D.C.’s new African American museum is a bold challenge to traditional Washington architecture

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D.C.'s new African American museum is a bold challenge to traditional Washington architecture
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will open on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 / © Alan Karchmer
D.C.'s new African American museum is a bold challenge to traditional Washington architecture
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will open on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 / © Alan Karchmer

In full shadow it’s a workmanlike brown, the color of shoe leather. In direct sunlight the shade is closer to bronze. Late in the day its western edge, turned toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, begins to reflect the setting sun and turns a surprisingly bright gold.

The shifting personality of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by a consortium of architecture firms calling itself Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup and set to open Sept. 24 near the center of the Mall, is no fluke or simple trick of light.

The most impressive and ambitious public building to go up in Washington in a generation — if also the owner of a truly awkward acronym — the NMAAHC draws its considerable power from a willingness to embrace the nearly bottomless complexity of both its mission and its site.

As a new branch of the Smithsonian located three blocks south of the White House, charged with marking the origins and history of the slave trade and giving some measure of the modern African American experience, the museum could hardly be more fraught as a cultural institution or work of architecture.

Despite some flaws and unfortunate signs of cost-cutting, the design succeeds almost precisely to the degree that it is enigmatic and even fickle, spanning huge gulfs in the national character without being naive enough to try to close them. The building embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame. […]

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