Begin with the Past

New book delves into history of the NMAAHC, offering all-too-rare look into major modern building project

Architecture East
New book delves into history of the NMAAHC, offering all-too-rare look into major modern building project. (Courtesy Darren Bradley)

The first corona in the skies above Trump’s Washington will occur on August 21, 2017, when a passing moon partially reveals light emanating out millions of miles from the surface of the sun. This great halo of solar rays will fall on the anniversary of the 1831
Nat Turner Rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, where violence in the face of injustice exposed the mounting terror of slavery and accelerated the pace of abolition’s inevitable advent a blood-soaked generation later.

While likely unnoticed inside today’s White House just across its namesake Ellipse, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture will innately mark that celestial confluence by the design and engineering animating its
symbolic facade: the three-tiered curtain of reflective bronze-coated cast aluminum
that defines its four equivalent sides. Labeled as “corona,” it is a sunburst incarnate,
recalling the woven modular strips of West African Ashanti textiles and Nigerian Yorubaland caryatids.

(Courtesy Darren Bradley)

That kind of metaphorical connection is prompted by the rigorous, cross-disciplinary narrative contained in this compact and amply illustrated volume by architect and educator, Mabel O. Wilson. Commissioned by the Museum to mark its recent launch, Wilson delivers with a history of its genesis from century-long civic intent to the intricate teamwork of curators, scholars, and (above all) architects and engineers, who together shaped its conceptual vision. This is all-too-rare look at what a modern building requires in its realization, especially when the stakes are no less than the historic record itself and a site at the hinge of L’Enfant’s plan. Professor Wilson sums up well, “each architect and firm… played a distinct and complementary role, which they described as working together like a jazz quartet.” Her task here is to annotate the resulting score.



What further distinguishes Begin With the Past from a routine souvenir book published for an opening (and harkening back to a lost but once common tradition of keepsake publications for such occasions) is its primary focus on the process of construction itself. Wilson recounts this history propelling the pursuit for a national “negro” memorial ideally on the National Mall always with an eye with what the architectural solution would be for each successive iteration. While initially nothing but a white marble Beaux Arts temple seemed suitable, the sheer longevity of the political jockeying, budgetary ebbs and flows, public transparency, and open competition meant its architecture could adjust to shifting definitions of what best informs the African-American experience today in all its complexity. Underlying but evolving narratives of bondage, prejudice, cultural intersections, and the promises of progress as vivified by both people and events—as well as the collections gathered to tell these stories—shaped its sheltering form. There was throughout an eager embrace of new materials and technologies (green among them) that turned delay into opportunity.

(Courtesy Darren Bradley)

Wilson’s chapter titled “Drawing Up the Plans” offers a model synthesis of good intentions yielding to implementation beginning at long last with site selection followed by the guiding building program.

Too often this long resolution disappears in the glare of some architect celebrity at the expense of the combined effort really responsible. Lead designer Sir David Adjaye of Freelon Adjaye Bond, alongside Davis Brody Bond (especially partner forbear, Max Bond, who died in 2009 with the building finally under way) and landscape architect firm, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, share due billing with the structural, mechanical, and civil engineers who framed solutions far beyond the mere fulfilling of orders. The chapter “Inside the African American Story” stands out as a standard of well-explained problem solving; its welcome inclusion of design elevations and blueprints cements this comprehensive intent. What the author describes as “ a spiritual feeling like that of a cathedral,” comes as much from a soaring interior of long vistas as the combined efforts the book affirms.

This is a building that blends strife with hope as its historical mandate deserved. Wilson’s book helps show us not only why but how.

Begin With The Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Mabel O. Wilson, Smithsonian Books, 2016.

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