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How An Architect Used Striking Design To Capture New Smithsonian's Meaning


For months I have been watching as a fantastic new building has risen on the National Mall here in Washington. The long awaited Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture will open its doors later this month. It promises to tell the American story through the lens of African-American history and culture. That mission is reflected not just in its exhibits but in the building itself. Our co-host Ari Shapiro got a preview of the striking new museum from the man who designed it.

DAVID ADJAYE: Hello. I am David Adjaye. I am the architect of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the Washington Mall.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You can tell from his lilting speech that David Adjaye is not American. His father was a diplomat from Ghana, and he grew up in the U.K. Adjaye designs important buildings all over the world, but winning the competition to create this Smithsonian was different both because of the buildings meaning and its location.

ADJAYE: I was just so taken by this incredible position. I always thought that there was this incredible knuckle. It felt like it was the joint of this really fantastic, monumental landscape.

SHAPIRO: It sits right by the Washington Monument on an axis with nearly every important memorial and museum in the city. The museum floats dark in a sea of classic white marble. I asked Adjaye whether it was difficult to resist the temptation of the white stone all around.

ADJAYE: When we entered the competition, we felt that there needed to be a different presence on the Mall. And when Lonnie saw the scheme...

SHAPIRO: This is Lonnie Bunch, the director of the museum.

ADJAYE: ...Lonnie Bunch, the director of the museum - he really embraced it and really loved this idea of a dark presence on the Mall. And for him, it matched his philosophy. In a way, the museum, for him, is about the way in which the African-American community is absolutely integral to understanding the American identity but somehow has been always in the back room. So this is a kind of coming to the front, sitting on the front sort of lawn with all of the other monuments.

SHAPIRO: This building does not try to hide or blend in. It doesn't code switch or cover. It speaks of pride.

ADJAYE: The silhouette is this triple sort of inverted pyramid form which really goes back to West and Central Africa. And it really is a way of trying to speak to the narrative of where the African-American community originate from.

SHAPIRO: When you say this goes back to West and Central Africa, do you mean we would find buildings with a similar silhouette to this in countries in West and Central Africa?

ADJAYE: No, no, that would be a - it's a little bit of a lie. There's the design conceit (laughter).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ADJAYE: This is would be the form that you would see on the tops of columns, like the Corinthian column. So it's a very powerful and important motif which denotes very sacred, special places, commemorative spaces.

SHAPIRO: Shall we go inside?

ADJAYE: Let's.

SHAPIRO: It's still a construction site at the moment.

ADJAYE: It's still a construction site, so we're using the side access.

SHAPIRO: The skin of the building is an intricate metal work pattern with echoes of Georgia, Louisiana, the American South. As the sun shines through it, a latticework of light settles on the museum floor and changes throughout the day.

ADJAYE: I kind of wanted the building to sort of give you the feeling of a kind of a hot summer with sunlight dappling through the trees, that in a way, the building is almost analogous to a giant tree with an incredible shade.

And also I wanted it to be a museum where when you came in, you weren't suddenly in an interior that was about focusing on marble and stone and classical forms or whatever it is but to come in and to have light be your guide.

SHAPIRO: Shall we go downstairs?


SHAPIRO: Half the museum and most of the exhibit space is underground. That's where we find the history galleries. A shining black marble wall stands outside of them.

ADJAYE: Black striated marble - it's the most exquisite marble.

SHAPIRO: So you did make a concession to all of the marble on the Mall, except the marble is black.

ADJAYE: (Laughter) It is a black marble, and it's inside.


SHAPIRO: Wow, OK, so we've just walked into this...

ADJAYE: We've walked in at the main history gallery.

SHAPIRO: It's cavernous.

ADJAYE: It's cavernous. It's really going to be a big surprise for people. It's nearly 65-feet deep on the interior. It is three levels. It's a kind of extraordinary - I call it a crypt.

SHAPIRO: At the bottom of the gallery is a slave house. At the top - artifacts from President Obama's inauguration.

ADJAYE: You start the journey from Africa, and then you ramp your way gently up the hill.

SHAPIRO: You literally rise...

ADJAYE: You rise.

SHAPIRO: ...Through the decades of history.

ADJAYE: Yes, correct.

SHAPIRO: David, you've created this space we are standing in which is surrounded by and filled with all of these testaments to the black-American experience. And you are British-Ghanaian. You're not American.

ADJAYE: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So for you as an outsider, what does it mean to create the building that houses this crucial part of a country that you are not a part of?

ADJAYE: (Laughter) I guess from inside America, the African-American community is seen as a kind of hermetic ethnic group that's just there. But you've got to realize that the African-American community is really part of the hope of almost every black person I know.

So growing up, the struggles of Martin Luther King were the struggles of Africans. All the kind of struggles that were happening there really informed the independence movements of Africa. So I was brought up understanding the American - African-American history as part of the kind of modern history of all people of color.

So it was - for me, the story is not a story of a different people from a different country. It sort of feels like my story, too, about, you know, the kind of struggles of how the world was and how the world has become.

SHAPIRO: And then as we leave this historical gallery, there is - among the various other quotes on the wall, the biggest of them all is a Langston Hughes quote. I, too, am America.

ADJAYE: Yes. It's the most beautiful, beautiful quote.

SHAPIRO: David Adjaye leads us through the other spaces in the building - the Oprah Winfrey theatre, galleries devoted to the arts, sports, science. In a hall focused on the military, the architect points out a break in the building's exterior skin.

ADJAYE: There's a striking slot.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow. Oh (laughter), that's incredible.

ADJAYE: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, if you get even closer, it actually completely frames it.

SHAPIRO: The window perfectly outlines the Washington Monument top to bottom. I can't imagine the weight that has been on your shoulders with the importance of this building to so many people.

ADJAYE: You know, I can't kind of deal with that (laughter) when you say it 'cause that starts to kind of fuse me. In a way, as an architect and as a creative person, I don't want to deal with the weight, but I want to deal with the content. Like, I'm thrilled to grab the content. It excites me. To deal wit h the kind of the weight things - I think if I took that on, I would be crippled (laughter).

SHAPIRO: David Adjaye has an infant son. I asked if he ever thinks about his son's grandchildren coming to visit this building. He says he can't.

ADJAYE: It's really hard for me. I mean my father was a diplomat - West Africa - who taught me to - kind of to be educated and to do the best that I could. I chose architecture because I actually thought it was about buildings (laughter). And the world we live in, there is a bit of a - you know, the person has to explain things. The building should - the building really should talk to you. I hope it talks to you.

SHAPIRO: Well, David Adjaye, thank you for showing us this beautiful new museum, and congratulations.

ADJAYE: Thank you so much. Thank you.


CORNISH: That's architect David Adjaye speaking with our co-host Ari Shapiro at the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture. The museum opens September 24. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.