Drew Christiansen

"I puzzled, as I walked across the U.S. Capitol grounds, over the building in the distance. Was that where I was headed? It was certainly distinctive, with a large, story-high lip overhanging the east face. As I drew closer, I could see the south wall undulating in soothing waves. Then the wall went flat. For a few seconds, I grew impatient. I wondered why architects have to shift a surface when they already have something that works. Then suddenly I felt, “I have been here.” The wall replicated the Native American cliff-dwellings in the Southwest, right down to the narrow window slits. This was indeed what I had come to see: the National Museum of the American Indian.

 

In that moment of recognition, I also knew something about myself. This was contemporary architecture that I immediately liked. Though I have no Indian blood myself, I felt deeply at home. The physical joy that overtook me was all the stranger, since the building is enormous. But such was the appeal of the stone and its flow that I felt in harmony not just with the building and the cultures it preserves, but with the earth too. This must be what the Chinese mean by feng shui: the harmonious blending of land, dwelling, artifact and personality.

I had not been in Washington, D.C., in quite a while with time to spare for playing tourist. But this sunny Sunday afternoon in October, I was free, and I had decided to see one of the city’s newer cultural attractions, the N.M.A.I. Nothing had prepared me, though, for its impact.

When it comes to today’s architecture, I am rather fussy. The most celebrated architects of the day seem like spoiled children. Frank Gehry’s work appears monumentally self-indulgent. For me, it works neither as art nor as architecture. Similarly, it seems fitting that while Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower won the design competition for Ground Zero, the building itself had to be reworked by the runner-up, David Childs. All the same, there are architects whose work I admire, like Renzo Piano. Piano has a sense of place and an appreciation for how people move in space. The new atrium he designed for the Morgan Library here in New York is light, airy and inviting. It easily unites the museum’s three more traditional buildings as well as the gardens outside, and it does not shout, “Hey, look at me.”

The National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, is that exception in human affairs: the successful work of a committee. In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution assembled a design team: two architects, Douglas Cardinal and Johnpaul Jones; an ethnobotanist, Donna House; and an artist, Ramona Sakiestewa. Both Cardinal and Jones are known for incorporating Native American themes in their work. The committee, in turn, consulted with hundreds of native groups and studied Indian museums and cultural centers from the Canadian Arctic to Latin America’s Southern Cone.

Much of the interior of the museum is as impressive as the exterior. The entrance opens into a spacious rotunda capped by a dome, from which sunlight spills into the space below. At the heart of the rotunda, a dramatic copper fence in the form of Native American basketwork marks off a meeting place for tour groups. The whole building offers a sense of spaciousness, with long sweeping staircases and wide corridors, reminiscent of the open spaces where native Americans generally dwell. The only exception is the exhibits themselves, which are packed away in tight little compartments.

The exhibits are deliberately less collections of artifacts than expressions of living native cultures. Tribes and their languages are identified in their native tongue. History and mythology are related from the point of view of present-day members of the tribes, and the recorded narratives can have the quality of “the broken myths” of peoples long dominated by Europeans and at least partially assimilated to European cultures. Even in that, they are authentic to Native American reality.

The landscaping of the site is an achievement in itself. Along the north side of the building runs a stream with water spilling over riffles into bays outside the dining area. At the northwest corner, a two-story waterfall spills from balconies down the side of the building, evoking desert cascades like Arizona’s Havasupai Falls. The plantings of species native to the Potomac Valley include a woodland, a meadow, a marsh and cropland. In the crop area, corn and squash grow entangled. The squash were still in flower. Frustrated gardener that I am, I searched for fruit but found none.

In its landscaping, the museum affirms the attachment of Native Americans, and us all, to the land. Along the Mall, laid out with classical temples, domes and obelisks, the N.M.A.I. is an astonishing reminder of what we still have to learn from our aboriginal peoples.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

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