Some of DC’s most interesting architecture is hiding in its least-visited neighborhoods. The dynamic glass and timber Francis A. Gregory Library, which was designed by the same architect that brought DC the new African American history museum, sits on Alabama Avenue SE, near the Maryland border.

The Francis Gregory Library. Photo by Neil Flanagan.

This architectural gem’s Fort Davis neighborhood is underserved. There’s less developed public transit than in other parts of DC, the federal government isn’t using any of the available land except for the military’s Joint Base Anacostia—Bolling, and nearby historic sites get little promotion.

Placing Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates’ world-class library here, though, was no accident. In 2012, David Adjaye’s company completed both the Francis A. Gregory Library and the nearby Bellevue Library, in the Washington Highlands neighborhood. The Tanzanian born, London-based architect has worked on projects in similarly marginalized areas of London and Johannesburg. This month, Adjaye’s latest joint venture, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall.

Adjaye’s is often praised for focusing on the people who live in a given place rather than simply impressing the architectural elite, yet few in the District mention the unusually exciting contemporary architecture he is infusing into an aesthetically conservative city.

The main feature of the library’s exterior is the glass curtain wall. That Adjaye could bring joy to a curtain wall speaks to his creativity. A curtain wall is simply a non-structural outer wall that separates occupants from weather. Huge glass curtain walls were once revolutionary, but they now typically signal urban homogeneity. Adjaye made the curtain wall an exciting building technique again with diamond cutouts whose interiors are lined in wood. This gives both the facade and interior three dimensionality, as well as foreshadowing the woven look that he has implemented in the new Smithsonian’s exterior.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Unlike every new glass building the library truly relates to its environment. Surrounding trees provide natural weather moderation. They also have the rare effect of being mirrored in the library’s low-emissivity coated glass. This design is beautiful but also logical, as the library provides passage to the park behind it. Leaving the steel-canopied exterior for the 22,500 square foot interior does not mean abandoning sun. The atrium and reading rooms provide views of the vegetation, and visitors can sit in some of the wooden diamonds. Glass ceilings cut in a square pattern enhance the intended porousness of the space.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

In keeping with Adjaye’s community interest, some of the library’s rooms can transition from their public purpose to other uses, like event and conference areas. The space is intentionally intimate and uncluttered. Its 32 public computers and seven transformable rooms reflect an understanding of the rapid evolution of libraries’ function in the 21st century. These themes are all over the new African American history museum, too Many of the elements from Adjaye’s library are reflected in his new work on the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture: steel and wood construction, LEED certification, and evolution of a building typology.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Michael Barnes, from the Smithsonian.

It is perhaps this last similarity that is most important. Adjaye’s library is a place not only for its classic silent study, but also for presently celebrated ideals like community and learning from others. His new museum is perhaps America’s highest profile attempt to understand a history that is still unfolding.

Image from ISEC.

African American history and culture permeate and shape every part of the American story; the ramifications of the subjugation of that race, during slavery and long after, is its ugly underbelly. The conflict between celebration and suppression is still being explored today. To approach such a living, contested subject will be done visibly in Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates’ museum, but also in the architect’s decisions. The building’s design draws inspiration from African American building. Its aluminum and bronze exterior cladding is a modern version of the ornamental metal casting that African Americans created in the south in the 19th century using their knowledge of West African techniques. While expensive to create, the bronze panels will darken over time, making a dramatic statement on the National Mall. Adjaye’s so-called “woodland folly” (a term referring to the fact that the building is supposed to become part of the landscape, suggesting an intertwined relationship with the surrounding nature, as woodland follies were small structures designed to allow users to relax in nature) on Alabama Avenue bears less of this weighty burden. Yet in designing libraries for overlooked areas, Adjaye brings innovation and beauty to neighborhoods others see unfit to visit. He is creating progressive places not for the sake of drawing wealthy people in, but to bring a wealth of ideas to nearby residents local libraries are meant to serve.