26 April 2013
Dear Ms. Trowbridge:
In its meeting of 18 April, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a revised final design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW. While approving certain elements of the design, the Commission requested further revisions to the proposed redesign of the landscape and roof.
The Commission members expressed great concern about the possible loss of the symbolic meaning that had been skillfully woven into the design of both the landscape and the building, and which they had strongly endorsed during previous reviews. In particular, they objected to the proposal to replace the north water feature with a visibly higher retaining wall planted with shrubbery; they commented that this change would eliminate the reference to passage over water and across a threshold into a distinct realm, a sequence symbolizing the journey of African Americans. They said that this change would weaken the narrative embodied in the landscape; if the decision is made to remove the water feature, the Commission members urged careful redesign of this part of the site to retain the idea of a landscape with narrative strength, or to reinforce the established form and character of the Constitution Avenue streetscape.
The Commission members also questioned the proposed modifications to other site elements. They did not support the substitution of generic benches for the monolithic stone seats that were designed as integral, powerful elements of the three outdoor reading areas. They recommended consideration of other approaches, such as developing only a single reading area following the original concept, to avoid further weakening of the landscape design. They also recommended that the material finish proposed for the exhaust grilles in the east egress court relate to the other finishes within the court, rather than repeating the bronze finish of the corona panels that are a feature of the museum's upper levels.
The Commission members raised strong concerns about the effect of the asymmetrically placed array of cooling towers inserted into the carefully composed design of the rooftop, noting that the roof will be clearly visible from the Washington Monument and therefore constitutes a fifth elevation of the building. The Commission members supported the previous roof design in which photovoltaic panels were arrayed in a cross shape defined by gratings, commenting that the addition of the cooling towers to one side of a cross arm appears random and undermines the integrity of the overall composition. Instead, they recommended either integrating the cooling tower within the original design of the cross or changing the composition of the roof to a more complex pattern, such as a tartan grid, to accommodate this substantial change.
The Commission members reiterated their support for the thoughtful design of this museum project and regretted the potential compromise of its strong concepts and carefully designed elements. They look forward to further review of the finish and details of the corona along with the other remaining items identified in prior reviews; they also requested a revised submission of the currently proposed revisions to the landscape and architecture, while delegating review to the staff for the final documentation of the modifications to the roof and the egress court finishes.
As always, the staff is available to assist with future submissions.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Ann Trowbridge, Associate Director for Planning
cc: Lonnie Bunch, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Last Modified: April 26, 2013