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.”
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.