A new museum is coming to Fort Worth, though you might not know that from the renders. Last week, plans for a National Juneteenth Museum were released on the holiday, which marks the date in 1865 when emancipation was announced in Texas. The project is the brainchild of Opal Lee, the so-called grandmother of Juneteenth, who in 2016, and at the age of 89, marched from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to rally support for the establishment of the day as a national holiday. (That was, well, in 2021.)
Lee, now 95, is understandably excited about the proposed $70 million museum, to be built on Fort Worth’s historically black Southside and slated to open June 16, 2024. “It’s off the chain,” she said. The New York Times. But the design of the museum, for BIG, the business of Danish prodigy Bjarke Ingels, immediately aroused skepticism in the architectural world. Why was Ingels, a white architect from Copenhagen, selected in the first place? So what Chris Daemmrich, an advocate for racial equity in design, noted on Twitter that the skyline in the project’s initial renderings wasn’t even Fort Worth, but a dated view of Austin. Oops.
To know Ingels’ career is to know how this kind of mistake could have happened. Over the past decade he has risen from the shadow of his mentor, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to become an architectural phenomenon, his firm racking up order after order with a seductive, dynamic attitude and the premise that every problem is a solution in disguise. In the past two months alone, BIG has won competitions for a new opera house in Prague and an airport in Zurich, announced plans for a gastronomy center in Spain and opened a headquarters for Google in Silicon Valley. Oh, and Ingels also found time to talk about the future of the planet at the Vatican. Is it any wonder that his company can confuse a few relatively minor Texas towns?
According to its architects, the design, which features a series of asymmetrically aligned gabled halls pointing to a central courtyard (imagine: a collection of shotgun houses arranged in the shape of a doughnut), is a response to the vernacular residential architecture of Fort Worth. “It will have a handcrafted quality,” said Douglass Alligood, the architect in charge of the project for BIG. Time. Alligood, it should be noted is Black, and BIG partners with Irving KAI Companies, an African-American-owned firm that will serve as the reference architect for the project.
If anything, the Fort Worth landmark that the museum most resembles is Hall of Panthersthe demolished concert space (originally a bowling alley) made famous as a country music venue and recognizable by its staggered gabled roofline.
It would be a strange precedent for a museum celebrating emancipation, but Fort Worth has an unusual history of architectural inspiration. The vaulted roofs of Louis Kahn Kimbell Museum came, it is said, from the barns of the adjacent Will Rogers Memorial Center.
The Kimbell is just one of Forth Worth’s outstanding works of museum architecture, and surely ‘Ms. Opal” and Juneteenth deserve work that meets this extremely high standard. BIG, at the moment, is off to a shaky start.
CORRECTION, June 23 at 1 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of architect Douglass Alligood’s name.