Each year, the Design Museum attempts to round up the most innovative and groundbreaking designs from the past 12 months. Shortlisted projects are selected from thousands of nominations and showcased in an exhibition before an overall Design of the Year is announced a few months later.
Previous winners have ranged from ambitious architectural projects to cutting edge medical technology. 2015’s Design of the Year was a computer chip that mimicked human organs and last year’s was the Ikea Better Shelter – a flatpack refugee shelter awarded for its “outstanding contribution towards the global issue of population displacement”. Unfortunately, the shelter fell short of expectations. Fire safety concerns meant that just one third of the 15,000 shelters initially produced were put to use – proof of the danger in selecting designs that have yet to be fully tested or brought to market.
The last architecture project to win Design of the Year was Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan in 2014. Judges described the building as “the pinnacle” of Hadid’s career – but their decision to award the project was criticised by human rights charities who claimed local residents were evicted by force to make way for the building.
This year’s winner is unlikely to attract controversy. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. is an ambitious architectural project with a strong social purpose – one that meets just about every one of the Design Museum’s criteria for Designs of the Year.
The museum was a collaboration between four architectural practises: Adjaye Associates (led by British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye), The Freelon Group, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroupJJR. It is the only museum in the world devoted solely to documenting African American life, history, art and culture and is home to several galleries as well as an auditorium and an education centre.
The museum celebrates the enormous cultural and historical impact of African Americans – from civil rights activists to writers, photographers, artists and performers. It also educates visitors about slavery, racism, segregation and the appalling human rights abuses that African Americans have been subjected to over the years.
Designs of the Year was set up in 2008 to celebrate projects that “promote or delivers change, enable access, extend design practice or capture the spirit of the year”. The shortlist includes a diverse range of projects – some conceptual, some realised – but all demonstrate either exceptional craftsmanship or innovative thinking as well as a desire to make a positive impact.
In this context the Smithsonian Museum is a worthy winner. The building is a significant and long overdue addition to the National Mall – an area that is also home to the Washington Monument and memorials for Martin Luther King Jr and Abraham Lincoln. It’s a building that aims to educate and inspire through documenting the African American experience – something that feels both timely and necessary as racism and discrimination continues to pervade American society. It is the culmination of a campaign that started 100 years ago when US war veterans called for “a national Negro memorial”.
The building is also a powerful example of design’s ability to tell a story. The angular building has a contemporary feel – enhanced by the use of concrete and bronze inside – but it includes several references to traditional African architecture and craftsmanship. The patterns on the bronze filligree cladding are inspired by the intricate ironwork produced by African American slaves in America’s southern states. The tiered exterior is a reference to a crown often depicted in Yoruban art and a ‘porch’ in the entrance is a nod to both African and Caribbean architecture. From its shape to its facade the building’s design reflects its purpose and the stories contained within it.
Beyond this, it’s an imposing piece of architecture filled with imaginative details. The pattern density on bronze cladding can be adjusted to control the amount of sunlight that enters the building. A cylindrical waterfall in a concrete room gives the effect of water pouring through the ceiling. The building’s surface appears to change colour depending on the light, appearing either a shimmering gold or a darker brown. Designs of the Year has always looked for exceptional craftsmanship as well as innovative thinking and the Smithsonian Museum appears to demonstrate both.
Writing for the Guardian, architecture Oliver Wainwright acknowledged that the museum is a striking sight. But he also said the building was far from perfect – “Is it the best thing designed in 2017? Probably not,” he wrote – and questioned the fact that judges are not required to see a building in person before making a decision.
Wainwright raises an important point. Architecture has to be experienced up close to be fully appreciated and it’s hard to judge the merits of a building until you’ve walked from room to room. But the Smithsonian Museum is an inspiring and ambitious project – one that is more likely to capture the public’s imagination than a flawless building with a less remarkable purpose.
Explaining the jury’s decision, judge David Rowan, Editor-at-large of Wired UK, said:
“The judges had the tough challenge of selecting a project that both epitomised exciting and impactful design, and also capturing the spirit of the year. David Adjaye’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. did that beautifully: not only is this a striking and already iconic structure at the heart of America’s capital, but it’s the realisation of an entire century of planning, rejection, political opposition and finally collaborative execution.”
He continues: “The building, opened by Barack Obama in September 2016, is also a powerful reminder that design enables a diverse conversation and can challenge the dominant political discourse. We felt that, in the context of today’s strident American debate on race and identity, Adjaye’s achievement represented optimism.”
Fashion designer Ozwald Boateng described the building as a project of “beautiful design” and “massive cultural impact” – one which “delivers an emotional experience and has a scale deserved of this major award.”
“You enter the building clouded in darkness and work your way through the displays and end bathed in light – this is a project that feels like a major turning point,” he said in a statement.
Other category winners this year went to Nike for its Pro Hijab which beat the ‘pussy hat’ in to win fashion design of the year. Architect Amanda Levete – another of this year’s judges – praised it as a “simple and elegant” example of inclusive design.
The New York Times won the graphics category for Fractured Lands; a special issue that contained a single 42,000 word piece of non-fiction about the invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS and the global refugee crisis. Printing innovations topped the product and digital categories: MIT Self Assembly Lab’s rapid liquid printing (which offers a much faster alternative to liquid printing) was named digital design of the year and AIR-INK (the first commercially available ink made from air pollution) was named best product design. The winning transport design is a prototype for a stairlift device for wheelchair users developed by students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
As always, it’s a curious mix of winners – from sportswear to new printing methods aimed at speeding up mass production – but the decision to award the top prize to Adjaye’s museum comes as no great surprise.
The Designs of the Year exhibition – which includes 56 shortlisted projects – is on display at the Design Museum until February 18. You can see our post on the exhibition here.
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