by R. Steven Lewis, AIA, NOMA
This past Friday, the Smithsonian Institution proudly unveiled to the public the six design competition entries for the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture. A press conference held that afternoon at the famed Castle Building marked the beginning of a one-week exhibition of models, drawings, visualizations and descriptive text prepared by the six finalists - all notable firms. Later Friday evening, Museum director, Lonnie Bunch, hosted an invited-reception where an interesting cross-section of individuals representing a variety of stakeholders gathered to view and informally discuss the design submissions.
As current president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), a big part of my job is to advocate for fair, just and equal opportunity on behalf of our membership. Looking around the exhibit space and seeing so many of NOMA’s best and brightest designers and firms represented among the group of six should have provided me with a healthy share of gratification for a job well done; but it didn’t. As I circulated among the dignitaries (of all races and ethnicities) listening to the discourse about form and materials, and metaphor and procession, the one issue that was not being discussed was the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. How is it possible, when the NMAAHC project represents the most significant opportunity of our lifetime to tell the story of the Black experience in America, that half of the short-listed firms are, at least by name, known to be White-owned, with no Black “partner” indicated in the marquee? Some will argue that the choice should be made solely on the basis of the jury’s assessment of the merits of the entries. Should race play a role in the decision as to who is most appropriate to design this building? While there is little doubt that each of these esteemed architects is capable of designing a brilliant building that respects the subject of its mission and has appeal with the general public, the question remains as to who will tell the story.
Having NOMA member firms in competition with their best and brightest White counterparts certainly affords them immediate recognition, credibility and legitimacy – something that we would contend is welcome and long overdue; however, I would be less than honest if I were to say that there is not a sense of nervousness over the prospect of someone other than a Black architect landing this commission. People need to understand why this is so important to so many within the Black community. For more than 300 years, we have had to endure the telling of our history by others. Most recently, the highly sought after commission for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC was awarded to Roma Design – a firm led by three White principals. When former Virginia governor, Douglass Wilder needed an architect for the design of United States National Slavery Museum, he hand-picked Chien Chung Pei, AIA, son of distinguished architect I.M. Pei. The story of the Holocaust was brilliantly expressed by architect Jim Freed – a Jew who, at the tender age of nine, fled Germany with his family to escape the Nazi regime. Douglass Cardinal and John Paul Jones were among the Native American architects who conceived of the National Museum of the American Indian. At the end of the day, it would appear that letting due process take its course is, at best, a risky proposition for those Black architects who now can only stand by and await the Smithsonian selection committee’s final decision.
So far, the Smithsonian has done nothing that NOMA would consider inappropriate or problematic for our constituents. Quite to the contrary, NOMA would like to recognize the Smithsonian for engaging Black-owned firms as leaders in all roles of the project leading up to this point in the process. Having recently spent four years in GSA’s Office of the Chief Architect, often representing the office as a voting member on selection panels for Federal Design Excellence projects, I believe in the spirit of a process that is ideally intended to reward merit without regard for how familiar the architect’s name is, much less his or her race, color or creed. But pure and beautiful as the process may be, it is ultimately driven by individuals whose sensibilities, values and world views have the potential of combining to produce outcomes that, on occasion, defy the public’s interest. The Smithsonian plans to announce the winning architect for the NMAAHC project on April 14. The only remaining question leading up to the announcement is who will tell the story?
Reprinted with permission from the Web site of the National Organization of Minority Architects.