David Adjaye on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

David Adjaye on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

At a recent talk in Toronto, the newly knighted architect shared his thoughts on a most important commission.
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"I wanted to see if we could make a museum that wasn’t about just making another structure, or mimicking the architectural history of Washington, but to see if we could introduce another narrative that was what I call a kind of bedfellow, but of a different trajectory.

"The forest region in West Africa produced incredible artisans and craftsmen. The most notable were the Yoruba in Benin, who for thousands of years created incredible art. By the first century they’d become great masters of naturalistic casting and work, but chose to reject it just before colonization and embarked on an incredible series of abstractions. This work, which people sometimes think is primitive, actually happened after the Naturalistic period. The modernism of the continent, you can argue, happened 500 years ago, and this work is the beginning of that abstraction from Naturalization.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. 

"[The museum’s stylized facade] encapsulates stories about kings and myths, about celebration and victory. The best carvers were the ones who were always given the shrine houses, which are the cathedrals of West Africa. I was fascinated by looking at these traditions, and to look at some of the motifs that were developed by the carvers as crowning motifs for kings and important stories. The corona motif, for me in a way, became the butterfly, or the thinking of the way in which the form developed. The specific reference for the corona was a caryatid by the artist Olowe of Ise. 

The museum, with its final design by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup—a collaboration between many participants—took decades to realize. It has been called the most important American structure of the 21st century. 

 "The building is a building of light—it oscillates. People always say, ‘Well, what color is it meant to be?’ And I say, ‘It’s meant to be every color. It can be very dark on a broody day, and very bright on a sunny day.’ The material is supposed to react, and it does react, to the luminosity of the sun. 

"That’s the power of the project, creating something that is responding to light, responding to nature, but it’s also about the performance of the material. In the evening, what is opaque becomes luminous and reveals its character, and also has this silhouette and its relationship to critical monuments."





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