Yet what makes this team remarkable is not so much who they are, but how they came together and how they were able to collaborate using their respective skills, backgrounds, and expertise to deliver the winning design concept.
The journey for the design team has not been without challenges. Their competition was a formidable roster of five other finalists, including Foster & Partners, Moshe Safdie, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. There were questions about the team's ability to collaborate—a key issue for the Smithsonian. How well would the team's lead designer, David Adjaye, a Tanzanian living in the United Kingdom, function with his American counterparts? Would he dominate the team as a star designer? Also, was four firms too many for an effective working relationship? Then, tragically, Max Bond—who with Philip Freelon had been steadfastly tracking the museum project for many years, and who is widely known as "the dean of African American architecture"—died during the competition.
In interviewing the finalists, museum director Lonnie Bunch was concerned about what Bond's loss meant for the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup team. "Max had been the personification of collaboration," according to Bunch. "I wanted to know how Max's spirit would be carried on by the others."
In the United Kingdom, David Adjaye also had been eyeing the design project, and since he had long wanted to work with Bond, he approached him as a potential partner. Bond and Freelon then met Adjaye for lunch in New York to see if they might share design philosophies and a commitment to a collaborative process. It was immediately clear that it was a meeting of minds. Bond likened the planned collaboration of the four firms to a Miles Davis jazz ensemble, with Miles Davis providing the creative vision of the band, and two brilliant soloists, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, along with Paul Chambers on bass in the background, making the music all the more powerful.
The firms began by clarifying roles to serve as a framework for the competition and beyond. "When you have multiple designers on a project, ultimately somebody needs to be able to provide a thumbs up or down," says Peter Cook of Davis Brody Bond. To ensure the design reflects the values and priorities of
the museum and the Smithsonian, they designated Bond as "design guarantor." With his passing, the role moved to Freelon. Adjaye is the lead designer. Cook, who also was deeply involved in the earlier programming phase, is tasked with the functional realization of the program. As managing principal, Hal Davis helps to coordinate the teams and delivers the design documents. All team members have a role in the design at all phases.
With the actual competition running just under two months, all of the principals of the four firms kicked it off with meetings several days during the first few weeks. Each firm returned to their individual offices to further explore ideas before coming back together again. After the first few weeks, each firm dedicated part of its staff to a core team at the SmithGroup location. Then the key players met up for regular bi-weekly meetings both in-person and via conference calls.
While steeped in research, analysis, and much discussion, the concept was settled early on, enabling the team to quickly and productively move forward and to keep explorations on track. "We all felt very passionate about the project and all shared a tremendous appreciation for African American culture," says Freelon. Rather than interpreting a narrative about the African American experience, the team developed the idea of marking a celebratory moment of praise. The resulting design is a crown-like bronze structure atop a stone base with a soaring central space open to skylights on the interior.
"Once we had a strong concept in place, we were able to test it again and again, run it through the ringer, bringing all our different experiences to the table to make that big idea stronger," recalls Cook. Listening and respecting the ideas of teammates was especially important. "When you are all pulling together, not really concerned about whose idea it is or who gets the credit, then you can make a lot of progress," says Freelon. Adjaye valued the team's impact on his own thinking, "Debating takes away the bits that are prejudices and just habit," he says.
One topic of deliberation was the ramp from the Mall. Wanting to place equal value on both the National Mall and the Constitution Avenue entrances, the team worked through many options. "The primary move of the whole project was the idea of arriving in the center of the building. We went through many iterations, and that was a case where the group dynamic was very important for honing the message," says Adjaye. "The final result is stronger than any one of us could have done separately," notes Davis.
A collaborative team was critical for Bunch and the Smithsonian, as well. "We are choosing a design team, not just a design concept," he stated at the press conference to announce the winning team. In the final interviews, therefore, Bunch paid special attention to how well Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup listened and interpreted the brief: "Did they simply parrot material that they heard from me, or did they really assimilate it and make it something different while still showing respect for the initial vision? That's what Max did so well." In fact, Bunch says, "They took these ideas and helped it go in directions that I hadn't even anticipated." Without a doubt, Max Bond is still with the team.