Sculpted by Wind and Water

Native Americans join a Building Team in the creation of a complex, curvilinear museum that celebrates the resiliency of their heritage.
August 11, 2010

On a recent crisp, clear spring morning, as I approached the National Museum of the American Indian from the east, the brilliant sunlight bathed its limestone curves in variegated shades from deep saffron to burnished gold to honeyed ocher.

Evoking the organic process by which wind and water have carved the sandstone canyons and mesas of the desert Southwest, the undulating, almost feminine form of the $199 million, 260,000-sf museum shines in bright contrast to the somber, rectilinear gray edifices of its classical Greek and Roman counterparts on Washington's National Mall.

With its opening last September, the five-story museum, which represents all the Native people of the Western Hemisphere, took its place of honor on the last available site on the Mall, adjacent to the National Air & Space Museum and I.M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

Only the National Botanic Garden to the east separates the 4.2-acre trapezoidal site from the Capitol. At the main entrance, on the east side, an ornamental device made of American Mist stone from Canada (designed by Santa Fe artist Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi) replicates the alignment of the planets on November 28, 1989, the day Congress approved construction of the museum.

Greeting me at the south employee entrance were Duane Blue Spruce, the museum's facilities planning coordinator, William Kline and Michael Dobbs of the local office of project architect SmithGroup, and V. George Conard, VP of general contractor Clark Construction, Bethesda, Md.

Blue Spruce, a Laguna and San Juan Pueblo tribal member, recalled arriving in Washington by automobile from Santa Fe on a hot, muggy summer day in 1993 with his pregnant wife. Twelve years and two children later, he says he is keenly aware of the cultural legacy the museum holds for future generations.

"It's an affirmation of our culture," says Blue Spruce. "Native Americans just don't register in this country as a people, and it's important to them that the museum is here on the Mall, even if they never get to visit it."

From the beginning, the Smithsonian set out to engage Native Americans from North, Central, and South America in the planning and programming process. In the 15 years from its conception to its opening on the autumnal equinox last September 21, museum consultants, staff, and Building Team members made countless trips to interact with Native American museum experts, tribal elders, and materials and product suppliers.

More than two dozen of the museum staff's consultations from 1991–1993 were recorded and distilled by Philadelphia architecture firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. The resulting document, The Way of the People, became a working architectural guide for the project throughout the tumultuous days that lay ahead.

In 1993, the museum selected Douglas Cardinal, of Douglas J. Cardinal Architect Ltd., Ottawa, as design architect, in partnership with Philadelphia's Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham (now GBQC Architects). Cardinal, a Native American of Blackfoot, Algonquin, and Mohawk descent, was known for the organic nature of his designs, which draw heavily on the powerful landscapes of the American Southwest. His most visible project at the time was the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Gatineau, Quebec, which was completed in 1989.

Cardinal began work on the project by holding a "visioning session" attended by 30 tribal elders. "They gave me the inspiration," he says: The museum would be "a place of reconciliation" and "a place of celebration of [Native Americans'] survival and tremendous contribution."

Cardinal's design for the museum started from the inside, with its interiors based on a combination of circles in "harmonic proportion" to one another, much like the South American cities built by native people three thousand years ago. The design also pays close attention to Native American concepts of astronomy, cosmology, and nature. "The outside form was generated from the inside," he says.

In 1997, just as the schematic design was being completed, GBQC went through an ownership change, the partnership between Cardinal and GBQC was dissolved, and both parties were sacked by the Smithsonian over concerns about the progress and coordination of the project.

At this point, the Smithsonian's management turned to the team that had designed the NMAI's recently completed Cultural Resources Center building in Suitland, Md. The joint venture included the Washington, D.C., office of SmithGroup, New York's Polshek Partnership Architects, and the Native American Design Collaborative, led by Lou Weller, a Caddo. Electing to stay with the project were the remaining members of the original design team: Johnpaul Jones, of Seattle architecture firm Jones & Jones, who is of Cherokee and Choctaw decent; the Hopi artist and design consultant Ramona Sakiestewa; and New Mexico ethnobotanist Donna House, a Navajo and Oneida, whose landscape design for the project included a forest, wetlands, and meadow habitats, along with croplands and 27,000 native perennials.

The new design team was faced with the thankless task of taking on another architect's conceptual design, which had been approved by the museum and outside agencies, and making it work. "We were pleased with the concept," says Blue Spruce. "There was no desire to turn the design on its head. The overall form and massing remained intact. We just wanted to take the project through design development. We had a 3-D image of the building; now we had to make it work."

In the summer of 1998, with the cloud of Cardinal's departure hanging over the project, the new design team, various consultants, and representatives from the museum and the Smithsonian assembled at Jones & Jones's office in Seattle for an intensive, four-day meeting to restart the project. Jones invited a Native American storyteller to the meeting to bring cohesion and healing to the new team—the first of many ceremonies and blessings conducted by Native Americans at special times of the year and at key points in the project.

During the Seattle meeting, team members took turns addressing the group. The words of George Horse Capture, an A'aninin and senior counselor to the director of the NMAI, held particular meaning for SmithGroup's Kline: "He said, 'We've all been selected to do this for a reason. We all have certain skills, and it's our job to work together and to make sure that the best comes out of us.'"

The message from the meeting was that "the project goes on," says Blue Spruce. "It was bigger than anyone in that room."

Rejuvenating the process

The building's compound curves, its unique, expressionistic floor plates, and its interior spaces (based on radii and radial points that extend from the center of the 115-foot-diameter, 121-foot-high domed main entry lobby, called the Potomac) made it one of the most complicated projects any member of the Building Team had ever been involved with, says Kline.

For the first six months of design development, "a lot of the development of the interior of the building happened in an incredibly collaborative, consensus-driven atmosphere," says Kline. The design team met once a month with museum and Smithsonian representatives and outside agencies to discuss critical aspects of the project, such as whether a fire pit could be constructed in the outdoor performance theater. (Yes, it could. The museum is the only building on the Mall that is allowed to build outdoor fires.) But gaining approvals from Smithsonian's large and sophisticated staff was not easy. "They are a complicated client," says Blue Spruce.

Taking the project over at about 30% completion, the design team had little to go on except 3-D images and progress drawings, says SmithGroup's Michael Dobbs. "Every single inch of the building had to be drawn, engineered, reviewed, discussed, and then built," he says. Some documents had to be completely redrawn because Cardinal and GBQC retained many of the originals.

Although the overall form and massing of the building remained the same, some changes were made with regard to circulation and adjacency. The main passenger elevator core was relocated from the north side of the building to the south side, and the monumental staircase was altered to open up the northwest quadrant of the museum, enabling patrons to see through from the museum store to the café and outside. The basement and offices on the fifth floor were reorganized.

A late addition to the program by the museum was the inclusion of the Lelawi Theater, a small, domed theater space, which serves as an introductory place for visitors. "Lelawi" means "in the middle" in the Delaware tongue, and it was indeed in the middle of things; more precisely, in the middle of the fourth-floor gallery space, which necessitated the coordination of special technical requirements that affected other parts of the building. The theater's rotating feature, called Who We Are, provides glimpses into the diverse cultures of Native people represented at the museum.

Upon entering the museum at the Potomac lobby, patrons are encouraged to take oversized passenger elevators (whose copper-lined interiors designed by Sakiestewa depict birds in flight) to the fourth floor and work their way down through the museum. "The plan was always to load the building as deeply and quickly as possible," says Blue Spruce. "We can move a lot of people upstairs rather quickly. That's why the galleries are located primarily on the third and fourth floors."

During the 18-month construction documentation phase, Jones & Jones was in charge of developing the documents for the store, Polshek was responsible for the storytelling theater on the first floor, and SmithGroup was charged with overall coordination of the documents. At one point, SmithGroup had to divide the construction documents into three different packages (excavation, structural, and building fit-out) in order to meet the Smithsonian's funding schedules, which are based on Federal appropriations.

Last February, the museum welcomed its millionth visitor. "A lot of people are learning things here about Native cultures that they can take with them and share with their families," says the museum's Duane Blue Spruce.

"A lot of people think of Native Americans in the past tense," says K.J. Jacks, a fellow museum employee and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The museum, she says, "allows us to break down a lot of those stereotypes."

Construction Costs

Concrete $23,731,000
Steel 3,079,000
Stonework 28,474,000
Mechanical/Plumbing 19,368,000
Electrical 15,780,000
Glazing systems 4,168,000
Ornamental metals (decorative) 1,649,000
Finish carpentry 4,762,000
Gypsum board assemblies 6,724,000
Total $199,000,000