President Obama will deliver remarks next Wednesday at the groundbreaking for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015. For supporters of the project, commissioned in 2003, the start of construction has been a long time coming. And for Tanzanian-born David Adjaye, the project ratifies his status as one of the most celebrated architects alive.
Adjaye’s design for the museum borrows motifs from late 19th- and early 20th-century Yoruban sculpture from West Africa. The result—a dun-colored pedestal mounted by two inverted trapezoids—will contrast starkly with the alabaster, neoclassical buildings in nearby Federal Triangle.
The design will undoubtedly pose a challenge for some visitors, but offending American sensibilities wasn’t Adjaye’s objective. The architect rarely courts controversy and is known for creating bright, inviting spaces.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture will be located near the Washington Monument, just opposite the National Museum of American History. Conceived as a “healing space,” the museum must balance a celebration of African-American culture with centuries of racial oppression. Ultimately, its exhibitions are more likely to come under scrutiny than its unorthodox design.
Although he embraced the museum’s mission, Adjaye is somewhat of a stranger to race relations in America. The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, he spent his early years in Tanzania, Egypt, Yemen, and Lebanon. His family fled West Africa amid political upheaval in the late 1970s, eventually settling in London. There, Adjaye enrolled in public school, while his disabled younger brother was sent to a respite-care center, “a badly converted Victorian house completely hamstrung with inappropriate ramps going up and down,” Adjaye told The New York Times in 2006. He credits the facility’s helter-skelter design with inspiring him to go into architecture.
As a student at the Royal College of Art in London, he fell in with iconoclastic provocateurs, including Chris Ofili, who famously scandalized then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani by embellishing a depiction of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung.
Initially, Adjaye’s designs were austere and forbidding, but when East London officials commissioned him to build a pair of community centers in a decrepit neighborhood, he pivoted toward more welcoming and practical structures.
Now a visiting professor at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, Adjaye is an A-list architect, one of the few whose work has currency in both the West and his native Africa. Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2007, he designed Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO.
The African-American museum is supported by a council made up of of well-known names from the worlds of business and politics, including former first lady Laura Bush. The council’s cochairs are African-American business leaders Richard Parsons, chairman of Citigroup, and Linda Johnson Rice, who chairs Johnson Publishing.
Parsons is no stranger to adversity, although he told National Journal he did not feel discriminated against as a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In 2008, after stepping down as CEO of Time Warner, he joined Citigroup just as the company announced an $8.3 billion loss in the fourth quarter. Three years later, upon the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Citigroup had recovered, but Parsons said at the time that the fight for racial equality was far from over.
“We still have yet to live up to the fullness of his vision,” Parsons said of King. “His hope, his dream, that one day our children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character remains a work in progress.”
Rice’s family founded Johnson Publishing, the parent company of African-American-focused Ebony and JET magazines. She previously served as her company’s president, CEO, and chief operating officer.
Rice traced her family’s lineage through slave-trade documents in a PBS documentary, African-American Lives. In the documentary, she became emotional when talking about her great-grandfather losing his mother in a slave auction. “We were property,” Rice said. “And to be that callous about a human life is just—it’s unforgivable, almost.”
This article appears in the February 17, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.