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Architects Realize Bold, Bronze Vision at Washington’s Newest Museum

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A Case Study on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

How do you design a building to serve as a physical representation of the African American experience?

Over the past several years, architects designing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) have explored just that. More than a typical monumental building project, the NMAAHC is a landmark for the nation, a key building along the National Mall, and an important representation of an often-overlooked part of American History.Several architecture firms worked together to creative a cohesive, world-renowned museum:

  • Architects/Engineers: Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup

  • Lead Designer: Adjaye Associates, London

  • Designers: David Brody Bond and SmithGroup

With 397,000 square feet, ten levels, galleries, administrative areas, theatre space, and storage facilities, the project required extraordinary vision, historical knowledge, and attention to detail.

The team worked together to create a composition that included three distinctive design features:

The Corona

The three-tiered filigree envelop that wraps around the structure
is made of bronze colored-plates and a glass-panel façade that represent traditional African architecture while playing homage to the nearby Washington monument by closely matching the nearly 17-degree angle of the capstone. Reaching toward the sky, the bronze-clad corona expresses faith, hope and resiliency.

The Porch

The porch is an outdoor room that merges the building into the surrounding landscape, uniting the interior and exterior. The underside of the porch roof is tilted upward, which reflects the water below and creates a microclimate where visitors can escape from the hot summer sun.

The Filigree

The building is covered in bronze-colored panels featuring perforated patterns that reference the history of African American craftsmanship. Each of the 3,600 customized, cast-aluminum panels reflect the design of ironwork by enslaved craftsmen in Charleston and New Orleans. The density of the pattern varies to control the amount of sunlight and transparency allowed to enter the interior, and the bronze color contrasts boldly with the building’s marble and limestone neighbors.

Early on, it was critical for the design team to find the perfect color to use as the bronze wash for the exterior of the building. Zena Howard AIA, Lead Project Manager from Perkins+Will, explained that this color would remain “an enduring and permanent color that would command respect for the building and the exhibits housed inside.”

Valspar worked with the designers to create three custom shades, African Sunset, African Sunrise and African Rose, which were used on massive aluminum panels, each of which weighed around 200 pounds and stretched 4-5 feet.

Morel Industries, the metal panel manufacturer, finished the panels by applying five different coating layers, each a different color of the Fluropon coatings, to achieve the exact bronze shade requested by the designers. Eventually, the final color was achieved and named “Artisan 3.5.” The challenge was for each individual color to hold their color across every layer on the panels, so that when combined in the final design, they would join to create the final shade.

Next, the team conducted extensive tests to ensure the coating process would work given the huge size of the panels and intricate design already cut into each piece. Dura Industries, the metal panel applicator on the project applied the coatings to all 3,600 pieces by hand and shipped them to the project site in Washington D.C. for installation.

Howard reported that, “What we ended up with gave us the look of real bronze, a luminous feeling that created a dynamic and beautiful façade.”

Over the course of the next few year, Northstar Contracting oversaw the installation process and in the end, the result was absolutely sunning. Dynamic, yet consistent, the coating on the filigree captures visitors’ attention immediately and sets the stage for the truly captivating, educational experience inside the museum. Like the art, history and culture memorialized inside the building, the museum stands out due to its polish, artistry, creativity and persistence. 

It was a pleasure for Valspar to be a part of. In fact, Juan Campos, the Valspar Account Executive on the job said, “this was truly a one of a kind job and something that I have never experienced before in my career.”

We’re proud to have collaborated with these impressive designers, engineers, architects, applicators, and others to have created a truly beautiful historic structure that will act as a physical representation of the historical past of African Americans long into the future. 

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