the Washington monument. Many of other finalists included elliptical organic elements to their designs.

One rose out of the earth in natural rock. Another was shaped like the spiral of a seashell, moving upward as visitors walked "into the light," Stastny said.

The Freelon Group, which designed the Durham Bulls ballpark in the Triangle, has had a big week. The company, which has 61 architects, won a contract Thursday to design the civil rights museum in Atlanta.

And Freelon already has had a hand in the Smithsonian museum's design.

The Freelon Group was hired two years ago in the museum's first phase to develop a 1,200 page vision for the museum, including the amount and types of space it would need. That plan was given to all the teams now competing in the design contest.

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