Mixed Smoke Signals
Clad in golden Kasota dolomitic limestone from Minnesota, the building curves and slinks all around the triangular-shaped four-acre (1.6-hectare) site, which is landscaped with plants and stones from Native American environments around the country.
The building's rough wall texture and eroded form suggest that it was carved by time from the earth itself — a highly appropriate aesthetic for a structure that houses the artwork and cultural artifacts of native peoples tied to the land.
The west side of the building is nearly monolithic, appearing impregnable, with ribbon windows and a sheer precipice of craggy stone. From this direction, the museum looks more like a castle with a moat, its wavy surface stratified, and you get the creepy feeling that someone is watching you from those window slits.
As it faces east, toward the rising sun and the U.S. Capitol, the building's form erodes and it transforms into a cavernous main entrance. Squint and you can almost imagine this side of the building as a cliff dwelling.
Pot of Many Cooks
The museum design has a confusing parentage. There were so many architects involved in this project that it is hard to keep track of them. Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates wrote an architecture program in 1991, which guided the Smithsonian's discussions with Native Americans whose culture would be represented in the museum.
The person that the Smithsonian refers to as the "project designer," Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, gave the building its signature idiosyncratic form. Both Cardinal and the firm he was working in collaboration with, GBQC Architects of Philadelphia, were dismissed from the job by the Smithsonian, which cited delays.
Cardinal claims that he has not been paid for $1 million worth of work, and he has disavowed the museum that took shape after his dismissal. (Cardinal was invited by the museum's director, W. Richard West, to the dedication, but declined to attend.)
After the departure of Cardinal (whose lineage includes the Blackfoot tribe), the Smithsonian brought in as "project architects" Jones & Jones of Seattle (principal Johnpaul Jones is Cherokee/Choctaw) and SmithGroup of Washington, D.C., in association with Lou Weller (a Caddo descendant) and the Native American Design Collaborative, and the Polshek Partnership Architects of New York. Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) and Donna House (Navajo/Oneida) served as design consultants. Landscape architects were Jones & Jones and EDAW of Alexandria, Virginia.
With all these contributors, Cardinal's distinctive style might have been diluted, but it is still strong. Where it is weakest is in the details — the Cardinal design looks as though it is spread too thin, as if the many participating architects could not finish the building with the same measure of sure and sophisticated organic detailing for which Cardinal is noted.
There is no doubt that the exterior material is beautiful, but it is also a bit stultifying in its quantity. Cardinal had detailed the stone to be rough near the ground and to get smoother and more polished as it rose to meet the sky, but that detail got lost in the transition between architects.
The Spirit Within
As you enter the museum, the building's main message hits you all at once. The major interior space, the Potomac rotunda, balloons under a domed ceiling with an oculus, reaching a height of 120 feet (37 meters). This space is only hinted at on the exterior by the shallow, stepped dome, which echoes the Capitol's steeper dome not far away.
All the major exhibit spaces and the theaters radiate from the rotunda, in the same spirit as Guggenheim Museum in New York City, by Frank Lloyd Wright, but the space is not nearly as powerful as Wright's organic swirl.
The new building's rotunda seems too big, out of scale with the rest of the museum, with acres of blank white wall space, though one assumes that it will be covered with art at some point. There is an exhibit/ demonstration area at the center of the rotunda, which seems well used and fun for kids to run around.
The rotunda serves as a reference space as one circulates through the upper levels of exhibit galleries (essentially black-box spaces) and theaters. A potentially interesting space is the resource center on the third level, which stretches along the building's undulating north wall and overlooks the National Mall and the Capitol.
The views from this space are hacked up with ribbon windows that are actually thin vertical pieces of glass separated with heavy mullions that frustrate your attempts to enjoy the sweeping view. Curved glass would have done the trick; instead, the fenestration comes off as penal, as if one were viewing the world from behind bars.
As much as I tried to like this building, my overall the sense is that Cardinal's unique architectural vision was drained from it. The big moves are his, but the graspable details are undercooked. It is no surprise that Cardinal is not claiming parentage.
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Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, a senior associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.