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Starchitects design African-American museum

Six teams created conceptual designs for the Smithsonian's upcoming National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Devrouax + Purnell / Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Kling Stubbins

Foster + Partners / URS Group

Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup

Moody Nolan / Antoine Predock Architect PC

Moshe Safdie and Associates

According to the Post, the public can comment on the designs until April 6th at the Smithsonian Castle, but then a jury will pick a design without looking at the public input. NCPC and the CFA will then get to weigh in and probably modify the design before anything gets built. (The museum also has to raise money for construction.)

Update: some people have obviously been stuffing the poll above. My logs show a large number of clicks from a Facebook profile of someone with the last name Devrouax, for example (but not architect Paul S. Devrouax). Before the stuffing really got going, the Safdie "hull" alternative was in first, and "I don't like any of these" in second. I'm honored that some people consider our poll worth stuffing!

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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These are all just godawful and will further tarnish the Mall. It's bad enough that we're balkanizing our country with the different "enthnicity" museums rather than incorporating them into the American History Museum. It began with the Native American museum and will end with the Vietnamese-American museum, or Caucasian American museum someday, unfortunately.

Why do starchitects suck so badly and just live off their reputations?

by SG on Mar 30, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

SG just took all of the words out of my mouth.

These "designs" are abysmal and do nothing at all to reflect the history of Black America- actually the Indian Museum was a real attempt at incorporating the native architecture and it is not as bad as it could have been- at least it has a semblance of a dome instead of the horrific flat roof so emblematic of the cheap assed and un-imaginative Bauhaus a$$hole's bad taste .

Why not incorporate some of the real African architecure- as was done w/ the African art museum- and have echoes of real Black American architect's works in the design? These designs are more about current Euro - Peon tastes and Caifornia Malibu than the experiences of Black America.

I also agree w/ the Balkanization.

Personally- I'd rather see more sculptural monuments on the Mall than these ethnic atrocities. Lets put the painters & sculptors to work.The starchitects are already rich MFers and have ruined too much.

by w on Mar 30, 2009 12:03 pm • linkreport

I'm slightly partial to the one on the lower right corner, the others all look like disasters. I don't get why some architects seem to have such a neurotic attitude toward fenestration.

by Steve on Mar 30, 2009 12:04 pm • linkreport

I'm a big fan of the Sackler and African Art museums. I like how they are underground with a really nice open area garden on top. The post article says that they are worried about obstructing the view of the Washington Monument. I think underground is the only way to go.

by Erik on Mar 30, 2009 12:09 pm • linkreport

The pictures don't tell much really. For a museum to be good, the exhibits and the floor plan has to be good.

The native american museum is a good example of why its not a good idea to fire the architect in the middle of the project. A lot of unfinished business. But the biggest problem isn't the building, its that the exhibits seem to just be a mish mash.

But to answer the question, of these choices I'd probably go with Safdie.

by spookiness on Mar 30, 2009 12:13 pm • linkreport

Are any of these architechts African American?

by Bianchi on Mar 30, 2009 12:13 pm • linkreport

I think burying it could be politically unfeasible. Like what does that suggest about America's relationship to African-Americans?

Btw. stand on Constitution Ave between 12th and 14th and look back and forth between the Mellon Auditorium and the American History Museum. It's a quick course in everything architects forgot in forty years.

by Steve on Mar 30, 2009 12:19 pm • linkreport

FWIW, Safdie was born in Palestine. His firm's website takes credit for the new ATF building in NoMA and the U.S. Institute of Peace HQ which is currently under construction next to the Roosevelt Bridge. Those government buildings afford some additional context on their work beyond this small thumbnail.

by Paul S on Mar 30, 2009 12:30 pm • linkreport

It's a shame that those plans to turn South Capitol or East Potomac into a second wing of the National Mall keep going nowhere. A Black history museum is a great idea, but in combination with the other goofy plans going around (an Eisenhower Memorial? Really? Grant got a circle in Petworth and Eisenhower gets a Memorial?!?), we are REALLY running out of room on the Mall.

by tom veil on Mar 30, 2009 12:36 pm • linkreport

The one on the top left looks just like the Canadian embassy.

by Eh on Mar 30, 2009 12:36 pm • linkreport

I hate them all. I posted my specific thoughts at BDC.

It's a shame that the dogma of modernism prevents architects from understanding the needs of urbanism. In this case, the formality of the National Mall's "outdoor room" was totally ignored by every single one of these proposals.

Moshe and Devrouax are the least offensive.

by BeyondDC on Mar 30, 2009 12:37 pm • linkreport

Why should the public bother to comment if the jury isn't going to look at the comments?

by ah on Mar 30, 2009 12:38 pm • linkreport

Why do we need a second Smithsonian museum in DC documenting, preserving and interpreting African American history?

by Marian Berry on Mar 30, 2009 12:39 pm • linkreport

In terms of conceptual program Foster's hits it out of the park. Safdie's is the most elegant.

by цarьchitect on Mar 30, 2009 12:39 pm • linkreport

It's hard to be sure the descriptions matcht he right image - can you label the images to make it clear?

Also, I agree it's unfortunate to have a separate museum for this, but it's too late to make that argument.

by Michael on Mar 30, 2009 12:39 pm • linkreport

Isn't every interstate a memorial to Eisenhower? I know there are memorial plaques to Eisenhower at some of the service stops off the PA turnpike.

I agree with w, I'd like to see more memorial/public scupltures, releifs, mosiacs and paintings ala the Af Am Civil War mem.

Are any of the architechts Af Am? Is that important for the museum? I think it is.

by Bianchi on Mar 30, 2009 1:16 pm • linkreport

The Adjaye-Freelon proposal is the most successful of the six. Diller Scofidio's design is a close second.

Adjaye has done nothing but beautiful work everyone he has gone. See the Wakefield Market Hall, Stephen Lawrence Centre, and his Idea Stores for proof. When this competition was first announced several years back I immediately thought that he would be a perfect fit. The addition of Freelon adds more contemporary civic design expertise to the mix. Adjaye's design is a perfect example of sophisticated contemporary design that acknowledges its subject matter and its context. From the thoughtful symbolism of the massing to the elegantly textured lobby ceiling and facade, this is just a wonderful design.

BDC, I read your rant on your website and as a design profressional, I feel that a dignified response is in order. First, the National Mall is indeed a sculpture garden, albeit on a massive scale. The context is a series of iconic buildings. Therefore all of these proposals did respond quite well to the context by adding another iconic building to the collection. There is a level of sophistication presented by all of these designs that you apparently do not understand. Second, your reference to the Adjaye-Freelon design as brutalism is both offensive and inappropriate. The design is paired down and quiet while also being quite delicate and somewhat ornate in its material palette. The brutalist aesthetic of heavy concrete and tiny punched windows is in no way represented here.

by Jim Malone on Mar 30, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

While in agreement that the museum is completely frivolous, I am with öarüchitect on Foster's being the best. Second favorite is the Adjaye/Bond rendering, but I am way more excited for the anacostia libraries his firm is working on.

The rest are tired and boring. Diller Scofidio+Renfro's is completely ridiculous. It's like it came out of some undergraduate design class.

by JTS on Mar 30, 2009 1:28 pm • linkreport

I am so sick of everything having to be ethnic. We are ALL Americans! Make the Museum of American History represent us all as it should. This is just another sterling example of reverse-discrimination. Public outcry over a 'Caucasian American' museum would be deafening, so why this then?

Secondly, why on earth do NONE of the designs fit in with any of the other architecture? It's almost like the EMP project in Seattle..... just trying to show off.

by JM on Mar 30, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport

I like Foster's #1 and Adjaye's #2.

I think the "Futuristic Thing" might actually look okay somewhere like near the Ballpark along the waterfront as some sort of museum but I don't think it would look good on the mall at all. The view inside is really cool but the design is just too much for this area. The others I just think are either trying too hard or are boring. I would love for the Foster or Adjaye one to get built.

And yeah, I disagree with the concept of having museums for so many people and groups as well. I would like for us to build that circle with the arch in the middle near the ballpark though with the new bridge, that could be cool.

by Vik on Mar 30, 2009 1:42 pm • linkreport

The only thing I find thought-provoking in any of these designs are the ship masts in Safdie's design, it gets my vote.

by DC_Chica on Mar 30, 2009 2:01 pm • linkreport

Jim Malone -

First of all you're not the only "design professional" in the room, so thanks for the talking down but no thanks.

Regarding the Adjaye design, perhaps it is not brutalism but it sure looks it from the one exterior rendering we get in the slideshow. If you have more information, please do share.

As for the Mall being primarily a sculpture garden rather than an urban room... I have no response. If that's what you think the National Mall is all about then our understandings of the meaning of that public space are too different to reconcile.

by BeyondDC on Mar 30, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

I will definitely have some thoughts on this later today. But for now:

I am so sick and tired of DS+R's rendering style. I want to steal all their pencils and get turn off the opacity filters in Photoshop. Ugh.

by цarьchitect on Mar 30, 2009 2:17 pm • linkreport

The Foster one looks like a rip off of the new American Univ. art building.

by Reid on Mar 30, 2009 2:19 pm • linkreport

#1 by Devrouax & Purnell Architects/Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects...tell me this doesn't look like something from "Go Fug Yourself" for architecture instead of famous people. This couldn't look more 1970s if they tried.

#2 by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Speaking of fug, when are we going to realize that "blobitecture" is the "brutalism" of the new millenium? We will totally HATE this building in 50 years or less. (And the interior shot reminds me of Dulles, so it's simultaneously future-forward and retro. And all ugly.)

#3 by Foster + Partners/URS Group, Inc. My second favorite of the group. I think it looks utterly insane from above, but the street view, apired with the lush and striking detail from the above shot really sold me. My one critique is that it kind of looks like "Mission: Space" at Epcot.

#4 by Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates and David Brody Bond. OK, I love the Vegas-styled interior ceiling! Who doesn't want their reverent celebration of African-American culture to come with a little slice of Planet Hollywood? Having said that, how fugly is the outside? It kind of looks like a flesh-colored Pizza Hut.

#5 by Moody Nolan in association with Antoine Predock Architect. I don't HATE this, and I adore the interior lobby shot. This sounds a little "fluffy," but with all the jagged and disjointed walls (bordering on "blobitecture,") would one not get dizzy in this museum? Or vertigo?

#6 by Moshe Safdie and Associates Inc. I LOVE the slave ship gone modern idea. Wow, how beautiful is this? It's also a nice use of a motif without having the motif overpower the clean lines of the building.

by Aaron on Mar 30, 2009 3:06 pm • linkreport

* I am also waiting for the European-American Heritage Museum.

* All designs are ugly. 'Nuff said.

* @ Jim M: You say the buildings on the Mall are iconic. I would say none are, except the Congress and the White House. The rest doesn't even come close.

* I would describe all designs as typically American: Big, bulky, pompous, utterly introspective, and lacking any integration with the surrounding area. I guess that would fit perfectly on the Mall.

* Seriously, America used to be revered for its architecture. First the Freedom Tower and now this? WTF?

* Do these architects ever come out of the US? Ever check any cities around the world? Beijing? Shanghai? Tokyo? Berlin? London?

BTW: Why doesn't anybody post these design in decent high-res?

by Jasper on Mar 30, 2009 3:07 pm • linkreport

hahahaha, Aaron's comments = awesome.

by SG on Mar 30, 2009 3:24 pm • linkreport

thanks! but #1 is WINNING, so no accounting for taste, eh?

by Aaron on Mar 30, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport

"The one on the top left looks just like the Canadian embassy."

I thought the same thing when I saw it. I'm really shocked it has the most votes so far in the poll.

by Chris Loos on Mar 30, 2009 4:59 pm • linkreport

>Why doesn't anybody post these design in decent high-res?

Because it would be cumbersome for a blog page. Too slow to load and too much scrolling for people trying to view other posts.

If you want to see high-res, go to the WaPo slideshow in the link. The images here are really just so people know which design is which when talking about them.

by BeyondDC on Mar 30, 2009 4:59 pm • linkreport

@ BDC: WaPo doesn't have hig-res either. High-res is screen filling, not the size of a stamp. I was not directing my frustration at GGW or BDC.

by Jasper on Mar 30, 2009 5:02 pm • linkreport

Oh. I misunderstood. Sorry.

by BeyondDC on Mar 30, 2009 5:09 pm • linkreport

The only thing more disgusting than these designs is the ethnic hatred expressed in these comments.

by Omari on Mar 30, 2009 8:41 pm • linkreport

@Omari -

Are you serious? How does being vaguely opposed to a museum that singles out a group of people translate to ethnic hatred? Would you support a National Museum of Gays, Lesbians, and the Transgendered? How about a National Museum of Amputees? The National Museum of White Anglo Saxon Protestants? A Museum of the Confederacy? Surely all groups have a unique history and a perspective different from your own; they, in turn, deserve equal representation on the national mall, according to your understanding of the term.

I am (sort of) against this because the space could better represent all Americans. I'd love to see a museum of Science and Technology (Air and Space doesn't count, and I don't think arts and industries is ever going to open), or a museum dedicated to diplomacy or the youth (we were all young once). It's a waste of space because there are better uses for it. I think we will look back on this, the American Indian Museum, and the Air and Space Museum (if and when we shed the glorification of militarism) as generally bad ideas.

by JTS on Mar 30, 2009 9:16 pm • linkreport


I'd like to see the gangrenous limbs and pickled oversized genitalia that you used to be able to see on the mall, according to my mother.

by spookiness on Mar 30, 2009 10:08 pm • linkreport

Air and space does a lot more than glorify militarism. Yes, some of it does, but the history of aviation is pretty incomplete without acknowledging its role in significant wars. And any science/technology museum would be incomplete without mention of military technology as well, along with a bunch of other controversial stuff.

by ah on Mar 30, 2009 10:12 pm • linkreport

spooki-you can still see those! At the museum of medical history (?) that used to be a Walter Reed - I think it's now at the Naval Medical Center. Maybe someone else knows where it moved.

by Bianchi on Mar 30, 2009 10:12 pm • linkreport


totally, completely agree. Which is why I think a new museum would be put to better use recognizing scientific achievement, not just in aviation and missile technology (but that too). Or something else that is is part of our common identity.

by JTS on Mar 30, 2009 10:16 pm • linkreport

Well, now we're turning to a completely new question:

Does the Mall really need a new museum?

Or can the space be used for something more useful?

by Jasper on Mar 30, 2009 10:29 pm • linkreport

it's still at Walter Reed;

by Bianchi on Mar 30, 2009 10:34 pm • linkreport

I think we will look back on this...the Air and Space Museum (if and when we shed the glorification of militarism) as generally bad ideas.

Jesus Christ, I know I troll on here a lot, but are you serious? It's the most popular museum in the damn country! Get over your elite sensibilities.

by MPC on Mar 30, 2009 10:40 pm • linkreport

JTS, there is a Museum of the Confederacy. And yes, it does glorify war.

by цarьchitect on Mar 30, 2009 11:35 pm • linkreport

I'll post my comments on my own blog in the morning.

I would however like to gauge interest in counter-proposals that actually harmonize with the McMillan plan. Can it be done, and would anyone enter a competition to design such a counter proposal? I'm working with a group of architects to put together a small prize (probably a few hundred dollars) to go to the best design, would any of you be willing to help pony up cash or enter? Feel free to leave comments here or on my post in the morning.

by Boots on Mar 31, 2009 12:31 am • linkreport


Yes and I've been there, but according to mom its not the same. Apparently the truly freaky stuff is not in public view.

But I did enjoy the cyclops baby and civil war era examples of the finest amputation techniques! The gigantic hairball was cool too.

Philadelphia has the Mutter Museum, but a lot of it is wax and its just not the same.

by spookiness on Mar 31, 2009 12:36 am • linkreport

My thoughts.

I think that a few proposals do harmonize with the buildings already there. This time it's the trads who are stuck with the ideological blinders. Half the mall is modern already. And for additions, these projects work in the scheme of monument buildings in a park, facing and framing the lawn. (OK not the DS+R one)

Boots, I might be interested in the competition, but I think a better idea would be for GGW to hold a charette for some other project that would actually contribute to the city.

by цarьchitect on Mar 31, 2009 1:14 am • linkreport

None of them are any good. It reminds me of so many competitions where the style is modern. Kind of like shooting craps, the architect shakes up the usual kit of parts and throws them down arbitrarily hoping for a lucky seven but inevitably comes up with crap. At least it's a monumental site and won't be any more offensive than the angular East wing or it's country cousin the American Indian Museum. At least they didn't fool around with the WWII memorial.

by Thayer-D on Mar 31, 2009 7:34 am • linkreport

Sure, half the mall is mod, but I didn't say to harmonize with the mall, but to harmonize with the McMillan plan. The mod buildings that are there are ugly and stand as blemishes to a great place. Nobody goes to the Hirschorn to see the architecture, (or the art for that matter) and without their collections I doubt anyone would care for the Air and Space Museum or the East Wing. The mall falls apart where the mods have triumphed, it's a success where the classical has won. What's best is the allees of trees which were laid out based on Chateaux Vau le Vicomte. These are devices that are discovered to work, to create great places, lets not sacrifice them to experimentation and private fancy.

by Boots on Mar 31, 2009 8:55 am • linkreport

These building are ugly.. maybe Safdie might pass. It is difficult unless you had an idea of the layout.

by Enid sj on Mar 31, 2009 9:01 am • linkreport

@ Rarchitect: Thanks for posting the high-res pics on your blog.

by Jasper on Mar 31, 2009 9:44 am • linkreport

The only thing more disgusting than these designs is the ethnic hatred expressed in these comments.

I wondered how long it'd be before someone posted something accusing others of hatred and racism. I just think one Smithsonian African-American Museum in DC is enough; two is overkill.

by Marian Berry on Mar 31, 2009 2:04 pm • linkreport

It's hard to comment on the merits of the proposed designs without commenting on the merits of the museum itself, even though it seems to be a done deal. But with the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, and the African Voices exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History... the National Museum of African American History and Culture seems a bit much. Is it too much to ask that our museums be integrated?

The National Museum of American History was originally the Museum of History and Technology.

The Arts and Industries Building once housed artifacts from the country's Centennial Exposition.

by Michael on Mar 31, 2009 2:32 pm • linkreport

Are you serious? How does being vaguely opposed to a museum that singles out a group of people translate to ethnic hatred? Would you support a National Museum of Gays, Lesbians, and the Transgendered? How about a National Museum of Amputees? The National Museum of White Anglo Saxon Protestants? A Museum of the Confederacy? Surely all groups have a unique history and a perspective different from your own; they, in turn, deserve equal representation on the national mall, according to your understanding of the term.

Yep. I would happily go to all those museums, and support them. I would be especially interested in a museum of the Confederacy.

Yes, I am being serious.

You, on the other hand, seem to be disowning part of the history of this country. "represent all Americans," heh. Confederates are Americans. Blacks are Americans. Lesbians are Americans.

by Omari on Mar 31, 2009 4:04 pm • linkreport

Omari, with all due respect, I feel that you are missing the point. I don't think the poster is "disowning part of the history of this country." I think he or she is wondering why we need separate museums for each group of people when we already have a museum that "represents all Americans," namely...the American History museum.

Thus, since Confederates, African-Americans and gays and lesbians are all Americans, should we not have an expanded American History museum, or should each group get their own slot on the Mall? I'm of the opinion that they should expand the American History Museum, and allow it to cover all of we, the people. I feel that it further divides us (and certainly sets a very public stage for that division,) to have each group get their own slot. In addition, why do only some group get the slots? How do they choose the groups? How do they set the bar for acceptance and rejection. What does that say about our country that Group A gets their museum and Group B gets a pink slip?

Moreover, you know, I know, and any sane person knows that should they attempt to open up a "National Museum of White Anglo Saxon Protestants," or a Smithsonian-sponsored "Museum of the Confederacy," and especially a "National Museum of Gays, Lesbians, and the Transgendered," there would be a massive uproar, protest, and sheer madness. California just recalled gay marriage rights, for effs sake! CALIFORNIA. Not that I don't want a museum devoted to the aforementioned experiences...but on the Mall? And could it not be a floor or three added to the American History Museum?

This has nothing to do with racism or bigotry. I vastly appreciate and require diverisity in my life. But there's already a museum devoted to American History, and all of it's spicy groups that came together to form Americans in America. Again, it's a moot point since the museum is already a "go." But we could have a Museum of Civilization. Or a museum of Urban Planning and Design. Or even a Museum of the Arts. Since African-Americans, gays, WASPS, and the rest have all participated in the above, these make sense...since we're all Americans. I'd even be ontap for a Museum of American Diversity, which could cover all of these different groups, finding commonalities in the struggles and triumphs, and celebrating their collective enhancement and contribution to the society as a whole. It might be even enlightening to see how the Jews helped support the Black Power movement, which influenced the Gay Liberation Movement, and so on and so forth.

Anyhoo, think you missed the point, and think it's pretty reprehensible for you to play the "racist" card, when clearly, obviously, it was anything but.

by Aaron on Mar 31, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

David - I have to admit I voted 3 times, but only because that's the only way I can see the results! Can you change it to show the results without forcing the user to click on a radio button? (I voted for Foster's... which one do you prefer?)(Though I kind of hate them all)

by Michael on Mar 31, 2009 5:15 pm • linkreport

First and last..every team has an African American designer..architect or landscape architect..on the team.

Gratifying to see that the poll shows the public is not all taken in by the Safdie scheme. It's popular because it's a form most people can relate to..a shopping mall! - something flashy on the front and a glass spine w/ bridges! horrible.

Believe it or not, the Diller and Scofidio scheme would make a great front room on the's just too bad the renderings don't show the materials the building is made of very well..and the model not at all. and the plan works.

Second in line would be the Foster scheme - it really does invite you onto the mall....and is the best at fitting into a landscape.

The Pei Cobb Freed scheme is a nice neat solution, but we need some inspiration here! We already have the context.

BTW, stars are stars because they can do the work and deliver.

by mb on Mar 31, 2009 6:05 pm • linkreport

From the comments, I take it most people don't like the offerings from the architects and would prefer a plain, boring design to match the clothing styles and attitudes of DC.

by vote4pedro on Mar 31, 2009 11:44 pm • linkreport

From the comments, I take it most people don't like the offerings from the architects and would prefer a plain, boring design to match the clothing styles and attitudes of DC.

Is that really too much to ask for?

by MPC on Apr 1, 2009 2:03 am • linkreport

Boots, any more info on that counter proposal? I'd love to see this happen.

Look into these organizations or discussion groups for support with this idea...


TradArch listserv -

Grand Tradition -


by jon on Apr 1, 2009 3:09 am • linkreport

This is one museum I won't be visiting!

by tpf on Apr 1, 2009 1:52 pm • linkreport

Why is it that major Architectural commissions for African American centered cultural institutions are always witness to partnerships between African American led firms and mainstream corporate firms? Are firms such as the Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, etc... not perceived as being capable of executing quality projects onto themselves? Do African American led firms not perceive themselves as capable of executing quality projects without partnering with mainstream firms and seek out these arrangements autonomously? Are these arrangements stipulated by the project requirements (firm size, location, bonding and insurance requirements, etc...)? Are these arrangements symptomatic of systemic unsaid/unwritten rules that stipulate these arrangements to reassure and affirm the confidence of clients who may not be completely comfortable with an African American led firm(s) as the sole proprietor of the architectural task at hand? Why aren't there partnerships between African American design firms and African American production firms for these projects? Notwithstanding, there appears to be a self defeating assertion that these partnerships of African American led firms would be suicidal towards the aim of winning a competition (for an African American centered institution) much less being taken seriously by the jurors.

Bond Freelon and Adjaye are partnered with the Smithgroup for the Smitsonian's National African American Museum competition. Max Bond (RIP) was well respected as a pioneer and mentor for many African Americans and regarded as the dean of African American Architects. Freelon has commanded a respectable national portfolio (that includes notable museum work) and gained himself prominence and name recognition not only as an African American Architect but an Architect in general. David Adjaye is a Starchitect (who has an impressive international portfolio and notable museum work). Adjaye even has work featured in the famed Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary Architecture. Why did this powerful trio partner with the Smithgroup? In other words, what does Smithgroup contribute to their team that they don't already have?

It's ironic that two of the most recent significant African American centered Architectural design competitions (NMAAH & ACCHR) have been witness almost entirely to these types of partnerships. The nation has been said to have matured to a point where it is willing to recieve these institutions that mark and celebrate the historic victories over Slavery and Jim Crowism yet the factors that contribute to the makeup of these architectural partnerships and the resultant architectural process bear a striking resemblance to the selfish, opportunistic, mercenary, anglo centered, tendencies that made Slavery and Jim Crowism possible and created a mentality of self defeatism, low standards and dependency among it's victims (namely African Americans).

In many cases the makeup of the teams participating in these AAC competitions are almost exclusive of any African American involvement beyond the direction of the African American Architect who may or may not be fulfilling their role as design lead(s). Conveniently enough, this can be attributed to the systemic reality of a disproportionally low number of African American Architects in the profession hence the lack of willing and capable African Americans who's unique experience and outlook could enhance these projects. Recent stats show African American Architects as 1.5% of total licensed Architects in the US. Nontheless, consider the notion of a National Asian American museum or National Latin American museum that excluded Asians and Latinos respectively from being active participants in the the design and production process? Sounds absurd, but that is almost always the case with regard to AAC competitions.

But the other important point here is that the design lead role which is almost always attributed to the African American firm is a token designation with regard to the fee assignments and profit distribution for these projects. The design lead loses out on the bulk of fee which is largely generated in the production, and CA phases of the project, not to mention any additional fees that may be generated. In turn, the large corporate firm gets larger and more powerful at the expense of the smaller firms.

In the end, the perception of these partnerships may leave the impression and or reinforce the stereotype that African Americans are not capable of acting solely to produce quality architecture. Freelon's Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights is a beautiful project but many will attribute this to the partnership with HOK not Phil Freelon himself. African American firms should not be ashamed to combine their talents and form partnerships to pursue any project of their interest (even if the project is not an African American centered institution).

by Okra on Apr 1, 2009 10:27 pm • linkreport

The interior rendering of the Predock scheme is reminiscent of the uncultured stereotypical junglelistic/tarzan perception of Africa. I'm left to wonder if the designers were actually functioning out of a presumptive position that African Americans would feel most comfortable and at home in a "jungle" environment reminiscent of Africa's stereotype. The only thing missing from the renderings is Tarzan swinging from a vine.

by Okra on Apr 1, 2009 10:36 pm • linkreport

The SG scheme is a reinterpretation of Herzog & De Meuron's de Young Museum. It's already been done.

Foster's renderings are very nice but there is no substance to the building beyond an enormous cliche nautilus (which seems to have driven the design). BTW, positioning an amphitheatre on a curve is a bad move because the focal point would offer poor site lines.

I expected more from Diller Scofidio. The design wasn't developed far enough to incorporate the technical realties and the limitations of modern construction capabilities. Besides, the conservative Smithsonian would never build this on the mall. This aesthetic would never stand the test of time. That said, this scheme at least attempted to capture the essence of the African American spirit without being overly literal.

Nontheless, the jury should reject all the submissions and reopen it to students and starchitects alike. Because I don't see anything here that couldn't have been produced by a 4th year Architectural student.

Zaha Hadid should have submitted for this competition!

by Okra on Apr 1, 2009 10:56 pm • linkreport

The entire mall is littered with monuments and museums that glorify the history of white america. Therefore the “Museum of Caucasian America” already exists multiple times over, as many of you seem to purposefully be blind to. God forbid that a museum be dedicated to the people who were vanquished and had their land stolen from them, (al la the American Indian Museum) or to the people who were enslaved and from their backs this city, and the rest of the country was built from ( the African American Museum) and whose history has been stolen and suppressed. Not only to mention the enormous influence that African Americans have on this society.

So to think that this museum and others like it do not belong is absurd!

Now as far as the proposals go, these architects should be ashamed for the lack of thought placed into them, and by that I mean substance. These are shallow attempts at recognizing what this building is and should be.

I find the Safdie and Predock submissions to be the absolute most offensive. With Deverouax & Purnell following close behind with the biggest lack of ingenuity, spirit and design.

by Destro on Apr 1, 2009 11:09 pm • linkreport

Destro, I think that's a pretty inaccurate characterization of the other museums on the mall--natural history is, well, that; air and space is accomplishments of humans in flight, not whites in flight; several art museums containing a range of art (plus one dedicated to asian art and one to african art); and american history, which tells the story of americans, including african americans, although yes focuses on whites because for a variety of reasons, some good some bad, they were most prominent in the country's early history.

by ah on Apr 1, 2009 11:14 pm • linkreport

All the war memorials (Vietnam, Korean and WWII) are for all vets and their families, not only for caucasian vets and their caucasian family members. Space on the mall is finite. Must every national museum or monument that deserves to be built go on the mall? At some point there will be a moratorium.

by Bianchi on Apr 1, 2009 11:27 pm • linkreport


Destro raises some valid critical points with regard to how these white institutions masquerade themselves as beacons of human universality while downplaying African American achievements and contributions to society at large. To use your own example, the Air and Space Musuem does indeed only celebrate "whites in flight" to use your term. On the other hand, the Museum of African American history might finally offer a space to highlight the achievements of the Tusgkegee airmen who's achievements are largely unrecognized and overlooked. The air and space museum and museum of american history has had ample opportunity to highlight this historical contribution but has not done so to date.

by Okra on Apr 1, 2009 11:41 pm • linkreport

Most of Air and Space is celebrating the planes, not the people who flew them (with the Wright Brothers being one of the few exceptions). It's not worth either of our time engaging in an argument about the racial overtones of airplanes--you'd have much better examples for your argument with the portrait gallery or american history museum, if it were the case there.

What's more, if the museums are in fact deficient in this regard, I think it would be preferable to focus on including displays about these important contributions within the relevant museum. More people would learn about the tuskegee airmen in a display at air and space than tucked in a corner of an african american history museum devoid of most other context other than a connection to other exhibits based on skin color.

by ah on Apr 2, 2009 8:21 am • linkreport

By far the Moshe Safdie and Associates ship hull design gets my vote. Is it me or does the Moody Nolan / Antoine Predock Architect pile of rocks look like the Circle of Life rocks from the Lion King? That's the first thing I thought when I saw the design. Terrible.

by Tom on Apr 2, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport


Bull shit.

The Tuskegee Airmen are the only historical unit of US aviators I know by name. I've read about their mythical record in three or four history textbooks, I've heard them mentioned on television ads once every February, I've seen the movie, I've sat through a History Channel show or two on them, I'm pretty sure that at some point in my childhood I've even seen a piece on them at NASM.

They volunteered to fly instead of spend the war on the ground. They happened to be able to sign on at a time when a few key politicians like Eleanor Roosevelt were trying to drag the country kicking and screaming away from its racist habits. For this, they were turned from real, courageous fighting men into a group of invincible aces who singlehandedly challenged our intolerance and won the freedom of a nation that despised them - proving Nazi claims about race and skill ridiculous in the process.

At the time, propaganda was required in order to continue the process of integration, but not seventy years later.

Our children have never had African-American history downplayed or ignored. It has been highlighted to disproportionate degree in our textbooks wherever possible, from Crispus Attucks to the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. History has discriminated - it is the unfortunate fact that blacks were not allowed to participate in most ways in much of our history before the 20th century. Divying up history and assigning a certain portion to African-Americans is not right, or helpful in the current climate. People who lived through the civil rights era and won do a disservice to the current generation by continuing to push a societal onus to "celebrate the heritage" of people who happened to have a certain skin color.

One can at least defend the NMAI by claiming that it attempts to document isolated cultures, languages, and lifestyles which were rarely documented in the first place and are dying out rapidly.

by Squalish on Apr 2, 2009 4:05 pm • linkreport

I absolutely love this design. The facade is absolutely beautiful. I anxiously await the final unveiling!

by Facade Engineer on Apr 2, 2009 5:47 pm • linkreport

After visiting the displays, the Moody Nolan/Predock team is by FAR the best! It seems like that team actually took time to come up with a concept that actually has depth. You really have to read the boards to understand everything their concept is about. Once you engage the boards and the amazing model that they built all you really can say is WOW. Most people that was there at the time I viewed the displays agreed with my sentiments.

Freelon/Adjaye team was my biggest disappointment. I was soooo excited when I heard this team had made it. What they produced was a JOKE!! A Crown??? Wow, they did some deep soul searching on that one. As an african american artist, a west african crown doesn't speak to me about being african AMERICAN. Freelon's musuem buildings are typically good pieces of architecture, but - they lack an intellectual depth to them. I thought Adjaye would help, but he ISN't african american, he is a brit from africa. This project on all levels is a let down.

IM Pei was even worst. A BASKET???? Wow, how original. Their presentation boards were BOOORRRING. I cannot believe Pei actually had anything to do with this competetion, he is extremely old (something like 90). The building looks nothing like a Pei building. If you actually compare this submission to the east gallery, its laughable. They are pimping his name to get star recognition in the competition. The problem is they produced a BASKET surrounded by a box. If we would like another boring building on the mall..that doesn't do anything to help define the african american journey-this is the building.

Safdie's work is always funny to me. Go check his website. How this guy become a star architect I have NO ideal. The main sulptural piece on the building looks like a virgna in juxipostion to the phalx washington monument. If you don't believe me visit the exhibit again and look at all the images with that and the monument. I was actually offended by his submission. They can flush that crap down the sink.

Speaking of sink...Diller's submission looks just like one. Did you see their model...WOW, painful. I love Diller+S+R, but they really didn't get the memo on this project. The usual form expression just doesn't tie into our culture. Read their boards...this project has nothing to do with black culture. NOTHING!!! Its there own expression of form...fine if its a balletmet or something, not good enough for the NMAAHC.

Foster, was a copy of numerous buildings...closest being the Hirshhorn. Shameful! It was the Hirshhorn ascending...please. Once again surface representation of our experience. It was a one trick pony.

People go to the exhibit tomorrow!!! Read the freak'n presentation boards. There is no other team for this project but the Moody/Predock team. As a matter of fact if they don't get it there is some serious dirty politics going on. I dont know who is making the final decision, but lets pray the guy has a passion to create a signiture building that the world will come to see. A BASKET, a SINK, A Crown, a Virgna ,and a broke Hirshhorn- doesnt give the building the dignity and thought it deserves.

I also did alittle bit of research on Moody Nolan. They are the largest african american firm in the nation. They are the only black team that can actually build this project. Everyone else brought on majority firms to help.

by blackartist on Apr 2, 2009 11:11 pm • linkreport

I worked for one of the starchitects listed above and there was one black architect in the entire firm. Not sure if he is still there.

Why haven't they looked at a Black Starchitect for a "National Museum of African-American History and Culture"?

by djuoh on Apr 3, 2009 9:51 am • linkreport


black starchitect = david adjaye

by Jim Malone on Apr 4, 2009 10:46 am • linkreport

Adjaye hasn't reached the level of star yet. If you research his built work to any other signature architect on the list, you can see there is no comparison. Although Adjaye is probably the most famous black(brit) architect. Adjaye work has been received well for the most part (most recently the Denver CMA, thus my disgust when I see how lame his submission was for the NMAAHC. I had nothing but the highest of expectation for him. My concern was that he could not translate his success in small buildings and interior work into a large scale museum. My concern was validated. Adjaye simple clean minimalist approach is absolutely beautiful. In this case, OUR project deserves more. We have only one chance to tell our story through architecture. This is finial our chance to start a trough dialogue about a african american aesthetic. The building to me looks like any other museum, nothing in form sings to our journey.

I would like to see a american black architect have a chance to become a star. This project will give them that chance. Phil Freelon has been doing really good work as of late, the only problem is he is partial responsible for the "crown". Curt Moody and Jack Travis are the only two living (RIP Max Bond) worthy of such a challenge. I heard from the rumor mill that Jack Travis is part of the Moody/Predock team, which in that case explains the depth of the project.

black starchitect= TBA

by blackartist on Apr 4, 2009 11:19 am • linkreport

Please watch Charlie Rose's recent interview with Diller Scofidio Renfro. Despite what you may think, they do care deeply about public space.

by Jim Malone on Apr 4, 2009 11:49 am • linkreport

i'm going down to take a look a first-hand look at the submissions at the Smithsonian Castle today. If my impressions are changed I'll post my thoughts when I return.

by Jim Malone on Apr 4, 2009 11:57 am • linkreport

In the DIller Scofido Renfro interview video (link above), in addition to their passion for public space they also discuss context/importance of place & history, they do not believe in the 'tabula rasa.' The phenomenom of 'starchitecture' is discussed as well. Very much applicable.

by Jim Malone on Apr 4, 2009 12:17 pm • linkreport

Diller Scofido are by no argument the NOW firm, they do amazing work (High Line, Lincoln Center, Jillard,etc). I'm huge fan! But, I'm able to critique each project individually. This is a project that happens to mean a lot to me personally, so their usual rhetoric had to have some real teeth behind it.

Please go to the castle today, read their boards and tell me what the heck does there project have to do with african americans. Most people when I was there actually laughed at there model and display. When I was there, a couple of architecture students were there in support of Diller, but they struggled to make a connection. The slave ship in the middle of there building is sooo superficial and highly offense.

I'm not debating there passion for creating amazing public spaces, but there notion of how the public perceives the space, has to be secondary to the actual meaning of the space in connection to the deeper understanding of the journey.

Diller failed, probably worst than any other team to accomplish a building that tells our story. That is the lens in which I judge every single competition entry by.

by blackartist on Apr 4, 2009 2:33 pm • linkreport

blackartist, i appreciate your comments, but have some questions.

1. why the need, do you think, for such a grandiose, overturn-everything approach for this museum? Isn't it possible that such an approach, and the association with 'entertainment' or 'theme-park' aesthetics would serve to trivialize instead of exalt the contents in the way you describe?

2. why assume that this building has no responsibility to its urban, historical, and cultural context, and only to its content? Isn't it possible, for example, that a building that fits in on the mall would display greater confidence in its mission than one that consciously feels the need to distinguish itself aesthetically?

3. This is ONE building. Why does it seem like it bears the responsibility for fixing all the problems that came before it on the mall? So the mall is boring. So Washington is architecturally boring. Perhaps. But it is also repeatedly described as one of this country's urban planning successes. This is what it is, and it doesn't seem like building a single one-off building should or could change this substantially. Both the American Indian museum and the WWII memorial tried similar approaches, in different ways, and both, in my view, are miserable failures.

4. How much should the architecture be responsible for the message here, and how much of that should be left to the actual content?

by sam on Apr 4, 2009 4:06 pm • linkreport


In response to your comments:

1. I totally agree that a "disneyesque" approach is arguably never successful or the right approach (unless at Disney or Vegas). My statement points to a museum that has a story and a heart. The same approach is taken on many Jewish Holocaust Museums (see Liebeskind-Berlin Holocaust Museum and Pei Cobb Freed- US Holocaust Museum). The Berlin Museum is arguably Liebeskind's best work EVER and the US Holocaust Museum is widely considered as the best museum in DC. Why? Because they both evoke strong emotion. The architecture begins the journey before you even start the exhibition. There is nothing theme-parkish about either. The African American journey is just as horrible and disturbing BUT, it also glorious and celebrated. OUR museum should take you on that ride.

2.Of course this building has to respond to its urban context, most if not all successful buildings do. The context doesn't get any bigger than the National Mall. Any architect with a lick of sensibility can design a building that response to the stark reality of the mall (see Pei/Devrouax + Purnell and Fosters submission). The challenge is how do you respond to the mall and dc urban context, while creating a building that response to the culture, history and struggle of our people. The building has to do both! All of the submission accomplished both with various degrees of success. Most failed in responding to the cultural message with any degree of intellectual vigor. Hence, why I feel the Moody/Predock submission was so successful. It responded completely to the urban context of the mall and unlike any other option it gave back to DC by creating a place of gathering in celebration right off of Constitution. Can you image when they have the annual black family reunion outside of the NMAAHC, it will be absolutely vibrant with the projection of events being seen off of constitution. As note in my earlier comments, their level of depth in creating a journey that describes the american experience through the lens of an african american is unmatched by any of the other submissions. Read the NMAAHC website, it will tell you the purpose and the mission of this particular museum. The director of the museum stated that this museum should be more than just a "artifacts" museum- it's a cultural experience. The key word here is "experience". I've set through a lot of lectures in my time talking about "experiential" architecture. In this case experiential is modified by the term "cultural". That is why this ONE building must be cultural and experientially significant.

3. Every building on the Mall was controversial when they built it. This building will be the same. As stated above, this building has and will respond to the mall, but it has to be more. The Indian Museum was a horrible architectural failure. This does not mean that there attempt of trying to create a building that related to there experience was the wrong thing to do. The problem was with the execution! The same approach done by someone with the same sensibilities to their struggle, but with better talent, would have resulted in a far more successful building. The Smithsonian must have agreed. There approach with this museum is to align the most talented international designers with some of the most talented african american firms. Don't think that the cream of the crop (Zaha, Herzog, OMA) from the design field did not attempt to go after this museum. I'm pretty sure they didn't make it to the competition round because of the rest of there team. WWII memorial is not applicable in this conversation..apples vs. oranges.

4. The most successful cultural museums are those in which invoke emotion through space and architecture as well as through exhibition. You tell me... If you put the journey through the US Holocaust Museum in the American History Museum, would it be as powerful? I think not. Just like the envelop that art is displayed in plays a vital part in the understanding and emotion of the piece. The importance of the architecture can not be underestimated.

The content/exhibition is part of the puzzle, but it is not the whole puzzle.

by blackartist on Apr 4, 2009 10:20 pm • linkreport

Not to be crass, but the Moshe design looks like a vagina to me. I hate these museum buildings that look like that are going to come crashing down on your head when you walk by.

by Marquais on Apr 4, 2009 10:50 pm • linkreport

OK, i went and studied the submissions yesterday and I was surprised to see that all of the submissions had their merits but obviously none of them are perfect. My overall preferences were not changed however.

If I was in charge I would narrow the field to the Predock, Freelon/Adjaye/Bond, and Diller/Scofidio submissions, start a dialogue about what works and doesn't work in each, and continue from there.

by Jim Malone on Apr 5, 2009 1:33 pm • linkreport


You have hit on the head my friend!! I don't think that it could be explained any better, when it comes to what this building is and what it should be about. I TOTALLY agree with you in regards to the Freelon/Adjaye/Bond & SG and the Safdie submissions and I actually know why the F/A/B & SG project is so WEAK in concept and thought. As I stated before, the Safdie project is offensive and in my opinion so is the Predock piece. Its hard for me to believe that Moodey/Nolan actually had something to do with that submission.

by Destro on Apr 6, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

I can honestly see why some people might find the Moody/Predock submission initially offensive. Predock was known for creating green architecture before "green" architecture was the "in" thing. But, in this case his use of natural materiality is tied directly to their story. They used the rock as a metaphor to strength through the struggle and uprising of african americans. They also mentioned how the church has always been the spiritual rock of our people. I immediately started thinking about the history of the black church and how it was the rock of the community. From slavery through now, christian or not, the black church plays a huge part in our culture. I also started to think about all of the rocks that I had in my life- my granny, my father, etc. The usage of the rock as symbol is absolutely applicable in this museum. In contrast, they wrote about the water and how it brought us over. Their are so many parallels that you can be drawn from the play of water and how it effects or transforms the rock. It really got my me thinking on so many levels...

The other thing that I found profoundly interesting was the their usage of the tree. They showed this image of the main space in the interior looking up at ramps. They made the notion of the tree as a journey. The tree as a Journey....hmmm. How does that relate to our journey? I personally thought about the makeup of a tree...roots,trunk,branches,fruit. Root=Africa, Trunk= the struggle, Branches= the release from the struggle, Fruit=those whom actually benefited from the struggle... Interesting...

There were other metaphors that they incorporated into the design, all equally profound... My point is, their submission made me think! Just like amazing works of art, there are multiple reading that different people get just from looking at it. I tried and tried to get more out of the other concepts, something more than the obvious. No Luck. Like the Predock or not, the building has a complexity and depth that all other submissions lack.

I expected the same rigor of thought from all the submissions. If there was the same amount of thought, it did not come across on their board presentations. Freelon had a image of a tree on their boards, but their was no discussion of it in their text, and I could not make the connection in their imagery. I really expected more from this team!!!! Most of the presentations had very limited text on them. Diller and Predock had the most. DillerS+R is one the best theoretical design firms around. Diller discussed everything BUT, how it tied to the african american experience.

I've seen and read about a lot of Predocks work. Unless Predock has a lot of african americans working for him, Moody must have had something to do with it- it just has to many layers.

by blackartist on Apr 6, 2009 9:43 pm • linkreport

Did you see the article in the WaPo today about these designs? The author claimed that the Diller iThing was the only one worth considering. Ugh.

by NikolasM on Apr 7, 2009 11:53 am • linkreport

What is wrong with the lot of you? Have you no appreciation for art and design? With the exception of Diller Scofidio & Moshe Safdie these designs are pretty stunning. I like Moody Nolan the best because it is the most artistic and unpretentious.

I did not hear anyone complaining when Museums like MOMA, the Met, Guggenheim -- that mainly feature western European art -- were designed. All of a sudden, it is politically incorrect to give other cultures a voice and platform. Quit whining and appreciate something other than Picaso.

by Mariejay on Apr 10, 2009 9:06 pm • linkreport

Yes this IS America, and America is a melting pot. What's wrong with wanting to share and explore other people's background? America isn't just one type of people you know.

by AR on May 29, 2009 10:32 pm • linkreport

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