- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

The National Museum of the American Indian is quietly and quickly taking shape on the Mall. It's not a shape you may be accustomed to seeing in Washington, but it is sure to be an interesting and a fitting reflection of the cultural and natural history it represents. The building completion date is September 2004, coinciding with the summer solstice of that year.
You could call the design representative of the "organic" school of architecture, as the source of the museum's imagery is found in various forms of nature. The curving, stone-clad walls, for example, resemble the walls of an arroyo, or canyon, left by an ancient river course. The experience of nature will also be heightened as visitors pass through a serpentine naturalized garden as they make their way to the entrance. An ethnobotanist was called in to replicate the original landscape of the site.
It is said that the Tiber Creek still runs below ground there. Following the ancient river bed entry walk, visitors to the museum will arrive at a ceremonial space called the Potomac, directly under a giant dome, 99 feet in diameter. This ceremonial space will be lighted by an oculus in the dome and a tall window lined with glass prisms refracting light to create the effect of a waterfall in a canyon. The play of light and color against the stone and on the floor of the circular space should be enchanting. Interiors throughout the museum will be finished in an array of rough-hewn, or "adzed" wood, bronze, copper and even wampum-shell inlay that promises to be beautiful, as well.
The museum's opening will bring to full circle a design process that began in the 1980s. Legislation introduced by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, was signed into law by President Bush in 1989 to establish the National Museum of the American Indian as a part of the Smithsonian Institution.
In fact, three buildings have resulted from this act. First was the Smithsonian's George Gustav Heye Center, in New York City, where an early collection had its first home. The center was quickly crowded out of its space in the Bronx, and it is now housed in the old U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan. The second building is the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland. This building will continue to serve as an archival storage and conservancy facility while artifacts are rotated to the new Mall site for exhibition.
The process has had roadblocks along the way, most publicly when original conceptual designer Douglas Cardinal ran into contract disputes with associate architects awaiting his drawings. In 1998, the Smithsonian selected Polshek/SmithGroup to provide complete architectural and engineering services. Construction proceeded briskly once the initial disputes were resolved.
The building has a concrete structure, clad in Kasota stone, quarried in Minnesota. It is a variety of limestone, and is a warm sand color. Varying the sizes and textures of the stone pieces, an effect called "rustication," will replicate the natural variations found in the walls of the canyons of the American West. Although the building doesn't appear as ordered, or regularized, in its appearance as buildings we are more accustomed to seeing (such as its neighbor, the National Air and Space Museum), the use of adjustable concrete forms allowed for some standardizing of the shell. That consistency, combined with an innovative self-compacting type of concrete created in Japan, resulted in the building coming together very quickly once the initial structural piles were installed.


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