- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture named Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup Tuesday to design its new building on the Mall. The team was selected unanimously by a 10-member jury led by museum director Lonnie G. Bunch over five other finalists.

“They designed a distinctive signature building, but one complementary to the site,” Mr. Bunch said at a Tuesday press briefing.

Site sensitivity is important because the black history museum will occupy one of the most prestigious plots in the city, a 5-acre parcel on the southwestern corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street next to the Washington Monument. The museum may be the last building on the Mall, and its design bears particular significance now that the nation has elected its first black president.

The proposed building promises to offer spectacular views of the Mall and surrounding city from upper-story windows behind a “corona” of perforated metal panels inspired by African forms.

Construction of the museum, estimated to cost $500 million, is scheduled to begin in 2012 and be completed in three years.

“We were choosing a design team, not just a design concept,” Mr. Bunch said at Tuesday’s press briefing. “The team we have chosen will be able to work closely with the Smithsonian and listen to stakeholders such as the National Park Service and National Capital Planning Commission” charged with reviewing designs proposed for the city’s monumental core.

Perhaps anticipating the scrutiny of federal agencies, the jury of architects and Smithsonian officials chose the most horizontal and understated design of the visions submitted by the six firms competing for the project. The four-story museum proposed by Freelon Adjaye Bond positions the upper floors on top of a stone-clad plinth, an arrangement similar to that at the National Museum of American History directly across 14th Street.

“It’s about a crown sitting on an elevated mound,” said lead designer David Adjaye of the winning vision. The commission for the black history museum, the Tanzania-born architect said, is “the dream of my career.”

Covering the top two gallery floors will be slanted bronze screens to provide views of nearby monuments through sculptural glass openings. The metal enclosures, shaped like inverted pyramids, are intended to reflect sunlight during the day and glow at night from the illuminated windows.

A rooftop garden will be designed by Seattle-based landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson - who shaped the Kogod Courtyard at the Old Patent Office Building - to offer more vistas of the city.

Welcoming visitors from the north along Constitution Avenue will be a glass-fronted wing topped by a memorial garden. A similar “porch” will extend to the south to provide views of the Mall. Inside the ground level, a great hall will be topped by a ceiling of hanging timbers meant to resemble frozen rain.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture isn’t Mr. Adjaye’s first building commission in Washington. The London-based architect is currently at work on two branch libraries for the District.

A rising star in architecture, he designed the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

That the Smithsonian chose Freelon Adjaye Bond is unsurprising, given the team’s collective experience in designing black history museums. Architect Philip Freelon of Durham, N.C., designed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Among his current projects is the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, N.C.

New York architect J. Max Bond Jr. is the architect behind the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala. As noted at the press conference, Mr. Bond died in February and will be replaced by Peter Cook, a partner of New York-based Davis Brody Bond. “Max was the dean of African-American architects in this country,” Mr. Cook said.

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