CFA 19/SEP/13-2


National Museum of African American History and Culture
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
United States

Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Exterior material selections and south water feature
Review Type
Previous Review


Dear Dr. Bunch:

In its meeting of 19 September, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a submission for several building and landscape elements of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW. The Commission did not take an action to approve any part of the submission and provided the following comments to guide the resolution of the design of this highly significant building on the National Mall. In general, the Commission members expressed concern that key aspects of the compelling design are not being developed as originally intended; they strongly urged the Smithsonian Institution to remain faithful to the quality of concept and materials that this museum deserves.

Noting again the importance of the corona as the most iconic element of this new institution, the Commission members reiterated their support for the use of actual bronze in the finish of the character–defining corona panels. Dissatisfied with the presented choice to use a metal–colored polymeric painted finish (Duranar) instead of bronze, they recommended that a finish containing real bronze material be used. They observed that the Duranar paint finish imparts a putty–like appearance under overcast conditions and will not behave like bronze over time; alternatively, they noted that the mockup panel of LuminOre–a finish containing bronze metal–is far superior in its depth of color, richness, and luster. They expressed frustration that engineering decisions to proceed only with the Duranar finish have already been made, despite the Commission's continuing and unequivocal advice that the LuminOre finish better conveys the spirit and intended effect of the approved concept design. In conclusion, they did not approve the proposed Duranar paint for the corona panels.

Regarding the night lighting, the Commission has been highly supportive of illuminating the corona to promote the legibility of this monumental building–through a soft glow behind the bronze panels–during evening hours within the setting of the National Mall. However, as noted in the report from the August 5 site visit to the corona mockup and again by the Commission members in their formal review, the inconsistent material and plane of enclosure panels behind the silhouette of metal openwork–resulting from design changes intended to improve thermal performance–will create distractions that will be easily perceptible under a variety of conditions. The Commission members noted the hot spots apparent in the mockup created by the reflection of light off the insulated metal panel in comparison to the insulated glass units; they found this phenomenon will create large, visually discordant shapes within the elevations that conflict with the purity of the building's form and the subtlety of the intended filigree of bronze. Therefore, they recommended careful reconsideration of the material and location of these opaque panels, with the goal of either creating a uniform plane to reflect the light evenly, or one that distributes the opaque panels more randomly, following the general logic of the episodic composition of the bronze screens and lens openings.

In their review of the proposed treatment of the barrier wall on the north side of the site, the Commission members again supported the concept that the act of crossing the threshold into the site should allude to the difficulty of the oceanic passage in African–American history; they again asked for a solution that does not employ bollards–a ubiquitous element in the language of security–but instead uses the design of the wall itself to express the concept of a threshold. This design could employ different finishes for the stone, a narrowing of the opening relative to the width of the path, and changes in the geometry of the wall's opening to convey this important symbolism, which had been originally conceived of as a bridge over water. Regarding the finish of site elements such as bollards, they noted the inappropriateness of proposing real bronze for these secondary elements, while the material finish for the principal feature of the entire museum–the corona–is proposed to be polymeric paint as a substitute for real bronze.

Finally, the Commission commented favorably on the mockup of the fountain on the south side of the building, characterizing the design as powerful and convincing. However, they suggested several refinements to the design as it is developed for final approval, generally recommending further simplicity in the treatment of its many elements. They noted that the multiple inscriptions, shown in several locations and styles, may crowd each other and compete for attention, diluting the potential poetic strength of the words. They commented that the coded pattern of stone bars and knobs projecting from the sloped surface of the fountain create excessive aural and visual noise that distracts from the clarity of the design and brings a superfluous level of symbolism that may be confusing. Instead, they recommended that a rougher surface finish on the stone may be used to create the desired turbulence in the flow of the water. They also noted that the selection, graphic design, and physical layout of the quotations should be included in the final design proposal for the south fountain feature.

In closing, the Commission members emphasized that these recommendations are intended to promote the highest possible quality of the design which is so greatly merited by this museum. They advised that the successful completion of the design process involves decisions on discrete elements that must nonetheless relate to each other; they strongly recommended the consistent treatment of materials and details to best advance the intended and approved concept design. On matters of such great design importance as the finish and lighting of the corona, the Commission prefers to have these issues presented by the lead designer.

The Commission is hopeful that these remaining design issues may be resolved in a way that honors the momentous purpose and monumental presence of this museum for generations to come. Please coordinate the submission of the next presentation with the staff which, as always, is available to assist you.


/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA

Dr. Lonnie Bunch, Director
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012, MRC 509
Washington, DC 20013–7012

cc: Ann Trowbridge, Smithsonian Institution
David Adjaye, Adjaye Associates
Philip Freelon, The Freelon Group
Kathryn Gustafson, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Peter May, National Park Service