It's a plain truth that national museums in the U.S. have been humdrum at best, composed mainly of bricks and compromises. But if the six shortlisted designs for Washington, D.C.'s new National Museum of African-American History & Culture are any indication, things are changing. Though in the works since 2001, the museum has moved forward at a trickling pace. But finally, the shortlisted designs are on display through Friday at the Smithsonian. The architects themselves don't cluster into any identifiable trend. They include designs led by heavyweights of different stripes: Antoine Predock, Pei Cobb Fried, David Adajye, Foster+Partners, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Moshe Safdie. The winner will be announced in April, and construction will begin in 2012 with a finish date in 2015. Here's a lowdown on the finalists:
Antoine Predock, based in New Mexico and famous for a decidedly southwestern vibe in his buildings, collaborated with Moody Nolan, on a design that echoes the bedrock and murky silt of Washington's bygone Tiber Creek, and is etched with designs inspired by traditional African craft:
Adajye, a star in Britain who recently began building small projects stateside, paired with Freelon Group and SmithGroup, to provide a subtle echo of vernacular African baskets, but rendered in copper that'll redden or gleam, according to the sunlight:
Diller Scofidio + Renfro—best known for a recent redesign of Alice Tully Hall—worked with KlingStubbins to envision a torqued obelisk, featuring a surface that will flicker with projected images from African-American history:
And Moshe Safdie, who made his name with strong, geometric forms that nodded to his mentor, Louis Kahn, worked with Sulton Campbell Brit, created a towering, sinuous entranceway that resembles the hull and prow of a sailing vessel—a subtle nod to the grim voyage overcome by black ancestors arriving in America:
Pei Cobb Freed—the firm behind numerous recognizable but dated American buildings such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—collaborated with Devrouax & Purnell. Unfortunately the firm produced what looks like the blandest egg in the half-dozen: A circular interior space that dips in and out of a brick structure:
And finally, Foster+Partners, with URS, envisioned a spiraling building that would drink in panoramic views of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, then descend through historical exhibits on African-American stories of freedom, sports, and the arts:
Which architect are you rooting for? You've got to wonder whether Safdie's idea seems like a bit of a literal-minded pander, or a grand, solemn gesture? Does DS+R's scheme appear too cold and ahistorical? Is Predock's design just to weird looking? Is Adadjye's design too African, as opposed to African-American? I'm putting my money on Foster, who has a way with winning the trust of big, institutional clients with buckets of money—and the building's budget is big, at over $500 million.