How did you distil your influences from Africa into your design for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC?
The museum is truly so much bigger than a building. It is the culmination of a 100-year struggle to do justice to a complex and significant history of a people whose stories are still too rarely told. For me, the project was about uncovering history and trying to convey the contributions of a community whose importance to the social fabric of American life has too often been invisible. There is an immense responsibility inherent in this project. That was weighty and challenging, but also invigorating.
The new museum does not try to conform to the white stone and classical style of other buildings on the National Mall. Instead, the architecture proudly and confidently reflects the contents of the building. Its primary shape, or ‘corona’, draws heavily from the crowns associated with traditional West African Yoruba sculptures. Yoruba is one of Africa’s most recognised artistic traditions and is still influential in parts of Benin, Nigeria and Togo. Diverse Yoruba artefacts include staffs, masks, crowns and court dress, as well as ornately carved architectural elements such as gates, doors, columns and veranda posts.
The museum’s facade draws on two important strands of African history. Firstly, it honours the contribution of African American slaves to the ornate ironwork common in the southern states of the US – the majority of the ironwork in cities like New Orleans and Charleston was designed and produced by black slaves. Before slavery, West Africans in particular had developed significant ironworking skills. We isolated common patterns in this historical ironwork and used them to create a new geometry for the museum’s external skin. Secondly, the material and colour of these panels is influenced by metal plaques and sculptures in the Royal Palace of Benin in what is now Nigeria. As well as being decorative, the panels have a functional role. The density – or porosity – of the pattern changes across the building, effectively controlling the amount of light that enters.