National Museum of African American History Architect - David Adjaye

Luxury in
Your Inbox

The Museum Architect Behind D.C.’s National African American Museum of History and Culture

National African American Museum of History

Alan Karchmer

We spoke with Adjaye Associates, founded by notable David Adjaye, about designing the ground-breaking museum that infuses African heritage into a socially driven design.

Impactful architecture, whether for entertainment or art, has the potential to elevate a visitor’s experience to one of inspiration. Some of our favorite works of design previously featured on ICONIC LIFE have included the most striking opera houses around the world to the sparkling glass Pyramid at the Louvre.

A contemporary creator leading the way in design innovation is Sir David Adjaye, considered to be one of the most influential architects of his time.

Founder of Adjaye Associates David Adjaye

Anoush Abrar

And because large-scale public buildings created for global visitors are a necessity to our cultural storytelling, we also must recognize the great architects behind them, like the formidable and brilliant Zaha Hadid and the architectural wonders from I.M. Pei.

A contemporary creator leading the way in design innovation is Sir David Adjaye, considered to be one of the most influential architects of his time. The Ghanaian-British architect’s perspective is informed directly by the cultures he has experienced firsthand. As the son of a diplomat, he has lived in Nairobi, Kampala, Beirut and London. His design education, as well as exposure to a range of cityscapes and lifestyles, was forged in studios in London; during his Japanese Buddhism courses in Kyoto and studying under Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura.

In 2000, he debuted his own architecture firm Adjaye Associates that would become a collaborative space for his global visions to be realized. Their site specific and socially-driven projects include Russia’s Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, a distinctly-modern building with an imposingly artful facade, as well as the more recent crimson-concrete art center Ruby City in San Antonio, Texas. Adjaye also recently made history as the first Black to be awarded with the Royal Institute of British Architects medal in their 173-year long history.


The museum has become a place where education, equality and empathy visually harmonize on the National Mall.

Museum of African American History David Adjaye

Alan Karchmer

Yet his most epic undertaking to date is the completion of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. Truly, it is a culmination of his storied life thus far. Adjaye Associates were the lead designers of the project, completed in 2016, which serves as not only a vessel to hold the history of the African American experience, but as an educational space that invites visitors to see themselves within these walls, within these stories; stories that are complex and woven with trauma.

The museum has become a place where education, equality and empathy visually harmonize on the National Mall.

ICONIC LIFE spoke with the Associate Principal at Adjaye Associates, Russell Crader, who worked alongside three other architecture firms on the museum: The Freelon Group, Davis Brody Bond and the SmithGroup. Steeped in references to African art and symbology, the museum becomes an architectural narrative on history while speaking to present day America. “We aim to unveil untold stories while challenging normative ideas regarding architecture,” Crader says, describing the firm’s core values.

Russell Crader of David Adjaye Associates

Ed Reeve

When visitors approach the museum, they are greeted to a bronze-colored building clad with ornamental ironwork. This latticed aluminum references the craftsmanship of the Benin shrines of West Africa and are wrapped around the corona (crown) of the building, which glitters against the white marble of the nearby landmarks. The inverted pyramid design of the structure references West African Yoruban art as seen in the three-tiered crown structure.


David Adjaye Associates Museum of African History

Brad Feinknopf

Regarding the more traditional structures nearby, Crader says that “they are generally massively opaque, with some punched windows and controlled apertures. This is a new understanding of where that can go.” Stepping up to the museum’s main entrance is one of the property’s most profound design elements. Crader explained an important question the team faced: “How can you put something out there that is big and bold, but also quiet enough so that everyone feels like they can come in?”

Thus, the front porch was conceptualized. This space not only shades visitors from the humid heat of Washington, D.C., but references the role that porches played in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, specifically the American South, including shot gun homes in Atlanta during Jim Crow restrictions.

modern D.C. Museum of African American History museum

Alan Karchmer

“You are not climbing stairs or sinking into a plaza, instead it becomes a democratic space for gathering.” Crader continues by saying, “that little porch idea, as small as it may seem for the whole design, is very impactful for a classic institution.”

Independent research plays a large part in Adjaye’s approach to each of his projects alongside his team, and with the National African American Museum, it was a constant dialogue between artists, engineers and civilians in order to authentically honor the journey of African Americans. “As a global office, we understand this work is crucial to the local and global understanding,” Crader shares.

“David and the team were continually having conversations in and out of meeting rooms. It was really about listening. We did this through informal conversations and engaging with people to capture their experiences.”

Once inside the museum, you will notice natural light pouring through the narrow slits from the bronzed exterior. Light was a key component throughout the space, which can be appreciated in both the ever-changing golden exterior when light casts upon it and via the performative screens that harness or modulate sunlight inside. Interiors are column-free and vast, punctuated with timber, concrete and an abundance of light.

David Adjaye Associates modern D.C. museum design

Alan Karchmer

The mood of the museum quickly shifts when visitors begin their descent into the two lowest levels to understand the conditions of the slave trade through a curated series of exhibits. The rather dark and heady space feels like you are underground through the use of muted colors and a dark-toned and heavily textured wall resembling earth.

exhibits at the Museum of African American History D.C.

Museum of African American History and Culture

After an emotional encounter with this chapter of American history, viewers will open out into a massive room with 70-foot ceilings. “It’s a storytelling museum,” says Crader. “And there is a story to be told. That’s why you start down in a tight and compressed space, but then as you move through the exhibit, you open up to see more and more revealed. That’s all part of the unraveling of the history.”

Museum of African American History and Washington Monument

Alan Karchmer

An ascension from below then takes visitors down a circular pathway along the museum’s corona. Real-life objects, like a slave shack and a Tuskegee airplane once flown by African American pilots in WWII, are displayed to offer a sense of reality. The above-ground levels continue to the Civil War exhibit, paying homage to the history of African American veterans. While looking at the Purple Hearts of those who served the country, the Washington Monument peers through a sliver of a window.

As you reach the Contemplative Court, an indoor waterfall gushes from above; offering a natural element to the space and enveloping the visitor in the sound and energy of the water.

Windows throughout the museum serve as a modality of reflection and are placed intentionally towards the Federal Triangle buildings and Monument Grounds to give visitors the chance to glance beyond while always coming back inward. Details like this show us that it takes non-conventional thinking, empathy and design expertise to engage every visitor and to impart stories that are deeply multi-faceted.

It takes non-conventional thinking, empathy and design expertise to engage every visitor and to impart stories that are deeply multi-faceted.

modern waterfall at the Museum of African American History

Brad Feinknopf

Another symbolic space is The Black Box Theater, notable for its family-style seating that allows you to sit in a circle, which Crader says provides an opportunity for inclusivity. The National African American Museum of History and Culture is arguably one of the most intriguing of the 19 Smithsonian museums, for it boasts epic proportions and unconventional use of material. Beyond that, it is a place for the lived experiences of African Americans, and current generations, to be seen.

You May Also Like

Iconic Life Black Horizontal Logo

Get The Latest!
Luxury in Your Inbox

Iconic Life Black Horizontal Logo

Subscribe to Stay Up to Date on Our Sustainable Showhouse

Get Net Zero ICONIC Home news in your inbox as we build this home step by step. Learn about the exciting brands involved, find out how to achieve a healthy living environment and get tips on how to bring sustainability into your own home and be alerted to awesome giveaways.