You don’t even need to go inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture to get the point. Imagine the alphabet soup of agencies that govern the National Mall gave you a site, just to the right of the Washington Monument. When you came to them with your first idea, they cut it down. Too tall. So you draw a box next to the monument, a dotted square against the green lawn and the blue sky. Into that square you could fit a concrete donut like SOM’s Hirshhorn Museum, or a stone prism like I.M. Pei’s East Wing, or another box with columns like most of the other museums.
But you decide you didn’t have to fill that square or make a solid. Instead, you’ll make a gem. Your museum will be smaller, lacier, more mutable. Gold in the morning and glowing at night. The NMAAHC works like a power player who only speaks in a whisper. You have to lean in.
The $540 million museum, which officially opens on Saturday, September 24, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. The twin missions embodied in its clunky name seem to speak directly to the events of this year. #Blacklivesmatter has foregrounded African-Americans’ continuous struggle for equality, making the museum’s history section painfully current, while African-American excellence in popular culture has never been more obvious—even as the push for representation on screen continues.
“We were all cursing when it didn’t open last year, but I think it has special power now,” says architect David Adjaye, the project’s lead designer. “Every generation thinks we know the story, we’ve grown past it, we’re integrated, we’re done, and then a decade later there is memory loss. We go back to stigmatizing and dividing. In the 18th and 19th century, museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other.”
I don’t typically think of Manhattan’s new architecture in terms of site. Location, yes, in terms of changing the perception of some existing block or neighborhood. One of the delights of BIG’s VIA 57, for example, is how it makes its location into a site, altering the geography of an area populated by meaty, faceless buildings by giving it sparkly topography. While one of the mysteries of Herzog & de Meuron’s stack of boxes downtown on Leonard is what, exactly, one might call its location.
Or so I (mis)remembered, kicking myself for being lower Manhattan-centric, after I paid a visit to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new Columbia University Medical Center building, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center. (Gensler was the executive architect.)
Traveling uphill from the 168th Street stop, Haven Avenue makes a right, turning parallel to the stony ridge that carries Washington Heights high above the Henry Hudson Parkway and the river. Three buff brick towers rise above older masonry buildings, housing for Columbia dental students since the early 1970s. Their height and footprint provide a rude sort of context for their new stepsister, lighter on her feet, more welcoming, more transparent.
Search the word “futuristic” on Curbed and, even without images, a certain look emerges. “Not a right angle in sight.” “Swoopy.” “Jetsons.” When the pictures load, there’s an overwhelming whiteness to go with the curves and the assisted floatation, windows like aerodynamic diagrams, columns like Tulip chairs, highlights like an early-2000s logo redesign. It’s a future that owes a lot to Buckminster Fuller and Zaha Hadid, and a little to childhoods spent at Epcot, but is now synonymous with Apple, via the radius corners and metallic sheen of products great and small.
Apple, under the meticulous design direction of Jonathan Ive, continues to dominate the collective imagination with a singular vision the tech’s future. The pinched end of my MacBook gives the visual illusion of levitating. My Apple monitor floats on its bent-aluminum stand. The corners of my overlarge iPhone draw no blood. Their collective uncolor stands in contrast to everything else in my house, and their material imparts a subtle sense of luxury. Thorstein Veblen wrote, over a century ago, about the handmade silver spoon, free of decoration, as a symbol of “inconspicuous consumption.” The iPhone, as a luxury that seems to be everywhere, partakes of the same soothing, shiny uniformity. Only the maker knows what’s under the hood.
Contrast that with the ThinkPad T400—so many laptops ago—I just dug out of a drawer. I religiously recycle my electronics , but I couldn’t let this one go. It’s a museum piece. It is heavy, thick like an architecture monograph. I blow the dust off and its matte black surface is unmarred. I try to open it and I can’t: I’d forgotten the gesture, once second nature, of sliding my thumb across the catch. A tiny button catches on the soft pad of my thumb, and I press. It opens with a satisfying click.
I’m not mad at the Lowline any more. I was, for years, as I saw the same trippy renderings and the phrase “world’s first underground park” bounce around the internet pinball machine and never, ever exit. It seemed unstoppable as Kickstarter urbanism, meme-tecture, and the infrastructural sublime, with the added bonus of a High Line founder as board member and Lena Dunham as fundraiser.
It was a lot, especially for a project that is quite small: 50,000 square feet, underneath Delancey Street, adjacent to the J train. Until July, its founders didn’t technically even claim the space. Those dreamer-creator-founders, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, haven’t had real access to the site for years. But now, the Lowline has been selected by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation as designated developer for that subterranean acre and there’s a chance that the dream might become real.
Where once the campus amenities arms race was waged over luxury dorms and recreation facilities, now colleges and universities are building deluxe structures for the generation of wonderful ideas. They and their partners in industry are pouring millions into new buildings for business, engineering and applied learning that closely resemble the high-tech workplace, itself inspired by the minimally partitioned spaces of the garage and the factory.
If the Silicon Valley creation myth starts in Steve Jobs’s garage (now a designated historic site), the creation myth on campuses starts at M.I.T.’s Building 20. That warren of D.I.Y. offices, allocated to researchers from across the university, produced, through proximity, many breakthrough encounters in its 50-plus years. The building was demolished in 1998, replaced with Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, one of the first campus structures that tries to recreate Building 20’s creative ferment.
What architects take from Building 20 is not its ramshackle aesthetic — though some believe less polish provides more freedom — but the importance of mixing disciplines, of work performed out in the open, and of transition zones like hallways and staircases as sites for productive run-ins.
Though studies have shown that proximity and conversation can produce creative ideas, there’s little research on the designs needed to facilitate the process. Still, there are commonalities.
In many of the new buildings, an industrial look prevails, along with an end to privacy. You are more likely to find a garage door and a 3-D printer than book-lined offices and closed-off classrooms, more likely to huddle with peers at a round table than go to a lecture hall with seats for 100. Seating is flexible, ranging from bleachers to sofas, office chairs to privacy booths. Furniture is often on wheels, so that groups can rearrange it. (The Institute of Design at Stanford, a model for many, has directions for building a whiteboard z-rack on its website.)
When startup accelerator Y Combinator announced its New Cities project in June, it came with a couple of footnotes. Number one was, “Two out of three people will live in cities by 2050.”
In the center of the cover of the 2006 book The Endless City, published by the Urban Age Project at the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank, is the statistic, “10% lived in cities in 1900, 50% is living in cities in 2007, 75% will be living in cities in 2050.”
On the header of the TED Cities page, “More than half the world’s population lives in cities.”
Problem is, these numbers aren’t real. Or rather, without a radical disruption of United Nations data collection methods—the 50 percent number comes from a 2007 UN agency report—we will never know whether half the population, or two-thirds, lives in a city. Not now, and not in 2050.