The story behind Sir David Adjaye’s must-see museum in Washington DC

A giant of modern architecture, Sir David Adjaye creates buildings that are distinct but always rooted in a sense of place, as typified by his iconic museum in Washington, DC.
Buildings and monuments made with a sense of cultural purpose are more than structures—they’re symbols of a greater idea. It’s in times of great change that we look to architecture for a sense of stability.

This is the case for many of the landmark buildings in the US capital city, Washington, DC. Think of the Smithsonian Institution, a collection of 17 museums and galleries whose cultural influence is elevated above day-to-day politics and events by both its contents and architecture. If something is here, it’s because it really matters: now and in the future. It was in this spirit that British-Ghanaian architect, Sir David Adjaye OBE, approached his design for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), located on the Washington Mall, and completed in 2016.

Situated near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, the NMAAHC stands both literally and symbolically as a celebration, monument and memorial to the unique culture of African-Americans.“I felt it was important to not try and mimic the other buildings on the National Mall,” says Adjaye, “but to create a design that acts as the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. I wanted the NMAAHC to also continue the modernist discourse of Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn Museum and I. M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art.”

NMAAHC’s intricate metal skin

NMAAHC’s intricate metal skin

The building features a unique metal skinwhose intricate, lattice-like pattern shields the interior from direct view, giving the museum the impression of being both protective and welcoming. “I was inspired by the aesthetic languages that Africans brought to America as slaves,” says Adjaye. “The three-tiered inverted pyramid form of the museum takes the shape of a corona—or crown—and references a sculpture by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. The façade filigree panels are a nod to the craftsmanship of African-American ironworker guilds of the South. It also was essential to fully engage with the building’s significant site as the last place on the National Mall and create architecture that is both solemn and uplifting.”

To some, commissioning an architect not from the United States to design a museum dedicated to such a distinctly American subject seemed counterintuitive, but Adjaye’s cross-cultural, global background made him uniquely suited for the job. The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Adjaye lived in Lebanon, Tanzania and Egypt before settling in England. Here he built his architectural practice, Adjaye Associates. In 2017, he was awarded a knighthood and was described as “one of the leading architects of his generation and a global cultural ambassador for the UK” by the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood upon the announcement. That same year he was selected as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, the sole architect or designer on the list.

Located in cityscapes around the world, including buildings in New York, London and Oslo, Adjaye’s style is distinct, yet each building takes a cue from the environment in which it sits.

The museum’s Contemplative Court

The museum’s Contemplative Court

“I have a very specific research-based methodology that I bring to all my projects,” Adjaye says, “so my work is always influenced by unique local factors such as culture, history, site, and climate. Every context creates a new scenario and opportunity. The NMAAHC was no exception for Adjaye who understood the project to be about people from one culture understanding the experience of people from another. “Empathy is the most important tool for an architect to have,” Adjaye says, “and my upbringing certainly shaped my sensitivity to complex cultural frameworks. I am of Ghanaian heritage but was born in East Africa—so I know what it means to have a dual cultural identity. Living in many different countries before my family settled in London taught me from a very early age that the world is about tolerance and negotiation. I ultimately wanted the NMAAHC to create a dialog about the African-American experience and build empathy between cultures.”
Stunning vaulted interiors play with light and shadow from the building’s detailed exterior

Stunning vaulted interiors play with light and shadow from the building’s detailed exterior

A full roster of projects is now currently underway at Adjaye Associates, including two new buildings in the United States: the Ruby City art center for the Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio and the new home for the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City. In London, Adjaye’s team is working on the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre next to the Houses of Parliament. No matter where Adjaye’s residential and commercial structures emerge across the world, his mission to create a sense of lasting presence is complete. As is so ably demonstrated in Washington, DC.
Use Conrad Washington DC as your base while discovering the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now accepting reservations for arrivals starting March 2019.


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