Meet the Black Woman Architect Behind the New Smithsonian Museum
It was only a couple of months ago that we found out that the Smithsonian was creating an African-American museum. To make the news even better, now we know who the architect is. Her name is Zena Howard, and she is a dope Black woman architect.
Howard focuses on all of the aspects of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but hones in on the porch, which happens to span 200 feet and it serves as an transitional space between the outside and inside of the museum.
“I think that the porch is…quintessential America,” says Howard. “In African American history, we use the porch in a different way.” It’s more “an extension of the indoor living space than probably in any other culture.” She explained that how as a child “everything was done on the porch. We ate on the porch. We sang on the porch.”
Out of all the projects that Howard has worked on, which include the Anacostia Public Library in the nation’s capital and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, she said that her favorite project, thus far, is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“This project—not only given the scale, the complexity, the political and contextual sensitivities—is an amalgam of all the problems that we, as architects, love to solve,” says Howard.
As a woman architect, she says that the issue is not only getting them to work in the field, but also keeping them. Even through that struggle though, Howard continues to see this as a positive. “There are so many [more] women in architecture today than when I came out of architecture school,” she said. “Not only were there hardly any women in architecture school, but the women that stayed in architecture post-graduation had a difficult time.”
In order to combat this issue, she works with the American Institute of Architects. She also goes to elementary school classrooms with hopes to inspire young girls to join the male-dominated profession.
For her rule to aspiring and prospective architects, she says, “”Obviously, you’re not making the same salary as you would [as a] lawyer or doctor, so you’ve got to love what you do.” You have to “love great design and what it does for people.”
5/17/16 Editor’s Note: It has been brought to our attention that while Zena Howard is a black woman architect working on the new Smithsonian Museum, she is not the project lead. The project lead, designer, and architect of the new museum’s name is David Adjaye who is a New York City and London-based architect who has worked on the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, alongside the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. These two names are joined by Phil Freelon, who is also part of the architecture team for the new museum.
During his formative years, he lived in several different places like Tanzania, Egypt, England, Lebanon, and Yemen, which informed his sense of design because he had the opportunity to explore different ethnicities, religions, and cultures which gave him “a kind of edge in an international global world, which we find increasingly in the 21st century” as he said.
This is an iconic moment for him, as well as the District of Columbia because this will probably be the last museum that is built on the National Mall, which is being built with the intention to cover more than 400 years of African-American history and culture. In order to go about designing a building, he wants to design it via sections including history and culture, which is the “history of the people.”
As he stated in an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, he talks about designing for what he calls “the life of the citizen.”
“The everyday life, the inclusion in the military, the inclusion in public life, the emergence of the black middle class within the country, and that important role in organizing many aspects of American culture that we take for granted. And then the final part is the entertainment and the arts. So the third tier is really looking at what music and culture, what African-American music, translated through the American identity, has done to the world, and the significance of that trajectory.”
(Photo Credit: Michelle Goldchain)