Promised Land

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The landscape design of the newest museum on the National Mall carries more than a little weight.

By Jennifer Reut

To be honest, you probably won’t notice the landscape design at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) the first time you come. The newest Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., has been a doorbuster—it had one million visitors in the first four months, and 2.5 million visitors in its first year. Timed entry tickets are snapped up three months in advance, and a maze of stanchions clutters the entryways to control the unexpected press of people. The museum’s restaurant, the Sweet Home Café, was a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the James Beard Foundation Awards. The talismanic objects in the museum’s collection include Nat Turner’s bible and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, among nearly 37,000 personal objects, photographs, and historical documents. Visitors sometimes have to wait in line just to enter the museum gift shop. There are so many reasons to go to the museum and stay there all day, you might slide right over the landscape.

And that’s partly by design. From early on, the landscape design, by Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, and Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), was meant to draw visitors into the building, not wow them along the way. The multidisciplinary design team, which included the architect mash-up of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup and GGN as the landscape architect, worked together from the first design competition entry, which the team won in 2009. The final landscape design picks up and reinforces the themes of the building—resiliency and spirituality are among the most powerful—but it is more abstract on the ground.

One thing you will learn if you ask around is that people are quick to tell you what the landscape design “means”—what it is supposed to make you feel, and what ideas or themes are expressed at various points on the site. Here is a nod to the memory of the journey into and out of slavery, there, the social world made in the rural south. The emphasis on narration is understandable, given the challenge the museum poses to the dominant stories Americans tell about their history.

Image courtesy of GGN.

Gustafson has talked about the places where these themes have become metaphors in the landscape: the thresholds created by breaks in the polished and honed granite walls that belt the site; the moving and still water that gestures to different aspects of African American history; the meeting and gathering places; and the field of more than 350,000 blue crocuses meant to bloom on the cusp between winter and spring. Many of these gestures are founded on the idea that landscape design creates or reveals meaning that is gleaned, beyond just looking, through the body moving through the space; it’s very much a dancer’s landscape.

It wasn’t hard to see how much the site context would convey before the first move was made in the landscape. The museum is on a small but sensitive and highly prized location on the northern edge of the National Mall, and is technically on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Bounded on all four sides by busy urban streets, it is both an island and a connection that maps views toward both the White House, then occupied by Barack Obama, and the Lincoln Memorial. It is also adjacent to the National Museum of American History, a museum once considered sufficient to tell the American story. It would be easy to do too much, or, worse, too little, with the opportunity.

The design process in Washington, D.C., is not like that of other cities, in that federal regulatory approvals add multiple layers of oversight and comment. It’s the cost of doing business on the Mall, one of the most prominent architectural sites in the country. The competition was just a foot in the door. Once it ended, the team developed three designs. “Each concept had its own approach with landscape,” says Abela, a principal at GGN who worked on the competition team as well as the final design. “I was trying to find the right urban expressions.” In the final design, the museum’s relationship to the city—that it attempts to have one at all—is one of the things that distinguishes it from other Mall structures.

The landscape design focuses on bringing people into the building and making the most of the museum’s irregular frontage on the Mall. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC.

The building, which opened in 2016, seized the chance to make a statement. The NMAAHC needed an expression that would carry equivalent cultural weight with the neoclassical and Beaux-Arts styles of other buildings on the Mall, and do so on its own terms. The final design was a three-tiered corona, or crown, structure, clad in 3,600 filigreed aluminum panels, custom-tinted to resemble bronze. The corona floats on a single-story glass box, a central lobby space that has views open to all four sides. At approximately 350,000 square feet and 216 by 216 feet, it’s a relatively big volume to be carried on a small irregular site of just over five acres, and it could easily have tipped over to box-on-a-plinth. The landscape design had to find a way to absorb the scale and flash of the building without being dominated by it.

One of the most significant decisions was to create a contiguous ground-level entry. The museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch III, wanted a single space that gathered visitors in one place and sent a message: We are one people. Bunch was intimately involved in all aspects of the building’s architecture and landscape, Abela says, and provided guidance for the museum’s emotional and intellectual touchpoints. “He gave us themes to work with. He gave us the themes of resiliency, hope and optimism, spirituality and community,” Abela says.

The open ground floor affords some views to the close-in landscape, but that isn’t really its purpose. The views out are always pointing at context—the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the stretch of the Mall—the set of relationships that give the building some of its historical authority. “For us, it was the challenge of designing the site to feel like it was part of the Washington Monument grounds, part of the National Mall, part of this larger composition, but also designing a site that felt like it belonged to the museum,” Abela says.

While sight lines from inside the building on the ground floor come open periodically, the crush of visitors often makes the lobby too inhabited to grab more than a glimpse of the Washington Monument through the west windows. When you do, you don’t notice the horizontal striations of the plantings and the granite retaining walls as they creep up the slope, just the way the landscape seems to extend across the harried traffic of the 14th Street corridor and connect to the uncoiling paths of the Washington Monument grounds, which were redesigned by OLIN in 2005.

After the site context, the landscape design is strongly defined by the character of access into the building, which occurs on both the north and south sides. A 13-foot slope, from the southern Mall-facing edge of the site to the north edge along the more urban Constitution Avenue, has created a tradition of accommodation, in other museums along the north Mall, where front and back entrances are on different levels. In addition to being disorienting for visitors, this solution gives a strong impression of orientation toward the Mall and a back turned against the city. That’s why the director’s requirement for contiguous space in the lobby was a defining one. It demanded that the landscape and architecture work together to accommodate the grade change in a way that was functionally and conceptually aligned with the director’s imperative, and it also changed the way the landscape and the building engage the city.

Image courtesy of GGN.

The large, open lawn that is the main figure of the east Mall isn’t always a welcoming public space, especially in the summer, and NMAAHC’s landscape is one of the few truly inviting spaces along its stretch. The main entrance that faces the Mall is entered through a feature called the “porch”—a 198-foot-long steel and concrete canopy, which has a 5,800-square-foot green roof planted with Sedum mats. A shallow, asymmetrical water feature inscribed with text pulls visitors in toward the building. The entry sequence feels unfussy and underwhelming, and it might disappoint visitors who are attached to the experience of ascending a grand stair to a temple of culture, but it is meant to be welcoming rather than ennobling. It makes for an arrival experience that holds its own with the other Smithsonian museums’ statement steps while still feeling human-scaled. It succeeds in part because of the water feature that does several things, including cooling the hot air coming off the Mall and alluding to the crossing, a metaphor that has multiple meanings in African American culture and religious practice. It also helps mask the slope.

The porch’s canopy tilts up while the water feature angles very slightly downward—this makes the entrance feel more open, and it is another visual tip that the landscape is moving under your feet. Embedded in an irregular paved plaza, the trapezoidal pool is sunk below grade slightly, but the far edge lifts and tips down, allowing GGN to subtly manipulate the ground plane. “You lose the sense of the fact that the ground is coming down toward you, and it creates a sense of balance and stability,” Abela says. Asymmetrical planting beds and black granite security walls and planters help hide the traffic beyond and create horizon lines for the south Mall, which snarls up in a web of busy thoroughfares and eclectic federal buildings. Layering the views solved a lot of the trickier site problems, including regularizing the awkward architectural ensembles across Madison Drive, where the Mall’s strong axes and formal geometries come slightly unsprung. Abela refers to these layering strategies as “false horizons,” and you can see them in play on the west and south views from the site.

A second entrance on the north side faces busy Constitution Avenue and downtown Washington beyond it. Two sweeping arc paths cross each other on the city side, pulling in visitors from the corners of the site up toward the building and around it. Girdling the site are honed and polished black granite walls that act as security barriers or emerge from retaining walls and double as seating; the plantings are minimal but varied and thoughtful, meant to blend the museum into the existing context.

The two main arcing paths, one of granite pavers that links to the walls and seating elements, and the other of concrete, tying it back to the urban context, meet off axis. A view of the Washington Monument as it emerges from behind the building’s profile at this crossing was carefully choreographed to respond to sensitivity about the architectural hierarchies, but also to show off the connection between the 17-degree angles that are taken from the capstone of the Washington Monument and repeated in the architecture and landscape.

The black granite that makes up the seating, security, and retaining walls is a GGN signature—you’ll see flashes of it at CityCenter and the Kogod Courtyard at the nearby Smithsonian American Art Museum. The firm uses a variety of expressions, finishes, and scales for the pavers, seating, walls, and bollards—a material palette that is fairly restrained. Concrete, Impala granite from Rhode Island, and 37,000 square feet of Mesabi Black granite quarried in Minnesota were the main elements. The landscape design, especially for the stone fabricators, was deceptively complex, Abela says. With 60 percent of the building underground, the landscape rests on a six-inch steel and concrete platform, beneath which the history galleries descend.

Image courtesy of GGN.

Also on the north side, facing the city, there’s a cylinder that punctures the landscape called the Oculus. Adjacent to the entrance and surrounded by a plaza, it is near the center of the subterranean structure and descends into the history gallery where it is the central element of the Contemplation Court. It’s rough-looking from up close, and its name is a bit of a misnomer because it isn’t a device to look through or out from, but a lantern that references the light that signaled to the enslaved traveling the Underground Railroad. It’s intended to be seen from the city at night.

The landscape is meant to carry the museum’s mission, but it also creates intimate and human-scaled public spaces on the Mall, which has surprisingly few. Abela says that GGN’s approach to public space is all about scale and particularly about “not wanting to look like an empty ballroom waiting for an event.” The landscape feels available to city workers on a lunch break in a tourist-intensive part of town that often leaves locals feeling as if they are intruding.

Though locals use the open space, especially on weekends, the National Mall is strongly oriented toward tourists who have come to Washington to understand something about how we articulate the American character in built form. Most of those people can be here only for a moment. To take the opportunity to design a landscape that requires a long visit or multiple visits and also acknowledges or just accepts change over time is an important choice, and one that takes certain risks. GGN’s approach goes against the current grain of museum design, which can be summarized as: Get them in, tell them what to think, give them a spot to take a selfie, and get them out.

Water moves over passages from the writing of Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin; seating is abundant in the granite walls and edges around the design elements. Photo by Catherine Tighe.

The museum building and the exhibition design (by Ralph Appelbaum Associates) carve out valuable real estate for reflection—spaces where visitors can stop and absorb what they’ve seen and experienced—and the landscape design also makes spaces for contemplation and quiet.

In this way, the NMAAHC connects to memorials and Holocaust museums in that it considers the emotional dynamics of the museum encounter, or at least makes a space for them to play out. It accommodates the crowds that come here, but also it’s a place to be with this exhibition material, which is both encouraging and devastating, often at once.

If you read the articles already published or talk to the people involved, you’ll hear words like “embrace” and “symbolizes” and “journey.” But these are interpretative words, meant to keep visitors on message and read the landscape and building for them. Perhaps because of the design’s subtlety, there is a fear that visitors won’t get it. And they may not. They may not even register that there is a landscape.

Ultimately, the building and landscape design are subservient to the material within and the argument it makes. The museum’s mission is to frame the American story in a way that substantively includes the African American experience, and in order to succeed it has to tell that story to and about all Americans without flinching. The pressure to directly interpret the themes and ideas of the museum, to be more didactic and less open-ended, must have been considerable. But it was worth the gamble. “That sense of inclusiveness really drove us to design something that was more abstract, that was more open to interpretation by lots of different people,” Abela says. “If we had been very literal, it would have failed.”

Project Credits
ARCHITECTURE The Freelon Group, Durham, North Carolina; Adjaye Associates, New York; Davis Brody Bond, New York; SmithGroup, Washington, D.C. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE GGN, Seattle. STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING Robert Silman Associates, Washington, D.C.; Guy Nordenson & Associates, New York. CIVIL ENGINEERING Rummel, Klepper & Kahl, Baltimore. MEP/FP ENGINEERING WSP Flack & Kurtz, Seattle. FOUNTAIN ENGINEER CMS Collaborative, Santa Cruz, California.

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