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Work nears completion on Adjaye’s long-awaited Smithsonian Museum

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Adjaye Associates’ Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC is set to complete next month


The $540 million museum houses exhibition galleries, administrative spaces, theatre space, and storage for the institute’s collections. 

In order to respect the historic Washington Monument grounds, more than half of the 39,000m² building has been built underground with just five storeys above.

Featuring a bronze filigree cladding, the scheme’s facade references the monument by matching the 17° angle of its capstone. 

The ornamental bronze lattice, which is modulated to control the amount of sunlight reaching the interior, has been influenced by African American craftsmanship. 

Adjaye Associates, which teamed up with The Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, originally won the contest for the prestigious job back in 2009 when it saw off competition from five other firms including Foster + Partners (AJ 15.04.09). 

Smithsonian Museum by Adjaye Associates

Smithsonian Museum by Adjaye Associates

Source: Alan Karchmer

Architect’s view 

The design rests on three cornerstones: the ‘corona’ shape and form of the building; the extension of the building out into the landscape – the porch; and the bronze filigree envelope. 

The south entry is composed of the Porch and a central water feature. An extension of the building out into the landscape, the porch creates an outdoor room that bridges the gap between the interior and exterior. 

At 50m deep, the setback is similar to other buildings on the north side of the Mall. The underside of the porch roof is tilted upward allowing reflection of the moving water below. This covered area creates a microclimate where breezes combine with the cooling waters to generate a place of refuge from the hot summer sun. 

Inside the building, visitors will be guided on a historical and emotional journey, characterised by vast, column-free spaces, a dramatic infusion of natural light and a diverse material palette comprising pre-cast concrete, timber and a glazed skin that sits within the bronze lattice. 

Below ground, the ambience is contemplative and monumental, achieved by the triple-height history gallery and symbolised by the memorial space – the ‘oculus’ – that brings light diffused by a cascade of water into the contemplative space from the Monument grounds. 

Smithsonian Museum by Adjaye Associates

Smithsonian Museum by Adjaye Associates

Source: Alan Karchmer

Project data 

Location Washington DC, USA
Type of project museum
Client Smithsonian Institution
Architect Freelon Adjaye Bond Smith Group
Landscape architect Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Structural engineer Guy Nordeson and Associates and Robert Silman Associates
Lighting consultant Fisher Marantz Stone
Appointment competition
Start on site date March 2012
Completion date September 2016
Gross internal floor area 39,000m²
Total cost $540 million

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