There is no shortage of drama in architecture. In a constellation of anticipation and suspense, developing design projects—particularly large works planned for the public realm—are keenly followed and critiqued, both eruditely by architecture's opining class of professional critics and casually by the hoi polloi. Buildings then emerge unashamedly in full public view, like weary exhibitionists whose once dare-devilish exploits have long since become a dull routine. And occasionally, even the destruction of architecture signals a kind of performance. While the recent tragedy at Notre Dame was not quite what Hugo had in mind, that conflagration's rapid dissemination through print and digital media underscores the 19th-century novelist's insistence on architecture as an endangered—yet formidable—protagonist. This histrionic capacity of architecture unsurprisingly extends to—or perhaps emanates from—the academy. In a fashion of education quite unlike most others, students of architecture are constantly engaged in a highly choreographed presentation of their work, resulting in a highly public (and sometimes traumatizing) cycle of humiliation and praise. The dramatics that unfold in the architectural academy are well known to playwright Oren Safdie, who, before embarking on a writing career that has spanned nearly three decades, earned a master’s degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And while pursuing these studies may have initially been an endeavor to maintain ties with the family business (the playwright's father is Moshe Safdie), Oren's experiences in architecture school clearly impacted his writing. Indeed, one of Safdie's earliest plays, Private Jokes, Public Places, detailed a young architecture student's final presentation which, thanks to the presence of some big and obnoxious egos on the jury, spiraled horrendously out of control (staging the play has become a kind of annual tradition at architecture schools around the world). Some years later, in The Bilbao Effect, Safdie's satirical pen revisited architecture, this time with a decidedly more macabre stroke. In Bilbao, we see the fallout that occurs when the play's starchitect-protagonist, Erhardt Shlaminger, is blamed by a Staten Island resident for the death of his wife, who—unable to reconcile herself with the formal qualities of a new Schlaminger tower in her bailiwick—is driven to suicide. Safdie's latest project, Color Blind, returns once again to architecture and its potential for drama and (perhaps unwanted) spectacle, but this time in the context of race. The play, which was debuted in a read-through at the University at Buffalo, is a fictionalized account of the jury deliberations surrounding the selection of an architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., Designed by David Adjaye, the NMAAHC was completed in 2016. Color Blind, on the other hand, is very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, the early drafts are further evidence of Safdie's acute awareness of the tensions and contradictions that underlie architectural culture and production, and the ability of these to yield highly theatrical—and sometimes excruciatingly uncomfortable—moments. The play invites its audience into the usually sealed-off space where critical decisions about architecture are made. There, we are introduced to six fictional jurors who will decide the shape of the first institution dedicated to African-American history on Washington's National Mall. This motley crew is composed of a diverse set of players whose exchanges hover between guarded diplomacy, heartfelt confessions, and downright acrimony. The imagined jury includes the future museum director and his assistant, both of whom are black. The former is the staid elder statesman, the latter, a fiery and plainspoken woman who speaks her mind. Also present is the museum's Korean-American treasurer, who is meek and wise. Rounding out the committee is a highly neurotic community organizer (Jewish), as well as a pedantic architecture critic, and a folksy but established starchitect (both of whom are white). The racial and ethnic backgrounds of the characters are worth noting because they foreground the competing experiences and prejudices that contextualize each juror's vision for the museum. In this sense, Color Blind is aligned with Private Jokes, Public Spaces, and The Bilbao Effect; all three recognize architecture as not just a silent protagonist, but as a dramatic vehicle for exposing broader contradictions and conflicts embedded in architecture—some, occasionally, not too deep below the surface. Color Blind relies heavily on popular stereotypes about race and ethnicity—and the conflicts these imply—to drive its plot forward. As such, scattered throughout the jury's deliberations over the six finalist museum proposals are somewhat formulaic monologues: an emotional harangue on the experience of being a single mother on welfare (black assistant to the director); a frenzied, confessional tirade riddled with liberal guilt (Jewish community organizer); and a demure complaint—in broken English—about the perils of over-achievement (Korean-American treasurer). These cliches render Color Blind's dramatic trajectory for the most part predictable, and Safdie's later drafts would certainly be helped by the addition of nuance and moments of surprise. Still, the play's overall agenda deserves our attention. In a profession that maintains a track record on inclusivity that is shameful—about 2 percent of registered architects in the U.S. are black—and in a nation where xenophobic and racist hostility in both discourse and action appear at alarming levels, the play's vision is both timely and telling. With Color Blind, Safdie's desire to lift the veil that renders the process of architectural production bewildering to outsiders, and his portrait of the conflicts that lie just beneath the veil's surface could, in the end, do more than give credence to the dramatic possibilities latent in architecture. When finished, the new play has the potential to instigate a critical dialogue about uncomfortable issues that extend far beyond architecture but are undeniably relevant to the field. Mustafa Faruki was the 2018-2019 Peter Reyner Banham Fellow at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. He is the founder of theLab-lab for architecture. Color Blind was presented by undergraduate students at the school in a live reading. The event was followed by an informal discussion with Safdie and was held in connection with The Whiteness of American Architecture, a day-long symposium examining the racial discourses underlying "American Architecture" movements from independence up to the first decades of the 20th century. Color Blind has been selected as a finalist in the Kernodle Playwriting Competition at the University of Arkansas and will be presented again in a staged reading by the Architecture Foundation in London this fall.
Posts tagged with "Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture":
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., is gearing up for a national symposium that will reflect on a half-century of work by black American design professionals. Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Planners, 1968 to Now will be a three-day event in late September featuring talks and presentations from Sir David Adjaye, Justin Garrett Moore, Mabel O. Wilson, Jennifer Newsom, and many more at Adjaye's NMAAHC building and the National Museum of African Art. The event will highlight the work of black architects and planners since the late '60s, and speakers will reflect on the evolving relationship between design and activism. The events are also intended to allow participants to network and form relationships that could help young designers advance their careers. The symposium is one of many events this year that looks at the profession's progress on racial equity since Whitney M. Young Jr.'s 1968 address to the annual convention of the AIA. In that speech, the then–executive director of the National Urban League exhorted architects to take on the nation's social and political issues, especially those of the nation's cities. He also encouraged the profession to embrace diversity and encourage designers from underrepresented groups to take their place in the design community. Although the symposium has already reached capacity, its Thursday and Friday events will be streamed online here. Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Planners, 1968 to Now will take place Thursday, September 27, through Saturday, September 29 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of African Art, both in Washington, D.C.
New book delves into history of the NMAAHC, offering all-too-rare look into major modern building project
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. 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. 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.
Recently, at The Architect's Newspaper (AN) we have seen an influx of architectural projects—Motown Museum expansion, The Equal Justice Initiative's The Memorial to Peace and Justice, Emancipation Park—which explore methods of memorialization and the celebration of black experiences in America. On the occasion of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) last September, the museum created greater visibility for these narratives and formed new discourses on race. AN sat down with Mabel O. Wilson, an architect and associate professor at Columbia's GSAPP, to discuss her new book Beginning with the Past which details the hard-fought process of realizing NMAAHC. Wilson also participated in the original competition for the museum in collaboration with DS+R and Hood Design Studio. AN: James Baldwin, in his essay Many Thousands Gone wrote, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans.” This quote reiterates a similar statement he made to Congress that you included in your book. Can you talk about that statement in relation to the aim you had for Beginning With The Past? Mabel Wilson: I think what Baldwin was trying to say is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and I would also put into that the genocide of indigenous peoples, are really the original sins of America. I think there is a way in which the notion of exceptionalism has never been able to contend with the violence that was necessary for the shaping of the nation. In 2014, the AIA released a report which surveyed architects and found that racial minorities are vastly underrepresented in both the academy and the profession. At the same time, many initiatives have emerged recently to address these racial inequalities: Paul Revere William's AIA Gold Award, the Phil Freelon GSD fellowship, the AIA's new diversity scholarship, the "Say it Loud" exhibition. Do these initiatives capture the reforms needed to address the systemic challenges that face the profession in the pursuit to increase diversity? What more can architects do? I think there are many factors that have to do with the low number of minorities in the field. It’s like movie production, it’s a field that requires access to vast amounts of capital. And so you have to, in some fashion, be able to gain access to that [capital] as an architect. I always tell people that if you want to find out the history of African American architecture, you have to go back and look at all the black builders who, particularly by the 20th century, weren’t ‘licensed architects.’ There were other ways [that] people were building and thinking about space, but it isn’t the stuff that ends up in the history books or recorded by local chapters of the professional association. But it’s out there so you have to look elsewhere. To build is to have power. That’s not something given up easily, which women have found out in architecture. It’s not an easy ceiling to break because of the ways that buildings are tied to power structures and power relations and wealth. As you describe in your book, the Smithsonian unsurprisingly sought African American-led firms and experts to participate in the competition process, casting a light on the deficiencies of architectural competitions to include minority-owned and operated entities. Beyond hiring black architects when they're able to, what can institutional clients do to include historically disadvantaged voice in the development of large cultural projects? I really respect Lonnie Bunch for insisting that the teams have a diverse range of architects. That’s huge in terms of opportunities because it’s fundamentally who you know; it’s social networking which often in this country is determined along racial lines. Even though I’d say the majority of people [and institutions] don’t think of themselves as racists, we’ve just had a huge racist backlash in this country that is showing up as antisemitism and islamophobia and other things. I think the effort to bring in diverse voices for projects is important. The Smithsonian, particularly under Lonnie Bunch’s leadership, produced teams that would not have perhaps normally come together. Your research into spatial politics and collective memory are present at various points throughout your book, especially with regard to the NMAAHC’s location on the National Mall adjacent to the Washington Monument. What does it mean for all Americans that these African American histories and narratives are consolidated on this particular site? In the wake of the NMAAHC, do you see architecture playing a bigger role in telling the story of black America? Certainly, the museum has brought this kind of sensibility to a lot of issues. It has a very important presence in that it is visible to the world. And, it’s impossible to get a ticket, still, there is extraordinary demand to experience this history because it was never told and the material wasn’t collected. That was the big challenge for [NMAAHC]. Most people think that designing the building and raising the money was the hard part. No, it was building a collection. I think it’s significant now, as we think about these legacies, how people mark these things that have already been forgotten. So that is why I think [NMAAHC] is important because that collection work was never done. I think we are still dealing with issues of race as a nation and as a world; we still have work to do.
Brought to you with support fromThe Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), scheduled to open to the public tomorrow, is capping off a nearly decade-long highly publicized planning and construction process. The 400,000-square-foot building is notable for securing the last developable site on the National Mall, and will be the nation’s primary home for exhibiting and celebrating African-American achievements in art, history, and culture. While 60 percent of the structure sits below grade, the remaining 40 percent rises 85 feet above grade and is wrapped in an arresting daylight-filtering screen referred to as a corona. The three-tiered, inverted form merges African and American historical references, drawing from Yoruban caryatids and the Washington Monument. The corona’s pattern was developed by digitizing traditional shapes the team found in historic ornate ironwork from Charleston and New Orleans. The project is the result of a collaboration among Adjaye Associates, who functioned as the lead designer, Freelon Group (now Perkins+Will), who covered the interior design scope above grade, Davis Brody Bond, who covered the interior design scope below grade, and SmithGroupJJR, who was responsible for the entire enclosure of the building from the foundations to the roof, and from curb to curb. With four architects and numerous consultant teams on board, the NMAAHC’s design process was fast and highly collaborative. The client and representatives of each of the firms attended workshops and presentations at project milestones. Work on the facade design process proceeded with a smaller team coordinated by Adjaye Associates, who held regular meetings at its New York City office. For federally funded projects, three initial concepts must be presented before narrowing down to one final scheme. Only 14 months was allotted for the time between a final concept submissions to the delivery of bid documents. Areta Pawlynsky, partner at Heintges & Associates, the consulting firm for facade engineering, said this timeframe was pressing, but ultimately benefitted the project: "This was incredibly demanding, but in a way, easier to keep the momentum going to work through all of these design decisions.” Throughout this process, Pawlynsky said, adhering to the competition-winning design vision was what drove the design development process. "The most challenging part of the project was making sure the facades remained true to the competition." She continued, "When we look back at the competition entry images and the verbal description, we are very proud the building's envelope was able to remain true throughout its development. That doesn't always happen." With full height atriums on each of the museum’s four sides, the exterior envelope was conceptualized as an “inside-out” assembly, providing clear spans of glass to the interior. Guy Nordenson & Associates developed the primary structural system—a series of three horizontal trusses that wrap the building, giving the facade its signature tiered form. Construction detailing of the envelope was carried out through a design assist package awarded to a joint venture between Enclos and Northstar, who developed a cost-saving strategy to integrate vertical trusses within the curtain wall assembly. Heintges & Associates then engineered and developed technical options for systems that attached to this structure, including the screen panels and unitized glass panels. Adjaye Associates’ decorative screen pattern was digitally manipulated—scaling up and down to produce four densities ranging from 65 to 95 percent opacity in response to key views of the surrounding monuments, and to solar orientation. Selective openings in the corona screen provide “lenses” looking outward to key views of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, White House, and U.S. Capitol. The material selection process for the corona screen began with solid cast bronze, which was deemed too heavy with a variation that—over time—would cause undesirable performative and maintenance issues. The design team settled on a cast aluminum due to the material’s track record as a reliable cladding. A unique five-coat application of PVDF produced variation and depth to the bronze coloration of the panels. The corona screen was assembled on-site from shop-fabricated steel plate carrier frames containing 13 cast aluminum panels each. A staggered paneling running across the facade required selective panels to be installed in the field. These “stitch panels” bridge the gaps between adjacent carrier frames, helping to conceal any visual clues to the pre-fabricated frame assembly. The design team consulted with Fisher Marantz Stone on a subtle lighting scheme to incorporate backlit panels that bounce light off frit glazed walls to produce a glowing facade at night. These details and lighting effects were scrutinized through numerous design studies and mockups, and by regulatory agencies to ensure the lighting of monuments at night would remain balanced. Hal Davis, senior vice president at SmithGroupJJR, said the building envelope design was “quite unusual.” Asked if there were any technical challenges associated with designing a curtainwall system with an inside-out weather line, Davis replied, “of course!” He explained that an off-the-shelf-system couldn’t simply be installed backward: "It’s a different approach and it did take quite a bit of effort. We worked with Enclos and Heinges and David Adjaye to get it right and to make sure we were going to maintain the integrity of the design, the tightness and the insulation quality of the system, preventing condensation. For this, we had to develop very subtle heating elements that would eliminate moisture.” Pawlynsky concluded, "I think the real story of success here is the collaboration, including the contractors, Enclos and Northstar, and CM Clark. There was a strong commitment to executing this facade in the appropriate way, and it extended across the board."
AN exclusive: First look at David Adjaye's completed National Museum of African American History and Culture
Filling the last prominent spot on the National Mall—just east of the Washington Monument—the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has already proven itself a striking addition to the tapestry of monumental architecture at the heart of the nation's capital. Set to open September 24th, the exterior of the building is complete: 3,600 bronze-painted aluminum panels clad the museum's three-tiered structure. The panels reference the intricate cast iron designs that African American slaves produced across the American South; the building's "three-tiered crowns" were inspired by Yoruban art from West Africa, a region where many of the United State's slaves were taken into bondage. As an institution, the museum was established in 2003 and, in 2009, Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup was selected from a group of six invited teams to design the museum. Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup includes Durham, North Carolina-based Freelon Group, London and New York-based Adjaye Associates, New York-based Davis Brody Bond, and Detroit-based SmithGroupJJR. Ground broke on the museum in 2012. The building extends four stories underground; visitors can start at the lowest level to learn about the era of ”Slavery and Freedom,” advancing upwards to the “Era of Segregation,” “1968 and Beyond,” and finally a special exhibitions gallery, theater, and other programming. Notable artifacts range from Nat Turner's Bible to Chuck Berry's convertible and a former slave's two story house built during the Reconstruction Era. Upper floors feature education facilities, staff offices, and multiple galleries. Enjoy this first look at the NMAAHC's exterior! The Architect's Newspaper will continue to cover this project in the near future.
Design giant Perkins + Will has swallowed up Freelon Group Architects, one of the country’s most prominent African American–led firms. The firms announced Tuesday that North Carolina–based Phil Freelon will help lead Perkins + Will’s design efforts in the region and globally. The local head of the combined practice will have nearly 80 professionals, creating one of the largest architecture and design practices in North Carolina. Freelon started his firm in 1990, growing it from a single-person practice to 45 employees. P+W will combine 18 staff members at an office in Morrisville, NC with Freelon’s office in Durham, as well as a 15-person staff in Charlotte. Freelon Group is best known for its work on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which they designed with David Adjaye, Davis Brody Bond Aedas, and SmithGroup. The museum is targeting a 2015 opening. Freelon’s firm also worked on the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore, and the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights. “There’s a sense that we’re contributing to society as a whole, and making people’s lives better through our buildings in my firm, and Perkins + Will—there’s a lot of public sector clients there,” Freelon told the Durham Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz. “We feel good about creating design excellence and beauty for everyday people.”