Alex Fradkin

The architectural press descended on Washington, D.C., this morning to preview the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens on Sept. 24. Nestled west of the National Museum of American History, the newest Smithsonian museum and addition to the National Mall was designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, a four-part partnership between the Freelon Group (now part of Perkins+Will), Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond, and SmithGroupJJR that was selected in 2009.

Roughly eight years after President George W. Bush approved the creation of the museum, the project broke ground in February of 2012. Last November, the museum held its first event: a projection mapping presentation on the corona-shaped façade. But today was the first time people gathered inside. "This is the first time I've seen people in here," said the museum's director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, at today's press preview. "This is pretty cool."

Alex Fradkin
Alex Fradkin

The bronze-colored cast aluminum façade has been in place for months, but the exterior offers few hints about the museum inside. The ground-floor lobby, where visitors enter the building, is actually the middle of the museum's circulation path: The exhibits are designed to be experienced from the bottom up, beginning with the below-grade David M. Rubenstein History Galleries and continuing on to the Community Galleries and Culture Galleries on the third and fourth floors, respectively. The second floor, which was closed during today's press tour, will contain the Center for African American Media Arts, education spaces, and a resource center. David J. Skorton, the secretary of the Smithsonian, said at the media preview that the museum is the only Smithsonian building constructed without an existing collection.

The underground spaces are some of the most striking. A Jim Crow-era Southern Railway Car and an Angola prison guard tower were present when ARCHITECT toured the site last year, since they are so large that they had to be brought in during construction while the rest of the the museum was built around them. The history galleries' three levels are connected via a series of switch-backing ramps in a quadruple-height space.

Alex Fradkin
Alex Fradkin
Alex Fradkin

The upstairs galleries are largely shaped by internal exhibition partitions, but occasional views through cut-outs in the façade frame views of the monuments in the city beyond. A third-floor Sports Gallery contains a small theater with three rows of stadium seats to view a short film about baseball, framed by a view of the National Museum of American History beyond. On the west side of that floor, a narrow hall containing portraits of African American Medal of Honor recipients ends with a view of the Washington Monument. On the fourth floor's west side, a viewing platform that juts out from the ciruculation path outside the gallery boasts a panoramic view of the Washington Monument and the lawn to the north.

While the museum's interior looks dramatically different from what it looked like during our construction tour last year, there is still a fair amount of painting, installing, and final detailing that has to be completed before it opens to the public next week. But when asked at a press briefing if the project would be completed in time for President Obama to cut the ribbon on Sept. 24, Bunch exclaimed, "We are so ready, it's ridiculous."

Alex Fradkin
Alex Fradkin
Alex Fradkin

This article was originally featured on our sister site, ARCHITECT.