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On the National Museum of African American History and Culture: A little green around the edges

By Philip Kennicott

David Adjaye, part of the team designing the new home for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, appeared before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts last week to discuss his revised plans. There was much more detail about the new profile of the building, generally smaller and more retiring, with less impact on some views of the Washington Monument. But particularly distressing was the Commission's negative reaction to Kathryn Gustafson's initial designs for water features. Commissioner Witold Rybczynski was skeptical, saying that big water features are "like waving a flag." He added, "I find it troubling to see so much water introduced where nobody else does it."

Gustafson is a brilliant designer, whose work includes the lovely serpentine water feature that is a memorial to Princess Diana in London, and the courtyard (with its distinctive, low-key, slow moving fountains on the floor) of the Smithsonian's Patent Office Building, home to the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

Kathryn Gustafson, pictured at the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain she designed in Hyde Park, London. (Tim Graham / Getty Images)

Her plans for the grounds of the African-American museum include a "rain garden" running along Constitution Avenue, and a pool near the entrance on the building's Mall side, designed to cast light onto an entry canopy, and cool the space near the museum. Adjaye, it seems, believes that crossing water is an important symbolic act when entering a museum devoted to the culture of a people brought to this country across the ocean and (originally) against their will. That kind of design thinking generally means more to architects than the general public. But it's a nice thought.

The value of Gustafson's design, however, has more to do with how it will help change the edges of the Mall, which are rigid and linear and... boring. Two of the most refreshing spots on the Mall, today, are the water features at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and the fountains at the nearby Botanical Garden. These little gardens break with the formality of the Mall, offer more varied vegetation than the grass and trees of Mall's main axis, and generally give people a chance to be in an inviting and enveloping marginal space rather than a rigid ceremonial landscape.

Rybczynski is right about many of the old-fashioned fountains and pools that define public space in Washington. But Gustafson is thinking of something else, something rather radical: Her rain garden is a little bit of naturalism surreptitiously introduced into an arid, imperial landscape. More power to Adjaye and Gustafson for attempting to soften the outdoor profile near the African-American museum. Eventually, perhaps, real nature will begin to reclaim the grassy expanses of the Mall's oversized greensward. Until then, lower bushes, more water and garden-like areas that offer respite from the barrenness and heat of the Mall are entirely welcome.

By Philip Kennicott  | September 22, 2010; 2:31 PM ET
Categories:  Architecture, Philip Kennicott  | Tags:  National Museum of African American History and Culture  
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