Architects, sharpen your pencils.
The Smithsonian has taken the first step toward hiring a firm to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall.
On Thursday, it posted a request for qualifications on FedBizOpps.gov, inviting licensed architects and engineers to compete for the prestigious commission. The building will occupy a 5-acre site on Constitution Avenue between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
At a press briefing Thursday, museum director Lonnie G. Bunch said "our goal is to have a signature building that embraces the site and the Mall" and represents the "resiliency, hope and spirituality" associated with black American culture.
"It must help us to embrace the pain and contradictions of segregation, poverty and racial violence," said Mr. Bunch. "Yet this museum must also let our audiences find the joy, the strength and the creativity that is at the heart of this community."
He and Smithsonian planning and project director Sheryl Kolasinski said they wanted the new structure to incorporate energy-conserving features and become the Smithsonian's first museum to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Architects are required to prove they are competent to design such a structure and explain their appreciation of black history in writing. Minority firms are strongly encouraged to apply, said Mr. Bunch, but the chosen architect might not be black.
In developing guidelines for evaluating the applicants, the Smithsonian consulted with members of the National Organization of Minority Architects and other professional groups.
Submissions are due Sept. 19 and will be evaluated by a panel of experts primarily from the Smithsonian. The field of applicants will be narrowed to three to seven firms that will participate in a design competition for the building, which is expected to cost $500 million to design and construct.
The judges for this contest haven´t yet been selected, but Mr. Bunch hopes they will include the dean of an architecture school, architects from both inside and outside the Smithsonian, museum board members and a respected historian of black culture "like John Hope Franklin," he said.
The finalist will be named next spring and will have three years to design the 350,000-square-foot museum, which will be roughly the size of the National Museum of the American Indian, at 4th Street and Independence Avenue Southeast. The design concept must win approval by the National Capital Planning Commission and will be vetted by other federal agencies and local groups. Construction is set to begin in 2012 and be completed in 2015.
Meanwhile, the museum´s holdings are far from completion. "We have only about 20 percent of what we need," said the director, noting an extensive selection of fashions worn by blacks already in the collection.
He hopes to secure the largest, most significant artifacts before the building design is completed so the architect can shape the exhibit spaces around them. Among those already collected are a slave cabin from a tobacco plantation in Maryland and a Jim Crow-era railroad car found in Tennessee.
"It´s these kinds of things that will make this museum sing," said Mr. Bunch.
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