It’s rare for an architect to have the opportunity to design a building in which symbolism and form are as important as function, if not more so. But this was the task given to David Adjaye when he won the commission to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which, when it opens in September, will be the final Smithsonian institution to take its place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Adjaye, whose work is marked for its extreme sensitivity to context, found himself challenged in ways he had never been before. On the occasion of the completion of Adjaye’s Eugene McDermott Award residency at MIT, Metropolis editor Vanessa Quirk spoke with the architect about the new institution, its symbolic significance, and the blurry boundary between monument and museum.
Vanessa Quirk: At what point does a museum become a monument?
David Adjaye: I’m not sure museums really are monuments or should be monuments, as a first principle. Museums should be palaces of edification—in a way, they’re palaces that democratize visual and cultural patrimony. That’s really their primary job. Let’s look at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Mall is really about palaces of culture—and then, you have the rambling monument grounds, the anchor of which is the Washington Monument.
What [Washington, D.C., planner Pierre-Charles] L’Enfant didn’t describe was what happens when you get to the threshold between the two [the palace and the monument]. That threshold— wherever it is—becomes an interesting point of discussion. This building was neither a monument nor a palace, but somewhere between. There’s a way in which it’s referring to the urban grid and the placement of the palaces [the other museums that surround the Mall]. But because it’s a building that’s seen in the round, the objectlike quality of the form became important. It wasn’t just composition. It became something that had a strong silhouette but also had a relationship, in a way, to the most dominant monument around—Washington’s obelisk. We actually were deferential to it by making the angles of our splayed skin system the same angle as the [obelisk’s] pyramid.
That’s the kind of moment when there’s a contextual, or urbanistic, condition that’s important. I think when a museum starts off just wanting to be a monument, there’s a lot of problems [laughs].
VQ: Was the opportunity to make a sculptural building freeing for you, since you usually are so concerned about context?
DA: It was, actually, really difficult [laughs]. Because there were none of the usual references that I am used to in an urban context, the kind of relationships that I make and I talk about in my work. So, I had to look for a whole new strategy.
In the end, it forced a debate about the representation of the museum in the wider context of the community and the nation. That is a really profound question to be involved in as an architect. It’s one of those questions you don’t even think about. So, suddenly, when that question is part of the discussion, you realize it’s more than just your architectural style—and that’s great. It’s about creating meaning and associations and joining of stories. You find yourself becoming the final ingredient of a meal. It really stretched a whole side of me that I hadn’t exercised before, and I continue to draw from that very much.
VQ: Was it a priority for you that the museum also be a memorial?
DA: Implicit in the notion of a national museum of African-American history and culture there is this dialectic. It is both a celebration and a memorial, while still being a museum. It’s actually a triptych. But the ideal of a monument is also in there implicitly because, one, it is the last museum on the Washington Mall and, two, it’s also the museum that has struggled the most to justify its existence.
So, it’s a kind of monumental achievement, in an extraordinary way. Two hundred years of asking. That’s not a joke.
VQ: How does that memorializing aspect manifest itself physically in the museum?
DA: For me, it was important that that did not take any singular aspect of the narrative. Because when you’re doing that, you have this very “hot potato” moment—what do you privilege as the thing that people should remember [most about the museum]? In the interview [for the commission], that was a very, very powerful discussion with the committee. I talked about the notion of a building that should speak to the entire journey. But also to acknowledge that this journey is a kind of celebration, of rising against adverse conditions and becoming part of a great nation.
A lot of people fall afoul of taking a cliché position about slavery as a defining moment of the African-American community’s achievements. And actually, it is a traumatic moment, but alongside the many traumatic moments are also many triumphs. I just refer back to a classical tradition that memorializes stories.