The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on D.C.’s National Mall relied on a bronze wash which was a monumental component of the design, and its longevity.
Built on the last available spot on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) included many partners that worked collaboratively during the design and construction phases. Three American architecture firms, The Freelon Group, architect of record and design team leader—and now part of global design firm Perkins+Will; Davis Brody Bond, with extensive experience in museum projects; and the local D.C.- based firm SmithGroup, joined forces. David Adjaye, lead designer of London-based Adjaye Assocs., was the last to join and brought an international design element to the project. Together, they formed a group named ”Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup” (FABS) and worked cohesively to create a world renowned museum that would accurately tell the story of the African American experience.
The bronze wash of the metal panels was a monumental component of the design. Lead project manager Zena Howard AIA, of Perkins+Will explained that the color choice was discussed over the course of many years with all parties involved in the design process. Ultimately, bronze was selected as the team determined it would remain “an enduring and permanent color that would command respect for the building and the exhibits housed inside.” Once the final color idea was identified, the new challenge of obtaining the perfect hue began.
The building design features three distinct elements: the shape and form of the corona— the three-tiered filigree envelope that wraps around the structure, the porch extension that merges the building into the surrounding landscape, and the bronze color of the corona that provides a distinctive look and strong presence on the National Mall.
An iconic building form, the Corona pays homage to the nearby Washington Monument, closely matching the nearly 17-degree angle of the capstone while using the Monument’s stones as a reference for the NMAAHC panel proportion and pattern. Reaching toward the sky, the bronze clad corona is said to expresses faith, hope and resiliency.
“The bronze colored plates and glass-panel façade that make up the Corona is a representation of traditional African architecture using modern materials and will visually define the museum,” said Matt Wurster from Clark Construction Group, one of the general contractors for the project.
The Porch is an outdoor room that bridges the gap between the interior and exterior of the building, this feature also unites the structure with its natural surroundings. The underside of the porch roof is tilted upward, allowing for a reflection of the moving water below. This covered area creates a microclimate where breezes combine with the cooling waters to generate a place of refuge from the hot summer sun.
The Filigree features bronze colored panels that cover the tiered exterior of the building, perforated in patterns that reference the history of African American craftsmanship. Each of the 3600 customized, bronze-colored, 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 into the interior, and the bronze color stands in stark contrast to the building’s marble and limestone neighbors.
Three custom shades, African Sunset, African Sunrise and African Rose, and one standard shade of Black Valspar Fluropon coating were used on these massive aluminum panels, each weighing around 200 pounds and stretching 4-ft. × 5 ft.
“The color-matching period lasted for more than 18 months because we were looking for depth even more than just color since the panels were so intricate and unique,” said Del Stephens, president and CEO of Dura Industries, who served as the project’s metal panel applicators.
Each panel that was custom cast by Morel Industries was finished with five different coating layers, each a different color of the Fluropon coating, to achieve the exact bronze shade desired by the design team. Eventually, the final color was created and earned the name of “Artisan 3.5.” The individual coatings needed to hold their color across every layer on the panels, as each new additional color is built off of the last to create the final shade.