The Brightest Idea for Illuminating the Past

The proposals for the new Museum of African American History reveal the city at an architectural crossroads: to break with conventions or to build yet another blandly institutional building.

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The choice of design for the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture may well be the highest-profile architectural decision that will be made in Washington for years to come. The five-acre plot, near the Washington Monument, is on the Mall, a civic landscape that should be considered absolutely closed to future development but can accommodate this one last, essential project -- not because it is important to African Americans but because U.S. history cannot be told without it.

Located on the Constitution Avenue side of the Mall, the new museum will enjoy spectacular views of the Washington Monument and complete a line of first-rank cultural institutions that run from the successful I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Building to the desultory box of the National Museum of American History -- a study in architectural highs and lows that underscores the critical importance of making the right choice.

But the six proposals under consideration also reveal the city at an architectural crossroads: to go forward and break with the punishing conventions that have stymied our architectural creativity, or to build yet another blandly institutional building, a fading echo of something that was never very good to begin with. We have faced this decision before -- the arguments for context and respect and conformity to the old, monumental styles, and the cries for a break with the past, an architecture of adventure rather than slavish imitation.

This time, for once, we face the choice with some real options, and one proposal, by an energetic and innovative New York-based firm -- Diller Scofidio and Renfro -- rises above the rest.