Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Washington, D.C.
Designed by Phil Freelon, David Adjaye; Adjaye Associates, SmithGroup and Davis Brody Bond
Constructed by Clark Smoot Russell, JV.

Project Overview:

Occupying the last available space on the National Mall, the Smithsonian Institutions’ $540 million National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is situated prominently next to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.

Principally designed by the collaborative efforts of Philip Freelon and David Adjaye this 10-story building (5 above ground and 5 below) has a 3-tiered, crown-shaped exterior called the ‘Corona’. Weighing 230 tons (104,000 kg), the façade system is made up of cast aluminum panels on pre-assembled steel frames suspended from a series of outriggers attached to the building. The size of the openings in the intricately woven filigreed patterns of the corona panels vary, giving the panels differing transparencies and thus controlling the light entry to the interior of the building. NMAAHC opened to the public on September 24th, 2016.

LEED Certification:
  • Designed to Achieve LEED Gold Certification
Key Contribution by ELEMENT:
  • Corona panel options, concept development and materials selection
  • Custom Artisan finish development and refinement
  • Corona panel production with custom artisan finish
ELEMENT Services:
  • Design Review and Feasibility Analysis
  • Preliminary materials, manufacturing, engineering, scheduling and budget estimation
  • Presentation of options and solutions, including schedule, scope and budgeting aspects of various options
  • Engineering analysis, calculations and submittals
  • 3D Modeling in various software platforms
  • Design, fabrication and installation options and analysis
  • Scheduling
  • Prototyping and Samples
  • Mockups
  • Fabrication
  • Delivery
    • Honor Award for Architecture, 2019, AIA National
    • Overall Winner Beazley Designs of the Year, 2017,
London Design Museum
    • Best in Competition, 2018, AIA New York
    • Honor Award, 2018, AIA New York
    • Public/Civic Design Award, 2018, Contract Magazine
    • Best in Competition, 
2018, AIA New York
    • Award of Excellence in Architecture, 2017, AIA DC
    • Merit Award Institutional, 2017, AIA North Carolina
    • Award of Excellence – Best Institutional Facility, 2017, NAIOP DC/MD
    • Best of the Best Building, 2017, NAIOP DC/MD
    • Building Team Gold Award, 2017, Building Design + Construction
    • The Best Architecture of the Year, 2016, The Wall Street Journal
    • Top 10 Architecture of the Year, 2016, LA Times
    • The Art Project of the Year, 2016, NY Times
    • Cultural Event of the Year, 2016, NY Times
    • Best Cultural Draw, 2016, Wallpaper Design Awards
    • Project of the Year, 2016, Construction Dive Magazine
    • Top Five Coolest Buildings in the World, 2016, Construction Connect
    • No less than 8 individual, 2016, WBC Craftsmanship Awards

    ELEMENT was responsible for the production and shipment of 3,600 cast panels comprising the exterior cladding of the ‘Corona’, all produced, finished and delivered in a specified sequence. Initially, the Design called for cast bronze Corona panels, however this carried a significant premium in both cost and weight. To support a competitive bid by competing construction teams, ELEMENT was tasked with presenting options for a more cost effective solution. Drawing on resources developed for the aerospace and commercial manufacturing industries, ELEMENT provided an array of options, offering the Design team a variety of solutions while providing substantial cost and weight savings. With full-scale samples ranging from stamped sheet metal to alternate cast materials and finish options including flame-sprayed metal coatings, electroplating and high-performance custom metallic paint, ELEMENT found an option that balanced the design with the budget. Our solution package was supported by presentation samples that were instrumental in securing the award of the contract.

    During production, the project faced a major challenge in selecting a finish that met David Adjayes’ design intent. Numerous paint finishes and colors were trialed but none were deemed satisfactory. The original concept specified a bronze Corona panel with a warm patina however the paint colors selected were deemed “putty like” and “visually fell far short of the beautiful poetic intention promised by the concept design”. Even though ELEMENT was not requested to do so, we explored options with paint finishes behind the scenes. ELEMENT had previously created custom finishes for other projects and we knew that with some effort we could reproduce the warmth and color palette of real bronze. ELEMENT analyzed the color properties of the bronze Corona panel sample provided by the client and devised a method for reproducing this by creating and refining a color scheme and application methodology that mimicked the bronze look. After producing numerous samples and experimenting with different application techniques we produced a custom artisan finish very close to real bronze. Colors such as African Rose, African Dawn and African Sunset were some of the numerous shades and pigments created. A custom artisan pigmented clear coat was also added to introduce warmth and depth at certain viewing angles, mimicking the flashes of warm tones observed on the bronze Corona panel sample. Photographs of this custom artisan finish were sent to the Construction team and after review by the Contractor, the Smithsonian, the Consultants and the Commission of Fine Arts, a full size panel was shipped for inspection. Further development of the custom artisan finish was undertaken to fine-tune the hue and shade to meet the preferences of the team. The final version of the custom artisan finish was applied to all 3600 panels by ELEMENTs paint applicator.

    The results were stunning, earning high praise from the contractor, the Smithsonian and the Commission of Fine Arts.

    There has been no singular issue, or collective aggregation of issues for that matter, greater than that surrounding the finish of the Corona panels for NMAAHC. As is usually the case in this business, kudos seldom get dispensed at the level where the real work happens. I think you can easily glean the rejoice and relief of the entire Smithsonian leadership…Please pass on our appreciation of the tireless effort and dedication of your team in developing the Artisan finish even when no one was looking for you to do so, but you did anyway because of your team’s professionalism and commitment to delivering world class service

    –Brian C. Flegel, Senior Vice President – Clark Construction Group

    I wanted to convey my deep appreciation for all of your hard work. Thanks to you all, we are at this important milestone. I would like to say that this will be the last time that I ask you to accomplish the impossible- but I cannot lie, there will be future challenges. The Smithsonian is fortunate to have you and I know that you will handle any further crisis with creativity, skill and diplomacy. NMAAHC is in your debt. All the best

    — Lonnie G. Bunch, Director – Smithsonian Institution

    National Museum of African American History and Culture

    1. Architects original 3D Corona panel model
    2. Preliminary Concept for Cross section of Corona Panels
    3. ELEMENT samples of production options and finishes, ready for presentation to the Design Team
    4. Corona Panel pattern component ready for casting production
    5. Corona Panels being cast
    6. Mockup panels for visual and performance testing
    7. Original color selected for the Corona Panels
    8. ELEMENT custom artisan finish to match bronze (Note bronze sample in bottom right hand corner for comparison)
    9. Production Corona panels being finished in the artisan bronze finish
    10. Panels individually wrapped and crated ready for shipment
    11. Corona Panel installation on site
    Select Publications:
    • “National Museum of African American History and Culture Review: Power With a Light Architectural Touch”, 14 Sept. 2016, The Wall Street Journal
    • “Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / Adjaye Associates”, 30 Aug 2016, ArchDaily
    • “Mission Of African-American Museum Writ Large In Its Very Design”, 15 Sept. 2016, NPR
    • “David Adjaye On His Design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture”, 19 Sept. 2016, Architectural Digest
    • “Take a Look Inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture”, 14 Sept. 2016, Architect Magazine
    • “New National Museum of African American History and Culture Shines on the Mall”, 14 Sept. 2016, Interior Design
    • “The Story behind the design of the African American history museum”, 15 Sept. 2016, The Washington Post
    • “Building Panels Bound for Smithsonian Stay Safe”, Packaging World, Jan 2015