WASHINGTON – The Kasota Dolomitic limestone façade sweeps over a barren landscape littered with steel and wooden planks. Soon,running water will flow through lush gardens.
External walls the color of the Grand Canyon as the morning sun rises to reflect millennia of stone and history hide the concrete skeleton inside. Placed between the Capitol and the National Air and Space Museum,the National Museum of the American Indian bridges U.S. history.
When they realized the NMAI was going to be created,tribal leaders from across the Americas gathered and constructed a vision of a museum that would give visitors the chance to experience their cultures. Their vision has nearly come to life.
“From the moment you enter the grounds of the museum,it will be a different experience,” said Thomas Sweeney,NMAI director of public affairs. “There is a sense of a native place through the architecture of the building,the design of the landscape and the water features. And this all before the visitor enters the museum.”
The museum is in its final stages of construction after more than two decades of planning. The Smithsonian Institution has organized a weeklong celebration,beginning Sept. 21,in honor of the museum's opening.
On a blustery January day,Sweeney led a reporter on a hard-hat tour through the maze of unfinished undulating walls.
The main entrance into the Potomac,a circular room designed to house large exhibits as well as performances,will one day be crowded with visitors,but for now it is a hollow space illuminated by the domed sunroof that can support 500 pounds per square inch and towers five stories tall.
“It is meant to be a native place,open to the heavens,” Sweeney said.
The Potomac,more familiar as the name of the capital city's main river,is named after the Piscataway word for “where the gods are brought in.” It is designed to emphasize American Indians' connection with nature. From the center of the room,the four cardinal directions will lead visitors' gazes to landscape features outside.
A large prism window facing due south will illuminate the pipestone floor with light shows unique to every hour,every day and create something spectacular during the solstices.
“The museum is designed to be very interactive with the outside world,” Sweeney said.
For now,chain link fences surround the construction site,where heated trailers are stocked with blueprints and color swatches. Workers fight against the cold,bitter winter,welding and hammering while the warmth of their breath greets the air with small puffs of smoke.
But in a few months,the tattered dirt roads will be transformed into a lowland marsh complete with wetlands and forest.
“The basic sentiment has been that all the plants … will represent the original landscape,” said Roger Courtenay,the lead landscape architect. Originally,the mall site “was a brackish,soggy marsh,” he said.
On the south side of the building there will be a garden where corn,beans and squash,referred to as the three sisters,by American Indians,will be cultivated.
A fountain on the northwest side of the building will disappear into a windowed wall.
“Guests will be walking on natural stone along a stream,” Courtenay said. “They will immediately be taken into the experience of the museum rather than the mall.”
During the initial planning,it was decided that this museum would represent the culture and history of all natives,spanning from the Alaskan tundra,over the mountains of Canada,through the plains of America,and down to the tip of South America.
Much of what will make this museum unique is still unfinished,but what exists is an organic structure,cylindrical and fluid.
“I base all my work on nature and nature's law,” said Douglas Cardinal,the original architect. “I look at each room like a cell in an organism,and this cell has a function and shape in the body.”
Cardinal,a Blackfoot from Ottawa,considers himself “an architect first and an Indian second,” but admitted that his native heritage influences his artistic style. The circular design of the building has its roots in American Indian history.
“All governments were in a circle … there was no one more important. They were all equal,” Cardinal said. “The circles … are more respectful of indigenous people.”
Cardinal's designs stem from his belief that art and architecture must respect nature and that a building must become one with its surroundings. While brainstorming the original design,Cardinal studied the National Gallery of Art East Building,designed by I.M. Pei, directly across from the NMAI. Cardinal was inspired by the way Pei's design of interlocking triangles seemed to be lighted from the inside,like a lantern.
“I study how people work,and I relate and I map the building around that,” Cardinal said. “We're not creatures that are all squares and rectangles.”
The Smithsonian dismissed Cardinal from the project in 1998 after a dispute but kept his design mostly intact.
“I think it is absolutely the last building site for a museum on the national mall and that's defined as the space between … the Capitol and the Washington monument,” Sweeney said. “It may be a long time coming,but in some ways we're at the head of the mall,in the first position,and there's certain logic to that.”