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How NMAAHC Evolved

The Design Evolution of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington City Paper, Sept. 15, 2016

Layers of bureaucracy can frustrate even the most politically savvy architects. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who’s renovating the Smithsonian’s south campus, has called the Mall “the most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth.” He’s not wrong. The years-long give-and-take with authorities shaped the final design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in significant ways, changing plans and adding and subtracting features as the process progressed. Even details as minor as a security guard booth were carefully reviewed.

In the contest to design the NMAAHC seven years ago, Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup made it past a long list of 22 and eventually beat out five other finalists to win the commission of a lifetime. The international team of architects—led by London-based David Adjaye, Philip Freelon of North Carolina, and New York’s J. Max Bond Jr., who passed away soon after—prevailed not on the basis of a full building design but on an initial concept, as is typical in architectural competitions.

What made their concept so distinctive was the form of the museum’s upper section. It was simple, yet vivid: identical tiers with their sides angled in and down, the top corners pointing to the sky. It looked like an upside-down pyramid or ziggurat. 

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Photograph by Darrow Montgomery