A fitting symbol

They said from the start that they didn't want a hand-me-down museum, another group's castoff.

Instead of constructing Maryland's African-American museum inside the vacant City Life exhibition center on Front Street - a suggestion of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke - museum leaders held out for land where they could build from scratch to reflect their own vision, not someone else's.

That refusal to make do, to settle for "leftover seconds," underscored the importance of a strong and meaningful design to the success of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, the $34 million attraction that opens today at Pratt and President streets. And it clearly resonated with the lead architects, African-Americans Gary Bowden of RTKL Associates in Baltimore and Philip Freelon of the Freelon Group in Durham, N.C.

As a race, "we've often had to settle for less than the best," said Bowden, now retired from RTKL. "People would say to us, 'You don't need a new set of clothes. Here's something you can try on and see if it fits.'

"When you have new clothes ... it becomes a reflection of yourself," Bowden continued. "That's what they were asking for here - a new set of clothes for this museum."

Starting with today's grand opening, visitors will finally get to "try on" that new set of clothes, tailored for this museum. They'll find a building that's colorful, upbeat, playful, instantly identifiable. But more than anything else, it's a building that fits - both the institution and its mission.

  • With 82,000 square feet of space on five levels, the Lewis museum is the second-largest African-American heritage museum in the United States, after Detroit's. At its heart are permanent and temporary exhibits that tell stories about African-Americans in Maryland - the obstacles they've overcome and the contributions they've made. There are also gathering spaces for conferences and receptions, an auditorium, cafe, interactive learning center, oral history recording center, staff offices, classrooms and a store.

    The land finally chosen for the museum is a corner parcel within easy walking distance of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the state's most-visited tourist district. The architects' challenge was to create a building that fits into the urban context but stands out enough to convey how unusual it is.

    They responded with a boldly modern building that makes the most of its tight but prominent site. Then they imbued the building with layers of meaning that help tell what's inside. The design doesn't make literal references to African architecture. Its strength lies in the use of architectural symbolism - through colors, forms and materials - to create a building that avoids cliches but is undeniably African-American in spirit.

    The building was designed as a 50-50 venture of RTKL and the Freelon Group. It's the first major building in downtown Baltimore whose lead designers are African-Americans. Gallagher and Associates of Washington was the exhibit designer.

    As part of their planning, the architects drafted a design statement that spelled out the approach they took to create a museum that represents the "character, pride, struggle and accomplishments" of Maryland's African-Americans.

    "How can the spirit of the African-American be expressed in the architecture?" they asked. "It must begin with a strong commitment to an emotional architectural response. ... The spirit of a people is complex and diverse - not singular, not simplistic. The spirit is contradictory - not resolved."

    The African-American experience includes "both celebration and disappointment, flight and perseverance, joy and pain," the architects stated. "It's about overcoming odds, prevailing against hatred and bigotry, and about making something out of near nothing."

    Color is one of the most powerful ways the designers used architectural symbolism to suggest what's inside.

    The exterior features the four colors of the Maryland flag - red, yellow, black and white. And the prominent wall along President Street is clad almost entirely in black granite, as are much of the north and south sides.

    "If someone described our museum as 'the black museum on the corner,' it wouldn't be bad," Bowden said. "We wanted our building to be able to communicate what it's all about in terms that mean something."

    Building forms and materials also help visitors relate to the museum. The architects suggest that the rectangular shell, for example, represents the status quo - stability, order, the starting point for the visitor's journey.

    The entrance on Pratt Street is defined by a red wall that runs the height of the building and is set at an angle to draw visitors in. This "Red Wall of Freedom," slashing through space, represents a sudden intervention in the world order, an interruption of the status quo. It symbolizes the act of taking Africans from their homeland and bringing them to North America.

    At the center of the building is an atrium, illuminated by a skylight and containing a curving staircase that connects levels one to three. A spatial device that helps visitors orient themselves, the atrium also symbolizes core values and principles, truth, hope for the future, enlightenment. Because people move upward through the atrium - up toward the light - it connotes ascendancy, people rising from humble positions to prominence in society. By creating a design that allows for multiple readings, Freelon and Bowden have gone a long way toward expressing the multifaceted nature of the African-American experience through the architecture.

  • If the building's shell were designed to grab attention and make people want to come inside, the exhibits on floors two and three go beyond symbolism and do the hard work of telling complex stories of struggle and achievement.

    These exhibits don't attempt to manipulate one's emotions. They don't focus only on the positive aspects of the African-American experience or the negative aspects. They simply tell what happened, in a straightforward way. An exhibit on lynching can be found right next to an exhibit on churches. That's how it was in life, and that's how it is here.

    If anything, the Maryland story is so broad, and the permanent exhibits are so full of words and images and artifacts to absorb, that some of the overarching themes get lost amid the details. In addition, the circuitous layout has so many loops and dead ends that it's hard to tell when you've seen everything. But those with patience to go through it all, or who visit more than once to sort it out, are sure to be rewarded.

    The building suffered a bit from "value engineering." The height of the red wall was lowered slightly from the original design as a cost-saving measure, and it lost some meaning as a result. Dropping the height made it too much a part of the black box, when it needed to be read as a free-standing entity.

    A proposed water feature at the entrance was reduced to a "mist park" that doesn't have the impact a fountain or pool would have. The yellow wall on Pratt Street is not the final design but a placeholder for a yet-to-be-commissioned work of art.

    None of these observations takes away from the larger accomplishment here. The architects were faced with the almost impossible task of setting the tone for a new museum with hardly any collection at all when design work began. They produced a lively, coherent, flexible building that provides a strong foundation from which the museum can evolve.

    Chairman George Russell Jr. says he hopes the museum will have a transformative effect on people - that it will be a place where African-Americans feel a sense of ownership, a place with the ability to change attitudes.

    Whether the museum succeeds in that regard will depend on many factors. But the decision to hold out for a distinctive new set of clothes, a building with bold geometry and vibrant colors, certainly gave it a running start.

    "I don't believe we should speak about the problems of this world in whispered tones," the artist Joyce Scott says in one exhibit. At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, it's hard to imagine that being an issue.

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