Polshek Partnership Architects
Inspired by the many ways people receive news, the architects conceived of the Newseum as a kind of giant, three-dimensional newspaper whose primary purpose is to communicate the nature of news to a diverse audience: that is, the press as a “window on the world.” It is fitting that a building dedicated to journalism and free speech should itself be a visually open and intellectually accessible stage for the public to learn about and interact with the process of newsmaking throughout history. In its form and exhibit program, this complex building contains the features, special sections and breaking news of any journalistic venue. The architects fashioned a spatially compelling journey through the many exhibits that explain and dramatize the past and future of journalism.
The Newseum occupies the last remaining open site on Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation’s Main Street. It is located midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House and across from the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Bounded on the north by C Street, on the west by Sixth Street, and on the east by the Canadian Embassy, the site is part of the dense urban fabric of the Penn Quarter neighborhood and the historic L’Enfant plan. This remarkable location allows the Newseum to participate in the great tradition of monumental Washington institutions while simultaneously reinforcing the street life of its precinct. Although seemingly at odds in character and scale, these two conditions, the federal and the local, effectively symbolize the contract between the Fourth Estate and the government as well as the powerful bond between the press and the citizenry.
The site’s importance to the design concept was second only to the principles guiding the mission of the Freedom Forum: a free press, free speech, and the embodiment of a free spirit for the world community. The architectural expression of this mission is a functionally cohesive, meaningful and memorable icon, which symbolizes the rights and protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Through a free press, the world and the workings of our government are made visible, open and ultimately democratic.
The Newseum is composed of three rectilinear volumes — analogous to the pages of a newspaper. Through their scale and orientation, the careful integration of location, programmatic needs and mission-based iconography, these volumes announce the Newseum as one of the monumental civic institutions of the District of Columbia and thus of the nation. Separated from one another by 12-foot-wide skylit circulation zones, these three distinct metaphorical “pages” vary in length and height. The clarity of the composition is maintained through their parallel relationship to one another as well as to the diagonal of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Newseum reinforces L’Enfant’s diagonal federal axes, mediating the two distinct setback conditions of its flanking neighbors, while the residential ensemble to the north reinforces the architectural character of this precinct by orienting itself to the orthogonal geometry of the Penn Quarter neighborhood.
Each of the three museum building blocks has a unique programmatic mission. The first block — the “front page” of the Newseum — is the lowest, its height corresponding to the strong horizontal articulation of the Canadian Embassy. A translucent white glass “proscenium” frames a large recessed clear glass “window on the world,” and a giant tablet of Tennessee marble hovers above the sidewalk, to the left of the opening. It is inscribed with the 45 words of the First Amendment. The principal entry to the Newseum is situated at the base of this first section. This entrance is flanked by more than 100 glass cases that contain the daily front pages of America’s newspapers.
A pair of 250-foot-long trusses supports the middle volume. They span the 90-foot-high atrium, a space that is the physical and spiritual heart of the Newseum. Galleries are suspended from the trusses at either end. The east and west elevations of this volume are wrapped entirely in glass, articulated by horizontal white glass horizontal fins. The exhibit content in this middle volume is solemn and introspective, but which could benefit from a diffuse natural light. It includes an exhibition of the press coverage during the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the tragic events of 9/11. Another gallery contains a Journalists Memorial dedicated to those men and women who perished while performing their jobs. A level above the exhibits, a Knight Conference Center is contained within the truss itself. The center has access to the terrace of the roof of the first volume and faces the Capitol, the Mall and the National Gallery of Art.
Set furthest from the avenue, the third building block houses exhibits that require total protection from daylight. Its exterior is sheathed in optically reflective glass. The offices of the Freedom Forum are situated on the topmost floor above the Knight Conference Center. The core exhibits of the Newseum are located below these more private spaces in the effectively “black-box” nature of the third volume. These include the News History Gallery, the Interactive Newsroom and a demonstration Broadcast Studio. At the base of this third volume is the Annenberg Theater — an agora — that is a strong visible presence on the ground floor and is accessed through its own mezzanine level lobby between the first and concourse levels. The wood-clad curved form is unique in the project, befitting its role as the largest formal gathering space in the building.
The exhibit sequence is seamlessly incorporated between the three discrete but spatially unified volumes. After entering from Pennsylvania Avenue, visitors descend by escalator to the lower level concourse for an orientation. They then ascend through the atrium space in a room-sized glass elevator, arriving at the top of the first volume. Here, a gallery is devoted to an explanation of the First Amendment. Visitors then descend through the building by bridges and stairways crossing over the atrium, all of which lead to the many different venues. From different vantage points, they experience dramatic views of the Capitol building and the Mall. The sequence relies on maintaining a direct relationship to the unifying volume of the great central space. Through the visual intersection of exhibit spaces with the volume of the grand central space, the sequence encourages the visitor to discover the unique role that a free press has played in the past and will continue to play in the future.