N.C. architect's plan selected for African American museum

McClatchy NewspapersApril 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The museum design chosen to embody 400 years of the African American experience uses stalactites of timber and a glimmering bronze corona to convey both the weight of oppression and the soaring optimism of blacks in America.

The Smithsonian announced Tuesday that Durham, N.C., architect Philip Freelon and a team that spans the Atlantic will develop the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The winning design was something of a departure from the other five finalists, all of which included more fluid, curving elements from the outside.

The Freelon design 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," said Marvin J. Malecha, the president of the American Institute of Architects and the dean of the North Carolina State University College of Design. "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."

David Adjaye, an up-and-coming young architect from London, will serve as lead designer. Also on the team are Davis Brody Bond and the SmithGroup.

The museum is scheduled to open in 2015 on the National Mall with a site next to the Washington Monument.

The museum's design competition, announced last month, 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 Malecha, the AIA president. "You can't ask for a better opportunity."

Tuesday's announcement also caps years of strife and debate about not only the museum's concept but its placement.

The late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms once blocked the museum's founding legislation in Congress, while local 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 curators already have begun gathering artifacts and oral histories to tell the museum's story, and director Lonnie G. Bunch said he thinks Franklin's work will infuse the final project.

"This work will continue to be guided by the hope and spirit of John Hope Franklin," Bunch said Tuesday.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be on five acres close to the Washington Monument and will, once complete, cost an estimated $500 million _ half of it from taxpayers, the rest 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 Tuesday. "We wanted to make an experience for all the visitors that would be remembered."

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

Adjaye said Tuesday that the timber is supposed to convey dappling rainfall suspended midair, 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.

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."

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