British architect David Adjaye, born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, was already in his 20s when he visited the U.S. for the first time. But he now has a key role in conveying the American story. On September 24, 2016 in Washington, D.C., he unveiled his highly anticipated addition to the National Mall—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
On a recent tour of the building he noted that its location, at the center of the mall, has views of Washington’s most iconic monuments, among them the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. “To an architect,” he says, “a site like this is humbling.”
Adjaye is a graduate of the Royal College of Art. Some of his other important works include the design of two public libraries in Washington and the design of homes for celebrities like Alexander McQueen and Ewan McGregor.
In 2009, Adjaye led a design team that included Philip Freelon (founder of the North Carolina-based Freelon Group) and the late J. Max Bond, Jr., of New York’s Davis Brody Bond to beat hundreds of other architectural firms in a design competition.
The museum design required a building that would function as a museum while also doubling as a multipurpose event centre that could host cultural events of various kinds. It also required a design that respects the history and views of the Washington monument while demonstrating an understanding of the African American experience.
The new museum is five stories tall above ground and another three stories below ground. The Architectural Digest writes:
“Visitors to the museum can begin their tour by taking an elevator four levels down, where they come face-to-face with a vast concrete wall that carries a timeline of the African-American experience — from the slave trade to the Obama era. Ramps ascend through galleries devoted to that history. Also underground is a 350-seat theatre (named for Oprah Winfrey, an NMAAHC founding donor) clad in its own silvery version of the building’s perforated screens.”
The museum’s ground-breaking ceremony was held on February 22, and it was attended by ex-US President Barack Obama. Construction work began soon after, and most of the building was complete by November 2015. Former US President Obama dedicated the new museum when it opened on September 24. An estimated 3,000 items was on exhibition. The opening was followed by a week of special events, during which the museum was opened for extended hours.