Interiors Awards 2018: Civic/Public

Dappled light enters multiple levels of the museum through the bronze-colored aluminum metal panels on the exterior. Photograph by Brad Feinknopf/NMAAHC  

Interiors Awards 2018: Civic/Public
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Designer: Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroupJJR
Client: Smithsonian Institution
Location: Washington, D.C.

“This is an emotional, powerful project, and it exemplifies everything civic architecture should be. The narrative related to the architecture is clear. Movement through the buildings is quite amazing, framing these moments of our history.” —Jury

Since opening more than a year ago, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has cemented its position as a cultural landmark in Washington, D.C. Located steps away from the White House and the Washington Monument on the edge of the National Mall, the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, connects to its greater context as it focuses on themes of resilience, movement, and memory.

The design team of Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroupJJR conceived the multilevel museum in a restrained, monochromatic palette of metals, woods, and monolithic elements. The ground-floor Heritage Hall—surrounded by 15-foot-tall floor-toceiling windows on each side—serves as both a physical and emotional transition between the lower-level history galleries and the upper-level culture and community exhibitions. At the top of a grand stair, visitors can take in an uninterrupted view of the interior’s 160-foot height. “You want to welcome people in. It needs to be open and light, in terms of perceived weight and with regard to natural light coming in,” explains Phil Freelon, who was the lead architect. Perkins+Will has since acquired Freelon’s practice, and he is now design director for the firm’s North Carolina office.

Sixty percent of the NMAAHC’s 379,000-square-foot volume sits below grade in a triple-height subterranean space. In addition to a 350-seat theater and a dining hall, the lower floors house exhibitions that detail the African- American narrative, dating back to the year 1400. Layouts of the history galleries range in size to respond to the stories told within, allowing visitors to imagine the constricted quarters of a transatlantic slave ship as they walk through a low-ceilinged dimly lit gallery space.

As visitors proceed upwards through chronologically organized galleries, they follow a series of spaces moving forward in time, from exhibits about slavery to emancipation and up to the present day. Several larger galleries house oversized artifacts from the collection, such as a rail car from the segregation era and a plane used by one of the Tuskegee airmen. “There’s a flow that has a certain dynamism to it: You’re in a big space, then a small space. You’re in bright light, then it’s more subdued,” Freelon says. “The story is multilayered and complex: It is sorrowful and jubilant at the same time.”

Following the history galleries, the Contemplation Court, a quiet room lit from above by a ground-level oculus and ringed by a vertical water feature, offers a place for introspection.

The building was designed to permit daylight in the entire above-ground portion. The upper-level galleries are pulled back from the facade, allowing the intricate latticework of bronzed aluminum panels to filter dappled sunlight into the interstitial circulation space. The panels form a three-tiered corona referencing traditional Yoruban sculpture with a pattern inspired by ornate ironwork found in the South. Throughout the upper galleries, lenslike portal windows pierce the corona to direct views toward specific elements of the cityscape.

Focused reflection is another key theme at the NMAAHC. “We thought it was important to connect back to that context of the National Mall,” says Zena Howard, a principal at Perkins+Will who was part of the design team with Freelon. “You have the gallery box enshrouded in the corona form, and you move through that interstitial space and are connected back to the context. We modulated the porosity of the panels and privileged views out.”