National Museum of African American History and Culture
Dear Mr. Ennaco:
The Commission of Fine Arts would like to express its appreciation for the information presentation at its meeting of 15 April on the alternative concepts developed for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Commission commended the design team for the clear presentation of many inventive ideas and provided the following comments regarding the design of the building and its site.
The Commission members observed that the composition of the building on its site works best when it relates most directly to the contextual order of the city. They emphasized the importance of the building's location at the intersection of the two main axes of the National Mall as well as its position at the end of the line of museums on the Mall's north side, resulting in primary frontages on the north, south, and west sides rather than the simpler north-south emphasis of the other museums; this multi-directional condition should also inform the treatment of the surrounding site. They reiterated their support for the powerful form of the corona and concluded that it is most successfully presented in option #3, where the corona sits simply on the site, centered on the adjacent buildings immediately across Constitution Avenue and Fourteenth Street.
In their discussion of the alternatives, the Commission members commented that the other schemes are compromises of the pure idea conveyed in alternative #3, introducing elements that may detract from the strength of the central compelling concept of the corona on a transparent base. Expressing mixed views about the potential of these alternatives, they appreciated the boldness of the secondary building form in alternative #4 but recognized that the introduction of a structure in the Constitution Avenue setback could be problematic. They commented that the courtyard in alternative #2 bifurcates the program unnecessarily and presents difficulty as a place to occupy during many times of the year.
In the design of the building in relationship to the site, the Commission members expressed a strong preference for the transparency across the site and through the building as provided in alternative #3; they noted that it is essential to have entry from Constitution Avenue as well as from the Mall, and advised against entrances that create an experience of descending into the museum building. They supported a limited use of water elements to unify the site but recommended against treating water as a major feature, observing that water is generally used in large formal expanses only along the central axis of the National Mall, rather than to accentuate individual buildings along it. They encouraged the designers to look for opportunities to work within the limitations of the site to develop the architecture and landscape design, accepting the use of skylights or light courts as needed to enliven public areas below grade. Overall, they commented that the building program is too large for this site and that the alternatives show the strain and impact of fitting this much program area within the spatial constraints.
As the design is developed for the concept submission, the Commission members requested more elaboration of the proposed landscape design related to the preferred alternative, with further development of the building skin and conceptual details. They noted the visual intrusion of the penthouse atop the corona, suggesting that this element be minimized. They also commented that the presented views do not adequately convey the impact of the proposal on the context and suggested additional depictions of the proposal from a wider range of viewpoints, such as from across the Washington Monument grounds or from the Mall.
The Commission looks forward to review of the concept design which they anticipate will be presented in the summer. As always, the staff is available to assist you with future submissions.
Thomas E. Luebke, AIA
Walter Ennaco, Acting Director
Office of Planning and Project Management
P.O. Box 37012, MRC 511
Washington, DC 20013-7012
cc: Lonnie Bunch, National Museum of African American History and Culture
David Adjaye, Adjaye Associates
Phil Freelon, The Freelon Group
Kathryn Gustafson, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd.